Analysis

DA releases new vision for party — avoiding any mention of apartheid

By Rebecca Davis 4 February 2020
Caption
The DA's policy director Gwen Ngwenya. (Photo: People's Assembly)

In advance of April’s policy conference for the DA, the party has released a new document setting out its values and principles. Its phrasing, as well as what is missing, contains clues as to the ideological direction the DA will pursue ahead of the next election.

The DA’s latest articulation of its “values and principles” appears to signal that the battle over race and disadvantage within the party is being won for now by the DA’s “pure liberal” faction. This is a victory for those who opposed former DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s (limited) attempts to acknowledge concepts like “white privilege” within the South African context.

The document released on Monday still has to be debated and voted on by party representatives at the DA policy conference in April, so it is possible that changes may still be made.

As it stands, however, the return of Gwen Ngwenya as the party’s policy director appears to have played out as many assumed it would: with a rejection of race and gender as a reliable marker for disadvantage, or diversity, in South Africa.

“Each individual is unique and not a racial or gender envoy; thus, diversity is not demographic representivity,” the document states.

“Individuals, when free to make their own decisions, will not be represented in any and every organisation, sector, company or level of management according to a predetermined proportion. The DA therefore opposes race, gender or other quotas.”

The document does not explicitly raise the issue of BEE, which has been an ideological hot potato for the DA over the past few years. It is only the first of three policy articulations to be released before the April conference, with the next – on Economic Justice Policy – perhaps due to spell out more clearly what alternative metrics the DA proposes using to address issues of inequality.

The document states that:

“Policies which tackle inequality of opportunity — including interventions in education, healthcare, the economy, and safety and security will always be central pillars of our programme of action”.

Its explicit rejection of “quotas”, however, lays the ground for a rejection of race-based affirmative action policies.

In the document’s most vehemently stated section, it reads:

“The DA unequivocally stands for non-racialism not multiracialism”.

Non-racialism is defined as “the rejection of race as a way to categorise and treat people, particularly in legislation”.

The influence of Ngwenya, who recently tweeted that she had deliberately self-identified as a different race on a bank form in order to highlight the absurdity of racial categorisations, is very evident here.

“The assumption that one’s ‘race’ represents people who think, feel, or have the same experience of shared events, based on their physical appearance, is false,” the policy document states.

“Nonracialism is therefore a commitment, not just to reject racialism and racism, but to fight for the deconstruction of race, and the reconstruction of a non-racial future.”

It affirms the DA’s commitment to redress, but the document’s list of the “myriad injustices” in South Africa’s past which require addressing is revealing. It does not mention apartheid by name, but includes “forced removals, job reservation, detention without trial, disparities in education, racial segregation” – and “concentration camps”.

The latter is a reference to the internment methods used by the British against Afrikaners (and, though seldom mentioned, some South Africans of colour) during the South African War, 1899-1902.

This inclusion, together with the absence of mention of either “apartheid” or “colonialism”, will fuel the belief that one of the party’s major priorities at the moment is winning back disenchanted white Afrikaans voters who defected to the Freedom Front Plus in the 2019 general election.

The question will be whether the DA is equally intent on growing its proportion of the black township vote, on which front the 2019 election results showed it to have made almost no progress.

The DA’s last version of this document, adopted in 2018, made three mentions of apartheid – including the assertion that “integral to a fair society” is the need to “remove the barriers erected by apartheid which are still felt today”. That wording is now gone.

“We talk about apartheid by describing how it operated,” Ngwenya told Daily Maverick when asked about this.

“We made sure to ensure that the impact of apartheid and the need to address its effects is present in the new document. But we do not count the number of times a word is used, and there is no reason why we did not do this – it just didn’t occur as an approach to writing where the idea is to place substance above form.”

Ngwenya also stressed that the new document is intended to “emphasise” certain values or principles which have nonetheless always been part of the DA’s ethos. It is not supposed to introduce “new values per se”.

She noted: “Through submissions, we may receive comment that previous wording captures a certain value/principle better than the current formulation. In which case an amendment will be made.”

But the document also contains hints that the party is trying to correct some of its public missteps over the last while.

It contains a new section on “compassion”, stating:

“To best represent people, one must be sensitive to their circumstance and experience. South Africa’s history has inflicted on all its citizens much trauma both psychological and physical. Understanding that requires compassion. Compassion cannot be enforced; it must be authentic. The DA will strive to be compassionate and will seek out representatives who embody this value.”

This new emphasis on sensitivity to trauma may well be intended to reduce the likelihood of harmful public utterances by DA representatives, of which the most notorious was former leader Helen Zille’s tweets about colonialism.

On the role and size of government, the party’s approach is unchanged – it wants a government which champions “open and competitive markets”, but which does not offer unfettered market freedom in order to protect smaller participants. It says the government should also provide “strong safety nets and trampolines for the most vulnerable”.

Relevant from the perspective of the ongoing debate on South Africa’s state-owned enterprises, the DA also does not project full privatisation to be a magic bullet. The document states:

“There are some functions and services that governments can potentially perform better than markets, or to supplement markets. This is particularly the case in contexts where markets cannot function profitably, but for which there is a strong public interest.”

Ngwenya told Daily Maverick that the document was composed by the DA’s policy unit and then approved as a draft by the policy steering committee. The party will be publishing an online portal in the next few days for public comment.

This will arguably be one of the most important documents in the party’s history, coming at a time when the DA urgently needs to consolidate its support and affirm what it stands for.

Ahead of the DA’s interim leadership contest in 2019, senior party leaders again revealed themselves to be at odds over the issues of race and disadvantage. Eventual winner John Steenhuisen espoused views largely along the lines of the new policy document, while unsuccessful rival Magashule Gana argued against “a brand of politics that strains to emphasise that race does not matter”.

In advance of the interim leadership vote, a DA insider told Daily Maverick that it was “fair to assume that a large share of voting preferences will be along racial lines”.

Steenhuisen’s rivals for the leadership position to be voted on in April have not yet revealed themselves, while a bitter Twitter spat has played out in recent days between high-profile DA representatives after former leader Mmusi Maimane termed Steenhuisen “Judas”.

There is little doubt, however, that challengers of Steenhuisen will demand a greater recognition from the party and its policies that inequality and disadvantage in South Africa continue to be marked broadly along racial lines. DM

Gallery

Newsflash

Restive season: Western Cape urges holidaymakers to change their behaviour this year

By Suné Payne