Opinionista Ivo Vegter 21 April 2014

Voting: there’s still time to change your mind

I was going to vote for the Democratic Alliance. Really, I was. Despite Julius Malema’s uncanny ability to be so usefully wrong about almost everything, I had a superb reason to do so: “Title Deeds For All”. But then, a few more of the DA’s senior members reminded me that the party is infested with elitists and fascists. What is the use of a mind if you can’t change it?

The Democratic Alliance, in Cape Town where it governs, has a problem with homeless people. It is a problem it is trying to fix. And by fix, I mean sweep the offending individuals under the carpet, into so-called “community villages”. Here, they will get to live and work under conditions more palatable to the city’s administrators, namely out of the public eye.

According to Daneel Knoetze, writing in the Cape Argus, these camps will provide housing, job training, drug rehabilitation and psychiatric care. They will be located on the outskirts of the city, keeping its tree-lined boulevards and cobbled lanes free of the nuisance that the homeless present. This would satisfy the city’s wealthier inhabitants, businesses, and especially its tourist industry. After all, it is the World Design Capital for 2014, and world-class marketing is undermined by a horde of homeless tramps underfoot.

The city leadership responsible for this plan consists of JP Smith, mayoral committee member for safety and security, and Suzette Little, the mayoral committee member for social development. The paper says they consider it “a move towards a caring and supportive approach in dealing with street people”.

According to the Argus article, if homeless people are not inclined to report to the camps for duty, they will be hounded by police officers for petty violations of city by-laws, and forcibly removed thence. “Smith presented it as an alternative to a ‘law enforcement’ approach,” Knoetze wrote, “which sees street people being arrested for by-law infringements (sleeping on the street for example) and then ‘recycled’, via community courts and holding cells, back on to the street.”

Jared Sacks, writing in the Mail & Guardian, deplored the proposal, likening it to re-education or concentration camps made infamous by totalitarian regimes and scorched-earth military strategies. In this, he echoes the sentiments of organisations that work with street people. He added some juicy quotations that appear to expose Little, Smith and representatives of city improvement programmes as callous and out of touch.

I am inclined to go along with Sacks. Poverty and homelessness are unfortunate, and inconvenient to the rest of us. It can give rise to social problems and crime. However, neither is a “law enforcement” issue in and of itself. Last I checked, being able to afford a home is not a legal requirement. Homelessness is not a crime.

On the social network Twitter, I asked Mmusi Maimane, whose advocacy of full title deeds for land reform beneficiaries recently led me to endorse the Democratic Alliance in the upcoming elections, to see to it that Little and Smith be dismissed. Party leader Helen Zille responded, asking whether I had made sure of my facts, or took the story at face value. She did not reply when I asked her to be clear about denying the substance of the story.

I am quite willing to believe that the Argus report could have misrepresented the intentions of Little and Smith, or the nature of the “community village” programme. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and journalists sometimes get it wrong. Likewise, I am willing to accept that Jared Sacks harbours an irrational animus towards the Democratic Alliance that stems from a bias against what he would probably call neo-liberal economics.

But that is neither here nor there, since Suzette Little herself took to the Argus to pen an op-ed, to try to explain herself. Naturally, she does not agree that she is a heartless petty fascist whose nannyism is a danger to the freedom of the people she is employed to help govern. She says that the problem of street people is complex, which it undoubtedly is. In another blunt statement of the obvious, she adds: “The city’s approach to dealing with street people is not an ad hoc one either, but is informed by our street people policy.”

Then she gets to the nub of it: “If people choose to stay on the streets they are expected, like all other citizens, to adhere to the city’s by-laws. In particular, the city’s streets, public places and prevention of noise nuisance by-law states that anti-social behaviour; drinking, urinating, defecating, starting fires and sleeping in public places; creating a noise nuisance; and aggressive begging are offences. This by-law applies to each and every one of us – not just street people.”

That sounds great, of course, except for the slight inconvenience that street people are, well, people. They need to eat, sleep, drink and pee. People who for whatever reason do not enjoy the luxury of a home, where they can do these things in private, are forced by their biological nature to do these things on the metaphorical street. I recently did not eat for a week, so I speak from experience when I say I cannot recommend starving.

In Little’s little world, the problem of street people is a law enforcement problem. Living while being homeless inevitably leads to breaching the city’s by-laws. That makes it illegal to be poor. Does her protest that she isn’t a callous, heartless bureaucrat who disregards the constitutional liberties of Cape Town’s less wealthy residents ring hollow yet?

For a political party to win enough votes to earn the right to govern requires compromise. It means pitching a tent that is large enough to accommodate 50% plus one of the electorate. That means the tent must be big enough to unite diverging interests around a broad theme that is sufficiently diluted not to offend any of its constituencies.

Take the United States, for example. For all the mass-media noise and over-simplification, its public discourse is surprisingly sophisticated. Despite alarming imperialist forays, socialised healthcare as signature legislative achievements, and the rise of the surveillance state, the US remains a bastion of liberty in a world populated by welfare bureaucracies, authoritarian theocracies, state-corporate kleptocracies, or banana republics.

