South Africa


False Construct? DA’s Trumpian turn on race issues

False Construct? DA’s Trumpian turn on race issues
The DA Federal Council chairperson Helen Zille, left, and DA head of policy Gwen Ngwenya. (Photos: Leila Dougan | Felix Dlangamandla)

The DA no longer recognises race. In South Africa, where inequality is historically deeply racialised, the DA has turned Trumpian – accepting what it calls ‘scientific’ indicators of inequality like deeply skewed income and wealth or inadequate health, housing and education. But not their correlation to race.

Black lives matter, says DA policy honcho Gwen Ngwenya, but #BlackLivesMatter was a different matter.

“If asked, ‘Do black lives matter?’, of course, black lives matter… We don’t think people should be forced to support the organisation [#BlackLivesMatter],” said Ngwenya in Monday’s post-weekend policy conference briefing.

This was in response to a question on the party’s attitude to #BlackLivesMatter, the global racial and social justice movement where taking the knee has become a demonstration of solidarity since quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 2016 example that cost him his career – US President Donald Trump has consistently described this protest as disrespectful and in 2018 said that protesters “shouldn’t be in the country”. Most recently, #BlackLivesMatter solidarity protests are on the US Open tennis courts, displayed by the masks bearing the names of black victims of US police as worn by tennis ace Naomi Osaka.

“We would not be forcing people to undertake a particular action,” said Ngwenya, in what could be regarded as a reference to the eight South African Sale Sharks rugby players not taking the knee with everyone else at their mid-August match in England.

Ditto, the argument on gender-based violence. Yes to opposing gender-based violence, but agreeing to wear a particular colour or accoutrement to showcase such opposition as part of, say a social justice or solidarity campaign? That’s again a No.

Ngwenya’s answers illustrate the DA’s sharp turn to classic liberal ideology centred on the individual, meritocracy, rule of law (mostly contract law), limited state involvement, if at all, in a free market society with a nod to the more vulnerable as defined by a means test.

In this classical liberal paradigm, race cannot exist, as it undermines individuality and merit, hence the DA policy conference’s turn to describe race as a false construct.

In many ways, race as a biological determinant has long been ditched in academe and the public discourse. Unless it’s the Ku Klux Klan or the British National Front, few would defend biologically ascribed ability, capability and talent these days.

But classical liberalism’s dismissal of race stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing approach in academe and public discourse where critical race theory places race as central to socioeconomic power relations in society. And this approach recognises systemic institutional racism to explain the exclusion of black persons from, for example, quality jobs and healthcare, or the exclusion from positive public representation.

The DA’s turn to classical liberalism is a push against race as crucial in socioeconomic power relations – effectively being at the wrong end of the stick as is the lived reality for too many millions of South Africans.

Asserting classical liberalism’s individuality and meritocracy is a little like Trump, amid the continued race justice protests against police brutality and in support of #BlackLivesMatter, pushing back to end sensitivity training including topics like white privilege and critical race theory because these were “divisive, anti-American propaganda”.

Too obtuse? Too convoluted and complicated? Perhaps, but this ideological framing is crucial to explain the DA’s policy lurches.

A more social liberalism that accepted race as a proxy for disadvantage and underscoring the need for redress – a key win in 2013 for then parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, and what was then dubbed the Black Caucus – has been undone at the past weekend’s policy conference.

And central to it are Ngwenya and DA Federal Council chairperson Helen Zille, who both found a home in the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Ngwenya was a chief operating officer before she became a DA MP and policy honcho. Zille became senior fellow after her second, and constitutionally last term as Western Cape premier ended. Her stint at the IRR was somewhat short-lived, after she decided in October 2019 to stand for DA office.

The IRR blurb in welcoming Zille is telling: 

“She will be adding her considerable influence to IRR efforts to build support to stop expropriation without compensation (EWC); protect savings and pensions; halt efforts to destroy the South African healthcare sector through NHI; and adopt empowerment policies based on actual disadvantage and not race.”

And economic policies spun on inclusion of the excluded but blind to race is what was adopted at the DA policy conference.

So let’s call what happened a rearguard take-over by the IRR, courtesy of Zille and Ngwenya.

