Defend Truth


As I experience class mobility, will I protect my interests like the DA’s black middle class?


Nkateko Mabasa is a journalist at Daily Maverick

The growing black middle class should use its identity to show solidarity with the poor, not as enabling tools for corporate interests, which is the DA way.

On a dreary evening, while seated uncomfortably in a taxi, squeezed between a row of three passengers and the door, I heard Mmusi Maimane for the first time over the radio. With my limited Zulu, I could pick up from the news anchor’s highlights that he was speaking at a Democratic Alliance election debate, to elect a new leader after Helen Zille, who led the party from 2007 to 2015 stepped down.

After a long day of attending class at the University of Johannesburg, and strict studying until the sun went down, I had taken a taxi back to my student apartment in Hillbrow. The taxi had been waiting outside the Auckland Park campus for one last person to enter before it could leave. And so I had to sit on the collectively despised and almost always broken seat-by-the-door.

As the taxi moved, I gripped the window pane on the door with my left hand and rested my full body weight on the arm to make sure I did not fall off the shaky seat. My legs were stretched out wide, with the left foot against the frame of the door and the right foot perched against the leg of the seat in front of me. I felt the weight of my book bag on my arched back, resting on the stool-like-seat that did not have a backrest.

After the news anchor announced each candidate running for the position of DA party leader the station played a short clip from the speech of each candidate. The taxi was headed to Wanderers Street by Park Station. And just at the corner of Harrison and Smit streets, I heard Maimane speak. I perked up and suddenly became aware of where I was and the people around me.

I started to pay attention, instead of my mind drifting off into the distance as I usually do when on a taxi as a way to somehow endure the nerve-wracking taxi ride. Maimane sounded eloquent, with his voice inflecting with each sentence, carefully emphasising each point to communicate that he can empathise with your situation.

At that time I had just started a different degree for God knows how many times at another institution. And although I had done Politics 1 at the University of the Witwatersrand before I was excluded — first academically and then later, after a second chance, financially — it was a pleasant surprise for me to learn then, through the speeches over the radio, that the DA did things differently, that it held internal elective debates.

Until that time I had assumed it elected leaders like other parties, where the branches usually give some kind of a “mandate”, as I would always hear on TV, about who occupies which position. The DA was bringing something new in our politics, and surely a free and open contestation of power within a political party was a sign of this.

I wondered then if this was the kind of politics that I had been looking for, where politicians actually care for people and are committed. Could this party that I had overlooked, be the one to demand my attention with innovative ideas and integrity in its promises? It had been a long time since I last found something worthy to believe in.

When I was young, I once attended a local ANC branch meeting held in a high school classroom about 5km from my home. I walked the whole way, from one end of my village in Limpopo to the other for the meeting. I was surprised and deeply disappointed when only a handful of old people came to the meeting. It was slow and felt like the meeting was being moved, rather than a flow of issues arising. I did not go back to another meeting.

I was excited when Congress of the People (Cope) was founded in 2008 after it broke away from the ANC. Maybe this was it. I attended the launch of a local branch in my village in the yard of a preschool. Many people came to see what this new party was offering. But we could see that the people who were elected to the branch executive committee were all friends.

Although with a number of young people, I still felt the same feeling from the ANC meeting I had attended. There was an indifference to what anyone had to say. There seemed to be a pre-arranged agenda, by a few who had met before and decided together how the meeting would be run and how it would be concluded. Those of us who attended were merely there to be used as a show of strength and for expediency.

The DA seemed to be offering something different. You could run for any position and actually be elected by party members. It was a small spark in a political abyss of disappointments.

But what I knew about the DA then, was as much as every other black person in my world — occupying the spaces apartheid designated for us and the spaces that had been crystallised by a degenerating liberation party. We regarded the DA as a white party and dismissed it as such.

Our political debates centred around how much to believe in the cyclical renewal of the ANC, or how much of Julius Malema’s rage we were comfortable with. Once in a while, about whether the Pan African Congress of Azania (PAC) could ever rise again.

As a student, “rising again” was a preoccupation, when pondering #FeesMustFall’s idea of decolonisation. I wondered, once everything had fallen, what will we build in its place?

But students were too busy battling the cruelty of the police and indifference of institutions of higher learning, even though Julius Nyerere, Thomas Sankara, Samora Machel and bell hooks would have helped craft solutions for what to build.

