The Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) National Congress was packed with cringeworthy moments.
The congress’s Stand By Your Men US-style politics was a little unsettling. American politics is so metastasised and commercialised that the attempt at bringing the spouse or family onto the centre stage is almost an antidote, an attempt to reclaim this important unit in an otherwise hostile political culture that gives very little to family but takes away everything. There is, therefore, a context and tradition for Americans, but even in America it’s still understood that being a spouse is not a party position and spouses addressing congresses, outside this context, insults party members who get such opportunities through hard work, and not through marrying up.
Then there was the Western Cape provincial chair, a man who would give every dime for acceptability, pitching a high and terrible voice, searching for an alternative in singing old Afrikaans songs, driving awkwardness through the roof. The area of songs of course is particularly awkward for the DA, because if it’s not ANC songs then it’s an attempt to clean up a rejected and discredited history of songs. There is no patience to build a new history.
Those were but some cosmetic problems, as unsettling as they may be. The real problems were deep, many, and poorly diagnosed.
Mmusi Maimane’s assimilation speech set the tone. Maimane’s role in the DA is to perpetuate the enduring organisation’s attempt to gloss over serious differences in society’s make-up and muffling the complaints of those who feel ill-served by DA institutional arrangements.
It is incomprehensible, for example, that a black person, who was subjugated and stigmatised, would seek to gloss over these realities through colour-blindness and gender neutrality. This denialism leaves a black man vulnerable to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which race and class continue to be the prism through which erstwhile oppressors still view the world.
There is a general awareness that the party is disintegrating on many fronts. There remains a cloud on exactly what fairness means, who is getting opportunity and just what is freedom according to the party. The truth is that diversity should have been produced by the other three pillars if indeed diversity should be left to happen organically, so an insistence on the adoption of the term as a fourth pillar is almost an acknowledgement that change is not a chemical reaction of chance, it must be deliberate and aggressive.
Still, the DA chose to pussyfoot on the issue of race and gender. The idea that you must recruit for diversity, instead of putting quotas (which has suddenly become a dirty word), is tantamount to racial profiling. Will they approach people on the streets and say, “Hey you, you look different, you sound different, we want to diversify, come join us.” It’s a ridiculous proposition.
Of course the real intention of recruiting for diversity is not a secret. The DA is looking for racial groups that are not a threat to white cultural capital. The blacks we have seen recruited in DA ranks are the assimilators, the integrationists, the racially blind blacks, blacks with white speech pattens, blacks who glory in white emoluments.
Recruiting a pliant type of black leads to misguided leaders like James Selfe thumbing their chests and claiming that it is in fact the party’s majority black delegates that elected a white leadership and one women leadership. This is highly offensive.
This recruitment goes wrong sometimes, when the party actually finds real diverse people with diverse views. Leaders like Makashule Gana, Mbali Ntuli, despite their obvious talent and political astuteness, continue to be sidelined and kept away from the centre.
More important, however, due to the DA losing ground to organisations with more populist ideologies, it finds itself reacting in ways that make the organisation not only ideologically confused, but vulnerable, making eye-popping pledges like doubling social grants to children that defy all common sense. While it would be ideologically correct for a liberal party to seek to move people out of welfare into sustainable jobs, the DA seeks to make welfare grants compete with people’s wages.
The DA’s enduring challenge of course is that it does not want to account for the darker aspects of our past. It does not want to work through the messy reality that is our past, to understand just how we got to where we are, this land of divided communities and racial hatred.
Black people are diverse, they are different, but they have an undeniable shared past that largely defines much of their present and this cannot be glossed over.
The reality is that black people including women were institutionally excluded from participating in governance of all structures of society and to hold a view that even after that institutionalisation of race and gender exclusion, correcting it will be left to political contests is beyond naivete, it is a betrayal, especially by a black leader.
Until Maimane realises that there is a need, given the DA’s political history, to upend the existing political culture of the old white party, each DA congress will be marred by pressure from black people for a bigger share of the franchise.
In the end, the DA Congress was about finally looking in the mirror in the post-Zuma era and defining itself. This has largely failed as the party did not have the courage to wash away the mess they saw in the mirror; instead, they decided to get back into the mud.
Part of this mud was to try to sneak abusive clauses into their constitution. We must be grateful that the real Constitution of the country will still call them out on it.
The “De Lille clause” will therefore not affect De Lille or any other official. This is not because it’s a clause that seeks to change the rules in the middle of the game, but the reality is that it will still take a party caucus to have enough numbers in the council or legislature to remove any official and there is no going around that. Only the president has a constitutional right to hire and fire, not political parties or lower-level officials.
You can’t have democracy on one hand, and dictatorship by party constitution on the other.
The next five years are going to be very interesting for the Democratic Alliance. DM
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