The DA national congress held on 7-8 April 2018 had its fair share of divisions, factionalism, ideological and personality battles.
This congress can be described as a clash of cultures, civilisations, class, race, gender, power, personalities and ideology between the old and the new. It was a battle between the white English male dominated neocolonial liberal faction led by James Selfe and supported by the illiberal white conservative Afrikaner faction led by Athol Trollip vs the so-called young black (african) “progressive” caucus led by Solly Msimanga.
The so-called coloured caucus led by the likes of Patricia de Lille seemed to be fighting a different battle – i.e. one of survival and relevance.
At a leadership level Solly Msimanga ran against Athol Trollip for the position of Federal Chair. This battle became the proxy as to which faction was in control and who would steer the future direction of the DA. The so-called main ideological battle was the proposal by Maimane to include a diversity clause as a fourth pillar of the party. In practical terms this meant that the leadership across all levels would have to broadly represent the demographics of the country. Unsurprisingly, it was vehemently opposed by the white liberal and illiberal factions led by Gavin Davies, John Steehuisen, James Selfe and Athol Trollip among others.
The outcome of the leadership and policy contest indicates that the old white guard remains firmly in control. Only two Africans, one coloured and one (African) woman were elected to its Federal Executive (Fedex).
There are four white English males and one white Afrikaner male – Athol Trollip. In addition, a white woman was appointed (not elected) in a newly created post of 2nd Deputy Chair. Thus 66.6% of the national leadership remains white and 77.7% male, which is hardly the diversified party it proclaims to be.
Equally disturbing is the information blackout as regards the election of the eight Fedex members. Thus, other than the positions of the leader – Maimane and chair of the Federal Council – which were reported as uncontested, we are only aware of the federal chair position and deputy chair being contested.
No one actually knows which other positions were contested, by whom and what were the margins of victory. We thus have to rely on informal sources for information that should be freely available in a so-called democratic organisation. For example, the contest for Federal chair, according to these sources, was extremely close, with Trollip beating Msimanga by a mere 150 votes – (7.5%).
Moreover, as the public we learnt that the position of deputy chair was contested only because of a possible legal challenge to this position. The newly elected Fedex members created an additional second deputy chair, an appointed rather than elected Natasha Mazzone. This decision is now being legally challenged by a DA member from the so-called black caucus, Khume Ramulifho. He argues that the executive was increased through a back-door process from eight to nine with another (white) leader surreptitiously sneaked in. The DA leadership it seems may be guilty of using Machiavellian tac(t)rics to bring in a leader of their choice in order to further strengthen the “white liberal English caucus” on the Fedex (from four to five). Thus ensuring there numerical and ideological hegemony of the Fedex.
Equally disturbing are the DA’s reasons for refusing to divulge the margins of victory where there was contestation. Their leader alleges that the formulae for calculating the winners is too complex to explain. This argument is not only insulting to the intelligence of its members but creates the impression that the DA is hiding something, casting serious aspersions on the integrity of the process.
Moreover, how are disgruntled delegates to believe that there may not have been “(msi) manga-(msi) manga” tact(r)ics in the voting process between Trollip and Msimanga given the alleged closeness of the race.
Ironically, the DA consistently proclaims to be the guardian of liberal values yet this conference exposed it as one of the least transparent and undemocratic political parties when it comes to its own elective conference and inner workings. Imagine the outcry from the media, civil society, opposition parties and analysts if the ANC had attempted similar shenanigans at its conference. Equally worrying is that with the exception of Professor Friedman and a few others, there has been an ominous silence from most of the chattering classes regarding these dangerous and undemocratic trends emerging in the DA.
On the ideological front the DA attempted to portray a compromise between the so-called “black progressives” and the “white liberals” as it related to the inclusion of diversity as a pillar of the party. Yet, a more in-depth interrogation of the outcome indicates that there was no real compromise and no substantive change to the party’s traditional neocolonial liberal position. The resolution it seems is mere political thea-tric(k)s and opt(r)ics that includes the term “diversity”.
In reality, it specifically excludes any process that will allow it to incrementally diversify. At best the resolution maintains the status quo and at worst it strengthens the hands of the white liberal English caucus by specifically excluding quotas to diversify the party leadership. In other words it allows this cabal to continue to control and determine the pace and choice of diversification.
The DA also displayed further dictatorial trends when it pushed through the clause to recall its public representatives, more commonly known as the De Lille Clause.
The DA has always criticised the ANC for its democratic centralist culture yet this resolution is something straight out of the democratic centralist playbook. If a resolution such as this was pushed by the ANC it shouldn’t be an issue precisely because of its democratic centralist culture, but it runs counter to the very ethos of what the DA preaches. It therefore perpetuates the perception that this resolution was specifically designed to remove De Lille and her supporters, achieving what they were unable to achieve through democratic processes.
The DA also displayed other examples of double standards such as refusing to amend its constitution to create one or two additional deputy federal leaders to Maimane as called for by the black caucus. Their reasons being both rational and logical i.e. to strengthen succession planning and avoid a cult of personality while creating the opportunity to increase diversity in its leadership. Yet the same DA which refused this created an additional second deputy chair position and appointed Mazzone when she lost the contest for deputy chair.
Taking all the above into account, none of the elective and policy outcomes indicates any real appetite by the DA for change. To their credit the “progressive black caucus” pushed for a paradigm shift. Their call was to redefine the parameters of its current neocolonial lily-white liberalism to an African liberalism “of a special type”.
Regrettably, their push turned out to be nothing more than huffing and puffing as the congress chose to maintain the status quo. The white English liberals supported by the Afrikaner illiberals remain in full control of the organisation even though they remain a numerical minority. Yet the outcomes of this conference allow them to maintain the cultural and ideological hegemony of the party.
Unsurprisingly, the congress also failed to create a unifying vision that could capture the imagination of South Africans. Instead it chose to continue with its current approach, i.e. what unites them is their opposition to and anger at the ANC. Hardly the stuff of a party which proclaims to be waiting in the wings to govern.
The 18th century French novelist Jean Baptiste Alphonse Karr once said, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.’’ This quote probably best describes both the leadership and ideological outcome of the 2018 DA Federal Congress. DM