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DA tiptoes through minefield of identity politics while trying to remain the liberal standard-bearer


Sinethemba Zonke is a political risk analyst who comments on South Africa and African developments. He shares his views on his blog Prometheus Unbound

The Democratic Alliance has not betrayed the liberal agenda despite what some self-appointed clergy of South African liberalism have suggested. However, it is crucial to appreciate that the party hasfailed the liberal agenda in terms of not being a more vociferous fighter for liberal values relevant to the realities of 21stcentury South Africa.

We are the only party that has grown in the past elections” is a phrase commonly used by leaders of the DA, including Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille, an expression that seemed prophetic – or taking for granted the inevitability of the party’s trajectory in South Africa politics.

However, the DA had a question that it was always going to face as it consolidated the votes of the minority non-African population: how would it grow among black voters while maintaining its identity?

The DA could have decided to remain a regional party holding on to the Western Cape and a few municipalities outside of that region; however, even this would not be a safe strategy considering the shifting migration patterns in South Africa, especially with large numbers of people moving from the Eastern Cape into larger cities such as Cape Town.

The DA for the past decade has found itself amid a struggle about its identity as a liberal party. This has manifested in party factions fighting over what true liberalism is, and how loyal the DA is currently to a particular strand of liberalism. Leading these fights are usually varied self-appointed Ayatollahs or spiritual leaders of pure liberalism who ignore the broad spectrum of liberal ideology.

Outside the DA, interest groups such as the SA Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) have thrown fuel onto the fire of the DA’s internal struggle with the think tank exerting considerable pressure from an intellectual perspective. The SAIRR accused the DA of straying from liberal values as it tried to appeal to a much broader political base.

Of course, for the SAIRR, sticking to the liberalism the think tank was immersed in from its foundation in the 1920s is quite easy when not trying to win elections and looking to govern. For the DA to abide by the kind of liberalism the SAIRR embraces would keep the party as a small interest group, merely putting out policy points, but not making any inroads into winning political ground in the electoral space.

The criticism of the DA’s moves to appeal to black voters has also seemed hypocritical in light of the actions taken by the party in consolidating the white and coloured voters who once voted for the National Party (NP).

There seems to be some amnesia within and outside the DA in terms of the measures taken to consolidate the current voter base of the party. This fear drove the core support base of the party into its arms in recognition or belief in the idea that it would protect minority interests. This does not make the DA immoral or illiberal, but it is essential to understand how some groups may be attracted to some values within the liberal umbrella without necessarily buying into liberal ideology.

One of the most significant features of the South African Constitution is the protection of minorities, not merely racial but also religious, linguistic, cultural and sexual. Not to equate minority voters to criminals, but a good example is how even career criminals would be appreciative of a justice system that treats them fairly and protects their rights. This means that people who may not have embraced the other liberal values, such as embracing the diversity of identity, may still have felt comfortable within a liberal party that protects core interests such as property, language, and religious rights.

In the early stages of the South African democracy, with an African nationalist party at the helm, it was natural for non-African racial groups to swing towards those they felt would protect their interests: this includes coloured voters who supported the former apartheid party, the NP, despite its oppression of coloured people during apartheid. The future of the party of apartheid was not the brightest after 1994 as the party could have never broken away from its tainted history of having increased the subjugation of South Africans since colonialism.

So, even after it held a role as the main parliamentary opposition in the first democratic elections, its fate had been sealed by the end of apartheid. The National Party merely travelled the same trajectory followed by many former dominant parties on the African continent when they lost their leading role by ultimately disappearing. The voters of the NP had to find a new home, and the DA, despite its liberal roots as well as anti-apartheid credentials in its forebears such as the Progressive Party of Helen Suzman, was still mainly a white party and so culturally a comfortable fit for South Africa’s white minority uneasy with a new black African majority government.

In light of the history of the DA, and the demise of the NP, it is vital to appreciate the undercurrents in how citizens support parties and differentiate citizen beliefs from party ideologies. The DA has in the past been more than flexible with its liberal values when it came to the death penalty or same-sex marriages to maintain its support base.

So, in growing its support base beyond the ceiling of non-African minorities, the DA would have always needed to look back at its history of how it was able to consolidate the voter base of former NP conservative voters. This is not for it to repeat the same strategy considering the history of race relations in this country, but for the party to be honest to itself about the flexibility of party identity and how its supporters or even members view the values the party holds. This will be a valuable lesson going forward as the party gains black voters and members so that it recognises the characteristics which attract these groups beyond the rhetoric about liberalism.

Social media as a catalyst in identity politics

A major issue that continues to be debated by the party since the elections is whether it had embraced identity politics rather than sticking to its principles and liberal roots. Many critics of the party, particularly those who moved right into the arms of the FF+, ZACP, ACDP or are part of the libertarian fringe, will undoubtedly say so. They will, of course, ignore the non-liberal or illiberal values of the parties such as the ACDP and Freedom Front Plus. They will also ignore how the DA’s growth among minorities was not merely based on the party’s liberal principles, but on how the benefits of liberalism can be embraced by people of all types who don’t hold liberal values as mentioned in the previous paragraphs.

However, the question of how the DA has handled itself in the age of identity politics remains relevant, and I believe there are certainly some missteps taken by the party and some of its members in navigating the political environment which has been poisoned by identity politics. A significant factor that has magnified the party’s missteps is social media.

The age of social media has seen the phenomenon of identity politics expand in an unprecedented way in recent years, to a point where small but very vocal groups have immense sway on longstanding traditional institutions, whether they are in the private or public sector. In the age of identity politics, the reputation of organisations is threatened when they step out of line with the zeitgeist of particular interest groups whose power has been magnified by the ability to communicate a message and ignite outrage with millions of people at the click of a button.