During those days, for a while, I was unmoved by appeals from students to be part of the protests. I had resolved not to be distracted from my studies — at least not this time around. I was determined, after hopping from one degree to another and never finishing, not to waste another year of school.

But I could not, at that time, see my individual hardship as part of the daily collective struggle of black students all around me. I was convinced my experience in higher learning was a result of my own character failures.

If you pass and do well in school, you are rewarded for your efforts. If you fail, it must mean your efforts were not enough. I had spent many dark days in my cramped room at a university residence or on the floor of a friend, trying to pull myself up from a dungeon I had fallen into because of my pitiful circumstances.

The many episodic occasions when I did not have money to register at the beginning of the year, always brought with it a feeling of defeat before the academic programme had even started. And if that hurdle was somehow overcome, I would agonise throughout the semester over how to pay the rest of my fees.

I have opened up a number of varsity emails notifying me of bad semester marks, or an exclusion letter disallowing me to continue the next term because of outstanding fees. Reading one of these mails, seated in the computer lab, I thought of my mother, and how I was supposed to work so my father could finally rest. The pain I felt made it seem like it was just me and the computer in front of me, fighting desperately to survive. Yet I was actually seated in a room full of equally anxious students checking their emails and sleeping in the lab.

So when I received another opportunity to set things right, I decided that nothing would distract me, no mountain would be insurmountable. I would always go home late at night from school, after I fulfilled my daily quota of study, to my small apartment in Hillbrow.

On that day, when I heard Maimane on the radio, I had kept to a strict schedule. I got off the taxi across the road to the Gautrain station on Smit Street, just where the bright street lights end and before a row of broken street lights begins, to walk the rest of the way home.

I was determined to rise from a life of failure and poverty — something I had always imagined to be a life my parents were the last to have lived, in my family. I remember thinking as I paced, hurriedly in the darkness, that I might just join the DA.

A year later, I decided against it after I encountered the DA student organisation (Daso), and realised how, in the process of my own political consciousness and awakening, that liberals in the DA care more about preserving freedom of speech — which ensures their already oversaturated views remain privilegedthan hearing the plight of poor students who feel invisible unless they resort to burnings things.

In my third year at UJ, I found myself in the same situation as before, where I wondered how was I going to pay the rest of the fees. It did not seem like the DA was the party to relate to me nor to go to. I quit the course during the year, faced with a debt I would not be able to pay and a broken spirit.

I continued with my part-time job as a bookseller and later found work, miraculously, as a journalist. And since then I have been plagued with feeling like an imposter — that without a degree I can be allowed to work and prosper.

I have followed Maimane’s journey as the leader of the Democratic Alliance. It has proven to be a herculean task for him to convince society that under his leadership, the DA has changed. But he has made some significant breakthroughs in enclaves outside the Western Cape.

The party garnered remarkable wins during the 2016 local government elections beyond the three metros — Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay. They have control of the Midvaal in Gauteng, Modimolle and Thabazimbi municipalities in Limpopo and Kouga Municipality in the Eastern Cape.

Many black South Africans have since joined the party, partly because of Maimane’s personal story of growing up in Soweto and escaping it, and because of the party’s heavily resourced campaigning. Although these black DA supporters are dismissed as rented crowds, on social media and often by mainstream political pundits, they have found something meaningful in what the party is offering.

The messages from the DA black leaders of personal success, inform supporters that they too can transcend generations of poverty.

Although there is still some trepidation over the party itself — an uncertainty provoked by the anti-poor policies of unlawful evictions exported from the Western Cape to Gauteng metros.

Black South Africans remain suspicious that maybe there is still a big white hand controlling the party from the background. And that a white hand is often a group of well-meaning people who put their own interests above the rest — the same way a group of well-meaning people allowed apartheid to go on for 46 years.

For most black South Africans, this reinforces their doubts about whether white people really wanted apartheid to end or they were forced to change, but still yearn for the “good old days”.

Certainly, the cafes, the swimming pools, the clean streets and safe neighbourhoods form part of white people’s childhood memories, even though they were founded on the exploitation of people who were invisible to them.

And since taking over the City of Johannesburg, the DA has been cleaning the streets and creating a safer neighbourhood through the Mayor of Joburg Herman Mashaba’s Buya Mthetho project. Rather than engaging with communities about the safety of the places they have been living in for so long and about how they can be a part of the renewal of the falling buildings they go to sleep in, the mayor has instituted mass evictions of the residents.