And all that in less than a year after the IRR #SavetheOpposition campaign to hold the DA to its claim to be a liberal party, according to a statement, with the call to “expel racist leaders”, end “its dalliance with the EFF” and “stop race-based policies”.

Back to the DA’s newly adopted policy set. Its race-less economic justice document is an important win for Ngwenya. It comes some 18 months after she resigned as policy honcho under Maimane following clashes over her take on non-racial black economic empowerment.

Now, these race-less policies have passed the first hurdle: the DA policy congress. If they are to be adopted it will be at the upcoming congress – the DA constitution stipulates policy is adopted and approved by federal congress, the highest decision-making body of around 2,000 delegates that’ set to gather at the end of October.

Whether delegates actually get to have a real say, or just adopt a pre-prepped policy document, may yet become another internal party fight in what seems to be a well-coordinated push. The DA constitution gives tremendous power to the federal council chairperson, Zille.

If these policies approved at the past weekend are adopted at the end of the October federal congress, Ngwenya would have left a permanent stamp on the DA, as these policies effectively constrain the next DA leader.

Leadership contestant Mbali Ntuli, whose roots firmly lie in social liberalism that recognises the linkages between race, inequality and redress, would find such race-less policies burdensome. But it would also affect interim DA leader John Steenhuisen, who’s on public record as saying race matters.

DA leadership: The party under Steenhuisen must now face up to race, redress and electoral mishaps


On Monday Ngwenya acknowledged the economic justice policy was what she had drafted while serving as policy boss under Maimane.

“The economic justice policy has been ready for two years. The position on empowerment… has changed three times under the previous leadership precisely because the party would not have the conversation about what the economic policy should be.”

These comments echo her January 2019 resignation over policy differences after she was rebuked for an August 2018 article on how the DA was exploring “a non-racial alternative” to black economic empowerment.

“Instead of having the courage of its convictions, at the mere whiff of a debate on BEE the party felt it best to attack the head of policy than to own up to its own structure’s decision,” Ngwenya wrote then.

It’s now on the table, supported by what seemed to be a smooth, mutually engaged choreography of responses between Zille and Ngwenya during the virtual platform briefing on the policy conference.

‘Race is a false construct’

“Each individual is unique and not a racial or gender envoy; thus, diversity is not demographic representivity,” says the DA diversity policy, before adding it opposed race, gender or any other kind of quotas.

“While there is a scientific consensus that ‘race’ itself does not exist – racialism and racism do exist and have a profound and damaging impact on the lives of individuals and society. They are abhorrent and detestable.”

But while the party acknowledged apartheid, undefined are racism and racialism.

“Race is a false concept but that does not mean people can’t do horrible things… The Holocaust was based on false beliefs about people,” Ngwenya explained on Monday.

“People could believe in a false thing like race. It doesn’t make it real… We will always fight the horrible things that people do on the basis of race.”

Redress is defined as “the need to remedy or correct an unfair or unjust situation”. That’s achieved by remedying “inequality of opportunity” by interventions in education, healthcare, the economy and safety and security. Move to cross-reference the economic justice policy talk of good governance, and inclusion, for the “open opportunity society for all”. A means test would protect the most vulnerable, and because of poverty and inequality, black South Africans would benefit, but just not on the basis of their race.

This race-less economic justice policy was described by Ngwenya as an “imaginative, new policy offer the DA can own” by offering inclusion to those currently excluded by the governing ANC patronage systems, as most graphically illustrated by the Covid-19 personal protective equipment tender scandal.

As Zille pointed out at Monday’s briefing, race was how former president Jacob Zuma appointed his cronies. “[Race] has continually been used by the ANC to loot,” she said, adding later, “the DA goes on principle, not on someone’s skin colour”.

Pulling together critiques of cronyism, corruption and elite patronage – and thus punting inclusion – the DA hopes its race blind spots will appeal to voters.

It’s a gamble. But not for either Ngwenya or Zille, if as expected she’s re-elected as federal council chairperson. If the DA flops in the 2021 municipal poll, precedence of the last election debacle shows it will be the leader who’ll carry the can.