Traditional institutions of power and influence in developed countries have found themselves in a situation where the tail is wagging the dog, with parties who are punching way above their weight in terms of influencing decisions at the executive level. The Google memo that got James Damore fired is a case in point. At times this influence has been used for good, but it has seemed to have gone out of control with the outrage machine unwilling to compromise with those they see as stepping out of line, reluctant to reason, to take into context, to accept genuine mistakes and errors of judgement. As one writer has said recently regarding the debacle of the BBC’s Danny Baker and the royal baby, “sympathy is in short supply” in the present age of social communication.

South Africa may not be in the exact state as western democracies, but social media has undoubtedly become a major influence over public and private institutions in a manner that those leading institutions seem to have been unable to anticipate or control. A couple of years ago we had the #RhodesMustFall movement which began at the University of Cape Town and evolved into an international movement that moved into the halls of Oxford in the UK. Other movements have been #FeesMustFall and the #MenAreTrash campaign that have seen the exertion of pressure on large institutions to pay increased attention to the interests of the respective groups. These movements have not merely been online, but social media has been a tool amplifying their actions in a way that would never have occurred over a decade ago.

Has the DA betrayed its liberal agenda?

The 2019 elections came at a point when extreme sensitivities immensely characterised the terrain by various groups over identity politics. Many would see identity politics as a movement of the left in this country, and perhaps they are correct in that those who have been given the space and leeway by mainstream media and a variety of institutions have been left-leaning movements, primarily dominated by black people.

However, identity politics has never existed simply as a concept of the left, something evident for anyone with a brief understanding of South Africa’s history emerging from centuries of white supremacy and domination. The majority of the 20thcentury for South Africa was an era dominated by white identity politics at the expanse of the black population, with the concomitant counter-resistance from the subjugated groups. White identity politics never ended in 1994, neither did it with the rise of the DA as the official opposition under the banner of liberalism. Identity politics was in fashion during the party’s rise under its former leader, Tony Leon.

Leon’s “Fight Back”campaign put the DA into the position of the official opposition. Things went full circle when the Vryheidsfront Plus (VF+) (Freedom Front Plus, FF+), which has taken a chunk of the DA’s white and coloured votes, used it in its successful “Slaan Terug” campaign in the 2019 elections. The FF+ had the great foresight to play the highly sensitive identity politics terrain with years of the ANC playing the race card itself, demonising not only white people, instilling the idea of “original sin” against whiteness with apartheid and colonialism primed as something that would be an eternal burden for whites for generations to come.

The ANC also went beyond whites in that many of its senior leaders have also attacked Indian and coloured people as well. Other groups, whether academia, media and Chapter Nine institutions, did not do much to buttress against the ANC’s identity politics of the 90s and early 2000s.

When Jacob Zuma came onto the scene, he found a political landscape steeped in the interracial antagonism, victimology and black identity politics of the Mbeki era. Two key places where one could see Mbeki’s victimology and black identity politics would be in his policies on HIV-Aids and on Zimbabwe, which were fuelled by anti-Western, anti-capitalist paranoia which cost thousands of black lives. Zuma came with his politics of identity in terms of Zulu nationalism, and inter-black classicism, in clothing himself in the image of a poor, uneducated black Zulu man under the combined attack of racists, capitalists and black elites. Zuma and the ANC went through the past decade playing the victim card as well as sowing inter-black division via his clever black canard.

It was during Zuma’s reign that the 2019 election’s biggest victor also emerged, Julius Malema. The vitriol that came out of Malema’s mouth since around 2008 touched almost all critics of Zuma on matters of class and race. The media swallowed it up, with Malema providing catchphrases and controversies that sold newspapers, and of course, be a social media phenomenon.

This was the political landscape that the DA had to navigate for several years, both under Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane’s leadership. The party had to find a way of traversing this terrain strategically to be able to sustain its growth and remain a robust centre of liberal values. The terrain of identity politics is tricky – it is like crossing a field of landmines; you never know which of the next steps you take will set a bomb off. Going through a minefield requires a map from someone who knows where all the bombs are, or any other tools that can detect these dangers. The failure on the part of the DA is that it does not appear to have had the requisite skills for this new political terrain, or if it did have such, failed to utilise them.

There have been numerous missteps within the party in dealing with issues such as black economic empowerment, white privilege, and the record of colonialism. Since the party seemed so ill-equipped to deal with these, they may have benefited a great deal if they had never waded into such terrain in the first place. This is certainly true for the discussion around privilege and the record of colonialism, while BEE is something that would have been difficult to avoid. But the DA should have taken a stronger stance either way rather than what seemed like a “one-foot-in and one-foot-out” position. People, whether they disagree with you or not, are more likely to have a healthy respect for you when you take a non-apologetic stance on your views and principles.

The Democratic Alliance has not betrayed the liberal agenda despite what some self-appointed clergy of South African liberalism have suggested. However, it is crucial to appreciate that the party has failed the liberal agenda in terms of not being a more vociferous fighter for liberal values that are relevant to the realities of 21stcentury South Africa.

The strength of any movement of thought or ideology is its continued resonance with new generations. This means a reflection on the historical understanding of liberalism, an ideology filled with disagreement among its early pioneers, by keeping the evergreen parts of this old system of values and also applying all the reflections or inputs that came from various generations of liberal thinkers over the years until this present moment.

Liberalism cannot be static as the world in which it exists is rapidly changing. And so any party which espouses its values needs to be able to keep up with the changes, while maintaining the core pillars that resound across time. DM

Sinethemba Zonke is a political risk analyst who comments on South Africa and African developments. He shares his views on his blog Prometheus Unbound


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