In each of the elections since I started paying attention to US politics, I’d have reluctantly voted Republican. The reason is that the Grand Old Party, or GOP, as the party is colloquially known, is a big tent. It accommodates many of the people with whom I agree, who favour free markets and individual liberty.

It also has a social conservative wing professing Christianity, and it has a war-hawk faction that misses the Cold War and salivates at the prospect of beating up a third world country once in a while just to prove that Vietnam was really lost by Walter Cronkite.

Angered by the horror of 9/11, and the authoritarian barbarity of some of the world’s nastier regimes, I had strong sympathies with the war hawks a decade ago. In large part thanks to the mismanagement of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, my taste for state-sponsored war has diminished. Today, I’m much more of an isolationist along traditional libertarian lines, even if I remain of the persuasion that pacifism is a naïve luxury in a world of maniacal terrorists, wild-eyed nationalists, territorial expansionists, and kleptocratic neo-imperialists.

I never had much sympathy with social conservatives, but they don’t particularly bother me either. I don’t care whether someone thinks a deity with logically impossible properties magicked us out of nothing last week, and then deputised his only son to star in a medieval torture scene they teach to children, as a dramatic gesture that absolves an undeserving humanity of drinking too much wine with lunch on Sundays.

Whether a foreign nation permits God to be harried, guns to be carried, or gays to be married, does not affect my life in the least.

That leaves the individual liberty, free-market capitalist wing of the GOP, with which I would gladly make common cause. At least it would spare me the social awkwardness of hanging out with hard-core libertarians, who for all their philosophical purity and intellectual sophistication act like a student society that wears tin foil hats as an ironic statement of principle, and legalise pot t-shirts as a practical statement of policy.

I could even accept the “neo-conservative” label, if you take it to mean someone who once was left-wing – I was a hippie once, you know – but discovered that communism is evil and socialism inevitably leads to totalitarianism. As Georges Clemenceau, the luxuriously bewhiskered French radical who was its prime minister during World War I, reputedly said of his son: “If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.”

In the American context, neo-conservatism was a patriotic ideology of the anti-Stalinist left. It referred to someone who once was a member of the Democratic Party, but abandoned it.

The Democratic Party, after all, was the party of slavery. It was the heart of the Confederacy, and the bulwark of the plantation masters. Republicans were the party of emancipation and non-racial voting rights. Here are some amazing 19th century cartoons to underscore the point.

The Old South only went Republican after Lyndon B Johnson sold out the Democrats by signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964. As he told journalist Bill Moyes, “I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come.”

If you think he was motivated by a deep sense of humanity and justice, consider this alleged quotation: “These Negroes, they’re getting pretty uppity these days and that’s a problem for us since they’ve got something now they never had before, the political pull to back up their uppityness. Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.”

(For historical context about the authenticity of this quotation, see this reddit discussion. It partially absolves Johnson, though not his Democratic audience, of racism.)

By the 1960s and 70s, the Democratic Party had also become known as the party of the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which consolidated the Castro dictatorship under Soviet protection for decades.

It was the party of the Vietnam war. Kennedy, the darling of the Democrats, who likely cheated Richard Nixon of victory in the 1960 election, first escalated the conflict in the former French colony into a full-blown war. Johnson, who succeeded JFK upon his assassination, doubled down. It took Nixon, who ironically resigned over the Watergate election scandal, to extricate the US from the quagmire.

The Democrats were the party of inflation and recession under Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, while Ronald Reagan won the presidency for the Republicans on a platform that promised resolute action – even at the cost of high unemployment – to break the back of inflation and set America up for a quarter century of growth.

Since the 1990s, the alternatives to Republican candidates were Al Gore, John Kerry and Barack Obama. In each case, on the lesser-of-evils principle, I would have gladly worn the label “neo-conservative” to throw my hat into the GOP’s big tent.

The African National Congress has long understood this philosophy. It has built a broad support base on an unlikely combination of interests between the historically oppressed, organised labour, assorted socialists and communists, religious conservatives, the growing black middle class and the wealthy black elite.

The DA is likewise a big tent. But a tent should never be so big that it accommodates people with fundamentally objectionable principles, policies or characters. The ANC is no longer worth my vote because its tent has grown to include kleptocrats, corrupt powermongers and a man who can spend a quarter of a billion of our money just sprucing up his private residence.

But if would-be fascists like Little, Smith and Robin Carlisle can be accommodated inside the DA’s big tent, it faces the same problem.

According to Mabine Seabe, a campaign staffer for Maimane, the DA wants a government that serves the poorest and most vulnerable. That is admirable, but unless it disowns Robin Carlisle, Suzette Little and JP Smith, I’m withdrawing my endorsement.

There is such a thing as too big a tent, and one that accommodates outspoken police-state fascists is too big for comfort in a country that claims to be free. DM



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