Mashaba, like Maimane, and the DA Gauteng premier candidate Solly Msimanga, boast about their tenacity in overcoming the struggles of their childhood in townships and being raised by single mothers who sold things on the streets to make a living. Yet personal stories about their early sufferings from the new DA black leaders do not seem to translate to a concern for other mothers who sell in the streets, who are harassed by the police or black youths who were not as lucky making it out of the township and often turn to crime.

Furthermore, Maimane is all too often dismissed for the way he talks to different South African communities in a forced manner — which reveals a calculated and unauthentic public persona. And this lies at the very heart of poor people’s suspicion over the loyalties of the black middle class.

To be on the secure side of the economic divide is a privilege, and for me to be one of the few young people to have a job, does not escape me. I have found some reprieve in the rat race of survival, in a place where 38% of the jobless population still live.

However, with no generational wealth, or inherited property or land, I see my position, privileged as it is, as precarious. In the City of Joburg, I am one cutback/retrenchment away from homelessness.

The iron-handed policies of the new black DA leaders show an unwillingness to recognise in the poor, black people they evict and harass, the same feelings of fear and uncertainty present over rent, food, and survival, which they themselves say they experienced when they were young.

The party has since come around regarding its support for fees to fall in universities. It has also caught on to the need for a land policy in order to stay relevant, although its land policy only consists of giving title deeds to the people who were relegated to labour reserves by the 1950 Group Areas Act.

This suggests an unwillingness by the DA, led by someone who grew up in the township, to change apartheid spatial planning. The party’s opposition to radical land reform is odd, considering that the DA has been expropriating land and buildings in Johannesburg to make way for gentrification.

The draconian stance exhibited by the DA when dealing with poor, black, vulnerable people, shows a party interested only in using black people as props.

Recently, Maimane, Msimanga and DA leader in Gauteng John Moodley went to Noord taxi rank and sat at the back of a taxi, while campaigning for a One South Africa for All.

They seemed like fish out of water, concerned only about putting on a good show to those watching, without showing much interest in the people around them.

Recently, the DA has been the only party to grow. Pundits and polls generally place them lower than what they will eventually achieve and Maimane — as the face of the party — has triggered a small migration of black South Africans to the party. And with a growing number of apathetic ANC voters, this might just boost the DA in the upcoming elections.

I estimate that the party is likely to get closer to 30% than what has been recently polled, and it could possibly bag Gauteng as well. With more power, Maimane and his party will continue to tell black South Africans that they sympathise with their suffering, yet at the same time they will be rolling back their rights in the cities, just as they did in Cape Town.

Riding a taxi, much like being stuck a train, is a costly, daily struggle that takes almost half one’s pay and hours in a day. It shows a lack of compassion then, for the DA to be against a minimum wage, but support a policy that gives power to the private sector instead of a desperate workforce that is easily exploited.

Maimane’s first national election might surprise us all, in a shockingly bad way. The good-governance-market-worshipping-party has a proven track record of militaristic disregard for the poor and homeless.

Although people have encountered the apathetic and corrupt ANC, they have not encountered a party that is so willing to displace them from the inner cities.

For the DA leader to ride in a taxi to show to South Africans that they are building a One South Africa for All is disingenuous. The DA is proposing policies that do not confront the conditions of commuting in South Africa and more profoundly, do not challenge the diabolical apartheid spatial planning — the reason citizens are forced to commute from townships to the city in the first place.

And although most black South Africans will continue to regard the DA as a white party, regardless of the black leaders who are placed as mayors and spokespersons, there is a growing number of black middle-class liberals who are tired of being ashamed for being regarded as coconuts.

The black middle class needs to show more solidarity with poor black South Africans who are powerless against the collusion between institutions, multinational companies and the police — just like in Marikana, during #FeesMustFall and the ongoing service delivery protests.

They should use their identity as black South Africans to be a supportive voice for the poor in their plight against inequality, landlessness and unemployment, rather than to be used as enabling tools for corporate interests, for self-preservation.

I live in Emmarentia now, north of Johannesburg, and life seems to be getting better for me. The area in which I live is quiet and clean. I wonder sometimes, that if push comes to shove, where my loyalties will lie in future. Will I stand with the people who need solidarity the most, or will I be concerned with securing my own gains? DM


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