It’s a poisoned chalice. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Derrick Kourie says:

    The introductory paragraph of this article immediately exposes its biased agenda of trying to malign the DA. The opening sentence is false: the DA DOES recognise race, but not as a proxy for those in need of redress. It argues that you do not need a so-called proxy for those in need of redress; that you can recognise that need without reference to race at all. The DA has announced that it will aim to bring redress to those in need, without reference to their race. This is not hard to understand. You may disagree with this aim. But if you do, please argue against it. The aim is not Trumpian in any sense at all. Why try to tar the DA with that brush of bigotry.

    • Gavin Swanson says:

      “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.” Daniel Kahneman – Thinking Fast and Slow. This is the way of the ANC and these main stream writers especially when it comes to the DA.

  • Greg La Cock says:

    Apart from being boring, articles like this perpetuate racial animosity. Perhaps the DA doesn’t want black people to feel disabled? Perhaps BLM has lost the plot and is doing more harm than good? And as far as sport goes, please keep politics out. Like NBA viewers, I would simply tune out.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    The DA has it right. Our challenge is to educate all, provide sound institutions and to support those who are in need. We need to focus on our common identity as South Africans, for race based politics will destroy this nation.

    • Gavin Swanson says:

      Absolutely! For as long as the emphasis is drawn between races there will be animosity (us vs them) as opposed to solidarity as ‘fellow South Africans’!!

  • Martin Neethling says:

    It is common today for journalists to write about the DA with only the slightest reference to what they might mean in their words or statements, and to instead paint whatever distorted picture seems suitable at that moment. This journalists use of the term ‘Trumpian’ says much about bias. I doubt that the DA’ leaders are in praise of Trump and his bigotry.
    But the slating of classical liberal values in contrast to ‘the prevailing approach in academe and public discourse where critical race theory (CRT) places race as central to socioeconomic power..’ is rubbish. CRT May indeed be the prevailing orthodoxy for those of Woke and intolerant predisposition, but it is far from the generally accepted position on these matters, and far from mainstream in ‘academe’. CRT will in my view be judged harshly in years to come for its hateful and chauvinistic thinking, that requires a return to fundamental race classification to be sustained (anyone for the Pencil Test?). The DA may we’ll be rejecting CRT in this new policy document, and given than belief in individual merit, the rule of law, and a State that supports its most vulnerable (because they are vulnerable not because they are a member of a group) are far more widely accepted than our scribe realizes, this move may stand the DA in good stead at the polls.

  • Anton van Niekerk says:

    Ms. Merten is clearly a fan of the apartheid race categories. Is reclassification possible? In my case I strongly suspect that the pencil was applied to the wrong grandparent and I was misclassified. Perhaps Ms. Merten can explain how I should go about changing my classification. My immigrant spouse is Asian and is presumably an honorary white. Is reclassification possible for newly arrived immigrants? If we have a bi-racial child, do we get to choose the race or will the government do the adjudication? I agree that Trump is an odious person but fail to see his relevance to my predicament.

    • Johan says:

      Bro, I feel your pain of being marginalised. Don’t lose hope. Our racial expert, Ndlozi, deconstructed the white-black racial binary when he so wisely created a third possible class by calling Thuli a Coconut. The hegemony of the simplistic power narrative is broken. All those who are confused by the consistent inconsistency of The Binary are welcome so self-identify as Coconuts. They are exempt from victimhood and patriarchal tendencies.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    It’s not too difficult to understand. Most blacks ( but not all) qualify for redress because the poorest in society are mostly ( but not all) black.
    Clearly this is interlectually and rationally correct but the problem is it gives a weapon to the enemy. So good luck in getting the message over.
    On the other hand the masses who don’t get it, don’t want to get it, or are manipulated not to get it, won’t be voting DA anyway.

  • Gerrit Marais says:

    Probably seen from a post-modern perspective, a disease that is eating the world.

    • Glyn Morgan says:

      Please define your “post modern perspective”. Today is modern, post modern is tomorrow?

      • Gerrit Marais says:

        Hmmm, I agree. It is confusing, but the term was actually coined by the art world and it also described a particularly hideous period of architecture in the 80s. Within the political realm it is also called identity politics. Logic and reality are the enemy to them.

