The ongoing political tensions within South Africa’s largest opposition party have incited lively debates. This discourse has revealed underlying contradictions in the DA on how to approach pertinent socio-economic and political challenges in post-apartheid South Africa. These divergent intra-party views on redress policies and race relations are not new.
There has been contestation within the DA over Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), Employment Equity (EE), and leadership racial quotas in recent years. Prominent black leaders have exited the party citing the dominance of conservative liberalism, which is amplified by three core political views.
First, a rejection of race-based socio-economic redress policies based on superficial accounts about preserving meritocracy within society. This meritocracy principle is interpreted rigidly without consideration for social justice, national cohesion and history.
Second, limiting race debates to individual or personal experiences rather than systemic structural inequalities. This blind non-racialism overlooks how racial inequality persists in the structural design of various social institutions.
Third, colonial nostalgia epitomised by prominent party leaders’ comments on the necessity and value of colonial domination. Some national DA leaders have even lauded apartheid-era politicians and institutions in public engagements.
These core conservative liberal beliefs inform the DA’s current ideological and organisational impasse. Conservative liberal advocates, both within and outside the party, legitimise their views by stating that they are defending core liberal values. This logic, supported by organisations such as the Institute of Race Relations, has become hegemonic in the party.
Black liberals in the DA and broader society have attempted to shift this hegemony over recent years with very minimal success. Thus, they are faced with a tough political choice: remain in a conservative liberal party or pursue “socially conscious” liberal political activism elsewhere.
This black liberal dilemma is captured in the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) 2019 elections report, which argues that: “The DA has sought to appeal to a wider electorate and thus to shift its strategic positions leftwards. However, it has clearly not found the balance between retaining the bird in hand while pursuing the two birds in the bush. The question is whether the co-existence of classic ‘white’ liberalism and more socially-conscious ‘black’ liberalism can be sustained.”
Recent events, including Herman Mashaba’s resignation, illustrate that classic white liberalism and socially conscious black liberal strands are incompatible. There are varied reasons for this observation, but I will limit myself to factors relevant in South Africa’s historical and contemporary context.
The political history of South African liberalism is embedded in racist assumptions, political hierarchies and inconsistencies. This historical fact is captured in Professor Eddy Maloka’s book entitled: Friends of The Natives – The Inconvenient Past of South African Liberalism. He traces the evolution of liberal political thought and activism to elucidate its foundational colonial principles.
Maloka’s account echoes the sentiments of other decolonial scholars such as Magubane and Ndlovu-Gatsheni who have detailed South Africa’s colonial liberal history. Maloka’s book presents ample evidence from both prominent liberal scholars and politicians, which resonate with contemporary conservative DA leaders’ sentiments. The socially conscious black liberals (in and outside the DA) are challenging this conservative liberal paradigm. This political contestation is raising fundamental existential questions for the party and black liberals. These will not be answered or addressed through resignations or political power shifts only. They require deep reflection from black liberals who want to sustain their political activism.
Conservative and black socially conscious liberal incompatibility is exacerbated by South Africa’s race-class-power-nexus. One cannot separate race equality debates in the country from class transformation through political economy interventions. Conservative liberalism overlooks this inherent class-race connection and advances purist market-based solutions for resolving disparities created by systemic racialised capitalism.
This abstraction of race from its socio-economic power base is not adequate for decreasing South Africa’s racial inequality. It limits the way society interprets and responds to racial equality in varied social institutions. The notion of colourless markets addressing national socio-economic challenges has failed. Black socially conscious liberals within the DA acknowledge this fact, and have attempted, with minimal success, to push the party in a different direction.
The last contested area within the DA is based on both colonial and apartheid nostalgia. Several party leaders have celebrated colonial development or apartheid architects. This belief resonates with the ideological, epistemological and political views of conservative DA members.
These members are no different from Cecil John Rhodes, who perceived colonial domination as a necessary intervention in so-called underdeveloped black polities. Society has witnessed DA party leaders and members having public disagreements over colonial nostalgia within the party.
This conflict is inspired by the political and epistemological disobedience of black socially conscious DA liberals who reject colonial nostalgia. It questions the party’s legitimacy and commitment to a non-racist South Africa. The resignations, intra-party social media attacks, and open letters are all products of the black socially conscious liberals’ political disobedience. DM
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