Opinionista Jacques Rousseau 11 August 2010

It’s silly to take a penknife to a gunfight

Recent debates have again highlighted the dangers inherent in dragging the baggage of stereotypes and prejudices to mature and open-minded debates on South Africa’s political future or where to place one’s “X” come election time.

Democracy and liberty are not equivalent, despite the fact that they are so often conflated in popular discourse. There is no logical obstacle to a dictator being democratically elected and then leaving us with little freedom. Likewise, a dictator could in theory be benevolent, and allow for more freedoms than we currently enjoy in South Africa.

This is why being silent in the face of oppression, tyranny, or the abuse of power by the state should not be considered an option by those of us committed to both democracy as well as freedoms of various sorts. Fortunately, democracy and liberty are often positively correlated, so that an increase in the one tends to coincide with an increase in the other.

But because this connection is not a logically necessary one, we are sometimes required to fight these battles on independent fronts. Among the dilemmas and difficulties presented by these battles, we can identify the tone of our arguments as a significant complication, because sometimes struggles for liberty involve butting heads with majority sentiment – in other words with impulses arising from democratic discourses and ideals.

The arguments provoked by some recent contributions from The Daily Maverick’s “Opinionistas” brings the matter of tone into sharp focus, in that it sometimes seems impossible to separate issues of political choice from racial (and often, racist) rhetoric. Democratic Alliance supporters are racist whites, say some, and they support an untransformed party. ANC supporters are uneducated, and would choose differently if they were as enlightened as me, suggest others.

Two very different claims need to be distinguished here, and it is important that we make this distinction if we are to escape various pitfalls. My concern is that I don’t know if it is possible to do so without falling into one of them myself, whereby whatever I say sounds like – or is plausibly interpreted as – sentiments conforming to one or more of these stock interpretations.

The first sort of claim would be one based purely on demographics. If it is true that the majority of South Africans are under-educated, and if it is true that the majority of South Africans support the ANC, then it must be true that the majority of ANC supporters are under-educated. Similarly, if it is true that the majority of DA supporters are white, and that most whites are racist, we would not be surprised to find a high proportion of racists in the DA.

The second sort of claim relates to ideology and the motivations for one’s political convictions. The fact that most ANC supporters are under-educated does not have to be the reason why people vote for the ANC – in other words, it is not necessarily true that they make that choice out of ignorance. And if you support the DA, it is not necessarily the case that you do so because you identify (rightly or wrongly) the DA as a party that is sympathetic to your prejudices.

My fear of having any observations on these issues slotted into a handy stereotype is an unfortunate one, and one that would ideally be dismissed without much thought. But this fear is a common consequence of living in a society where the race card is still an effective argumentative tactic, as demonstrated by representatives of both of these political spectrums. Zuma brushed criticisms of infidelity off with accusations of “cultural” insensitivity, while Zille’s 2009 campaign to “stop Zuma” reminded us of the poorly judged “Fight back” campaign of 2004, which many interpreted to imply “fight black”.

And the problem is that both of these examples do in fact support the stereotypes. On the ANC side, few of even the most ardent supporters of the party would agree that culture is a defence for anything, for example female genital mutilation. This means the “culture” defence does, in fact, trade on ignorance in that it asks you to ignore any genuine issues to do with honesty, trustworthiness and moral consistency.

As for the DA, their “fight back” campaign eroded plenty of goodwill. Whether or not their intentions were racist, the campaign could not fail to attract a disproportionate number of people with exactly those sentiments. More importantly, perhaps, the campaign served to further entrench a stereotype regarding the party, namely that of it being intrinsically aloof, elitist and, most of all, white. Any election gains resulting from this strategy have to be weighed against the cost of confirming these stereotypes, as well as against the potential long-term gains of pursuing a different strategy – one which would unshackle the party from these negative connotations.

And so, another year goes by, and many still find it legitimate to ask questions such as “What is the DA doing to attract my vote as a black man”, despite the fact that if you accept their stated principles at face value, the DA is doing all it can to attract all votes, regardless of race. Just as the ANC is, again according to stated principles. But we find it difficult to believe either of them (or both of them), depending on where your existing allegiances lie.

Our problem is that these decisions should be made on principle, not on stereotype. But the average voter makes their cross based on perceptions and prejudices, not necessarily on a careful weighing of options. Because we simply don’t have the maturity to be that kind of democracy, and nor do most of our population have the educations that those sorts of choices presume. This is not to say that they would choose any differently if they had those educations. I mean instead to make the point that because most of us cannot grasp the full implications of macro-economic policy, for example, we are forced to make our choices based on perception and on spin.

In the medium- to long-term, we can hope for more South Africans – of all races, genders and beliefs – to engage in debates around our political future which deal in substance, rather than stereotype. But this will not be possible unless we start resisting the urge towards cliché, where every action or decision of your political opposition is interpreted as confirming an established stereotype. If your view is that everything the DA does is racist, or that everything the ANC does is symptomatic of a creeping nationalism, then the problem is not the party – it is you.