  • Anneke Rousell says:

    DM, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster” CRT is “Trumpian”? Asserting classical liberal ideas “is a little like Trump”? Nonsensical. This is journalism? One DM article too many that is showing your dogmatic bias. Cancelling my monthly subscription, I hope others follow.

  • Colin Bryden says:

    Articles like this make me seriously consider cancelling my subscription to Daily Maverick.

  • Susan Keegan says:

    I agree with the comments above. I think many ‘ordinary people’ can understand complexity but opinion pieces like this ignore or minimise inconvenient facts that do not support their biased, reductionist position. Better, fairer analysis please.

  • Trevor Thompson says:

    My personal approach goes basically like this:
    1. Historically there are disadvantaged groups in South Africa. First it was the blacks then the Afrikaners, then the English, with the black disadvantage continuing throughout to current times. The Afrikaners and English weathered each other’s storms and eventually co-existed side by side.
    2. White business has flourished on imported available capital, deep skills, high education, and a long history of economic development. This over a long period of time since the early 1800’s in South Africa but brought in from earlier economic developments in Europe (mainly).
    3. Black disadvantage continues to this day through poor governance.
    To accept this status quo is not an option. There are 2 options to correct this, in essence:
    – firstly, replace white advantage with black advantage by legislating BBBEEEEE policies such as we have today, thereby replacing white businesses with black businesses.
    – secondly, by educating the black population to the same standard as the white population, providing skills, and attracting investment, and thereby growing the economy through bringing in highly competent new (black) businesses.
    In the first case, we chase away investors who are not confident in the ability of “less educated” businessmen to manage today’s highly technical businesses. Where government supports these “less educated” businessmen there are the usual issues of competence, integrity (corruption), which have led to numerous farms and businesses falling by the wayside due to the lack of skills and the required background to manage these. We do not grow the economy in this scenario, we merely replace the successful, with the less successful. There are exceptions, as usual in any scenario, and one should look at these success stories as role models for future development, but they are sadly in the minority.
    In the second case we address as a nation, the real problems behind the current malaise where we find ourselves directionless, locked into crazy laws which only serve to clutter the economic riches we could be exploiting for the benefit of all citizens. In this scenario we need to urgently do the following.
    1. We need a serious think-tank process to take place. Across all parties, all citizen groups, to find the way forward. This should not be the adversarial suspicious climate we endure every day in current times. We need to change the narrative. Our leaders need to lead, and drive the narrative.
    2. Address the education gap between the have’s and the have not’s. This applies throughout the education chain: from home upbringing, through basic education to higher education, universities and colleges. Bring back the institutions which were dumped in the early post-apartheid days. Nurses training institutions, teacher’s training colleges, technical colleges, agricultural colleges, business and economics colleges – all strong institutions of a high standard. These should all be accompanied by a high standard and focus on excellence. Those with abilities should be able to climb on the education ladder anywhere they may fit. Meaning, for example, that some candidates are fine with a poor basic education, but can adapt readily into a higher rung, due to their abilities. Thus, an ability to fast-track suitable candidates. And by the way, bring sport into all our schools, not only the “richer” schools. Sport is a great unifier and provides structure in our society, through acceptance that we do not all have equal abilities, do not all have leadership abilities, but we can all make a contribution, irrespective.
    3. Throw out the practice of cadre deployment. This merely extends the period that people will be disadvantaged, by appointing uneducated, unskilled persons in positions of relative power, who tend to destroy the institutions they are meant to manage.
    4. Destroy corruption, as far as possible. Corruption will always be around but let us work together to reduce its impacts to negligible. There is a very bad culture of entitlement to riches, which are not deserved, and can only be accessed through corrupt or illegal actions. This pervades our society to the extent that those who should have the ability to address the issues find themselves implicated or paralysed into inaction. This needs to be addressed on a societal level as well as legal level.
    5. Take a leaf out of Asia’s book: spend the time and money investing seriously in our children and they will make the country a better place. It cannot be done in a day. It will take time. But do it. The longer we delay this process, the longer we commit our country to a state of mediocrity, and the longer it will take to dig ourselves out of the hole we created.
    6. Grow confidence in the country to enable foreign capital (and the little left of local capital) to be invested in the creation of a society for all, a society which sees real job creation and opportunities for all. It can be done; it is not too late yet.
    This does not involve race. It is all about good governance. It focuses on the ills of our nation and focuses on the means of addressing them. I believe we all have the innate ability to live and work together, in harmony, in future.

    • Gavin Swanson says:

      Well put. We need a leadership group like Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” – Doris Kearns Goodwin. A government of national unity, in other words. The ANC cannot get us out of this mess.

      • Rory Short says:

        For me as a voter I am primarily interested in the principles espoused by a political party. Whether the principles have a public appeal or not is of interest but in no way will that determine whether I vote for that party or not. A political party that is primarily interested in getting voter support will never get my vote as I feel that I would then be supporting nothing more substantial than sand.

    • Rudd van Deventer says:

      There is nothing wrong with the quantum of money spent on education! The problem is what we get for it! There is also the absolute dismissal of the trades as a career and ensuring that there are adequate on-job opportunities for apprentices to come to the market while being paid.

    • Colin Johnston says:

      This is the only response to the article that makes some sort of sense. For the rest the responses are predictable of those who one assumes the new DA policy is trying to retain. This is not in any way going to get the DA to attract enough votes to be an elected alternative to the ANC. The DA may keep the Western Cape but is unlikely to be anything but a minor opposition group anywhere else. Quite sad really.

  • Vincent Baasch says:

    I’m surprised that some many journalists still don’t acknowledge that race based empowerment policies, as practised by the ANC in South Africa over the last 25 years, have only served to create a small elite of extremely rich black people. And opened the floodgates to unchecked corruption and incompetence. They have done nothing to address the lack of good education, healthcare and jobs for poor people at all. The DA has it absolutely right this time and I hope will win back much of the support it has been losing lately because of fuzzy ANC-lite policy. Adherence to undergraduate CRT platitudes will only plunge this company deeper into an economic and social abyss. It’s all about more jobs for poor people; whatever gets us there is the right policy to pursue.

  • Mr Ilitirit says:

    I don’t disagree with everything in this article, but all I want to add is that DM should really post more pieces like this than the bad writing of people who seem to share similar opinions as the author. See the recent piece on “natives”, for example.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    This is probably the most dishonest article Marianne Merten has ever written and DM has ever published. The DA is liberal, Trump is just the opposite. Does Merten expect the DA to push BEE as policy? Does Merten want the DA to be racist? Maybe a racist DA would be more exciting to write about? DM – Defend Truth!

  • James Francis says:

    The word ‘Trump’ appears twice in the body copy, neither instances actually justifying the association made by the headline. Is this what I’m paying my membership for? Tabloid headlines and overwrought opinions masquerading as contextual analysis? DM is really dropping the ball this month, first kowtowing to the EFF and then happily jumping into the DA pile-on. I’m dangerously close to cancelling my membership.

  • Hendrik Mentz says:

    ‘It’s a gamble’, you say. Is it, as neither Ngwenya nor Zille seem to me to be the gambling types. Instead, my sense is that theirs is a sincere attempt to get to grips with the real issues bedevilling humankind, and particularly our country, and is not primarily intended to win votes and, if so, should be given more credit than you and others have given them.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    Why can’t journalists acknowledge that skin colour per se is not an efficient way to achieve economic redress. Does Patrice Motsepe require economic redress? What the DA is saying is that BBEEE is not reducing poverty but is merely enriching the politically connected. I fail to understand why Daily Maverick repeatedly produces articles that are so anti-DA. The DA is the only party that manages a province successfully. Please be more balanced in your analyses.

  • Demetri Qually says:

    A really disappointing article.
    By all means disagree with the DA viewpoint, but argue the merits with facts instead of tainting the article with innuendos – how on earth can MM suggest the DA is Trump like.
    BBBEE has failed to provide redress and upliftment for those needing it most, who mainly happen to be black. It has instead provided a rich source of enrichment for the politically connected and corrupt, with excessive pricing diverting much needed funds from genuine redress and empowerment projects.
    I really expect better from DM.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    Do you want RACE (apartheid) or do you want NON RACE (no apartheid)? Seems like the author of this might want race classification to come back??

  • Richard Porter says:

    I think DM has finally lost the plot. Unless of course, the writer doesn’t understand what liberalism is!! Trumpian, really??

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