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Opinionista

What would Helen the First (Suzman) make of what’s going down at the DA?

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Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

Helen Zille is simply cropping out everything else she stands for, so let’s look only at the Biko story. Did she do that because it was a good story; because if the Rand Daily Mail did not get it first, The Star or The Citizen (which I doubt) may have scooped them; because it was the right thing to do; because she was simply an observer that reported objectively without any empathy or emotional investment (like anger)? We will never know.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has been all over the news for several days now. Much has been said; much more remains to be said. As we used to say when I quit journalism for a sojourn in academia, our task is to get as close to the truth as possible. Much of this applies, also, to journalism. That was one of the first things I learnt as a very, very struggling reporter holding down three part-time jobs (one in a car wash) while learning the craft at the feet of Don Mattera in about 1980. All things considered, then, we may be forgiven for asking: what the hell is going on in the DA? Here is some speculation. Bear in mind that the DA is exactly what it says on the label, an “alliance”.

What would Helen The First (Suzman) have made of it all?

The DA is in the middle of an identity crisis that may well tear it apart. As an alliance, the DA is not the “broad church” that the ruling alliance claims to be. It is generally a group of white people left over from the old Progressive Federal Party. It is probably wrong to trace the DA’s lineage all the way to Helen Suzman’s United Party of the 1950s, the Progressives of the early 1960s, and what swelled to the Progressive Federal Party in the 1970s. So far, so white, with some genuine liberal sentiments — although there was nothing liberatory about them.

Even under Suzman, they were the brand of liberals who sought little more than extending equal rights to all South Africans. It remains unclear how equal rights would be bestowed on settler colonialists and indigenous people without consideration of the historical injustices which privileged the settlers. There remained an undercurrent of “meritocracy” among the early liberals, in the sense that if you gave everyone equal rights everything would be just dandy.

Suzman had courage. For one, she opposed the banning of the Communist Party and the banning and other restrictions imposed on individuals and organisations. She also fought against gender discrimination, especially discrimination against black women. Clearly a race-based approach. This is important, especially in the context of the DA’s opposition to key race-based policies, an approach endorsed by the South African Institute of Race Relations. Here’s the kicker: Helen the First was president of the SAIRR from 1991 to 1993.

Helen the First opposed banning the communists and fought for the rights of black women. Helen the Second (Zille), does not appear to be comfortable with some of this. Remember, Helen the Second regretted race-based politics when she was head of the DA.

In a set of tweets, Helen the Second said she was mistaken to believe that “diversifying the DA would lead it to rise above the politics of race”, with a slight volte-face:

I should have said that out clearly and said our goal is not representability, racial hegemony and our goal is non-racialism, inclusion and diversity so we can start credibly debating the real issues that face South Africa.” It may come as a surprise to Helen the Second, but non-racialism, inclusion, diversity and the hegemony of black people — good or bad — are the realities of Africa’s Deep South.

This does not mean that we, as journalists and commentators or public intellectuals, even agree with any of that. It simply means that arranging “inclusion” “diversity” “black hegemony” and “the politics of race” in a single narrative smacks of ether delusion, regret, or the protection of white privilege.

It all suggests that diversity is bad. It ignores the fact that apartheid actually caused substantial structural, psychological and somatic damage to communities and individuals, and deliberate intervention is required to roll back some of that damage. And alas, look around you, this is Africa, of course, there will be a hegemony of black people (why focus on people, I thought ideas mattered more?)

Now, the preceding passage will probably cause a red mist to descend on the SAIRR, and the other Classical Liberals who said that an earlier piece I did on Helen the Second was a “hack job”. I actually think argument is for the advancement of knowledge, not for scoring points. It brings me, then, to the role of journalists, commentators and public intellectuals.

What do we, as journalists and commentators, make of it all?

Journalists are guided by a set of principles, ethics and code of conduct that precludes outrage, anger, annoyance or even subtle statements which the rest of society has guaranteed rights to — most of the time. Much of this applies to columnists and commentators — they can get away with a bit more irascibility, although that tends to be frowned upon.

It’s all part of that belief in objectivity and that journalists are like automata, whose responses are programmed. Anger and outrage are considered to be “irrational” and do not meet the standards of “reason” and the scientism that props up notions of objectivity. Seniority, and when you start writing a column, or commentary, makes a bit more room for stating an opinion, although it is always good practice to have some basis of truth to support expressed opinion. That, anyway, is how I tend to write.

But truth, like facts, is elusive, and to the extent that they exist independently of human agency, do not “speak for themselves”. That’s just rubbish. Facts, such as they may be, are arranged by people, for people, and for specific purposes. It sounds silly, but facts do not fall from the ether and knock you on the head while you’re nursing a hangover, or waiting for a bus. Not unlike photographs, which capture brief moments in time, facts can be cropped, so to speak, to highlight, or draw attention to specific aspects of a story (or photograph).

Forget, for a moment, what Helen the Second represents, especially since her first conscious decoupling from the DA. As part of shoring up her credibility, or her “cred” as the kids would say, Zille periodically drops in references to the biggest story she worked on as a journalist, nearly 40 years ago: state attempts to cover up the murder of Steve Biko. But I believe we can question everything. Helen the Second is simply cropping out everything else she stands for, so we can look only at the Biko story.

Did she do that because it was a good story; because if the Rand Daily Mail did not get it first, The Star or The Citizen (which I doubt) may have scooped them: because it was the right thing to do; because she was simply an observer that reported objectively without any empathy or emotional investment (like anger)? We will never know.

The same way we will never know who, exactly, Nelson Mandela’s doctor was. We have been led to believe it is the guy who gave him a few painkillers. Anyway, Helen the Second seems to use the Biko story to shore up the view that she cannot be racist, right-wing, nasty, mean or one of those new paleo-conservative “classical liberals”.

It is clear, at any rate, that the DA is in the middle of an identity crisis. This is not just the crisis of a political party, it is also a crisis of liberalism (I have written extensively about the crisis of liberalism around the world elsewhere).

This is not, as some of our learned friends among the Classical Liberals have said, “a vilification of liberals”. In case they haven’t noticed (it’s probably best to do so when next they prepare a riposte to this article), there is a vast body of work on the crisis and decline of liberalism around the world. There is also a rise, or more like a shape-shifting of paleo-conservatives now hiding behind the term “classical liberalism”.

As Politico, a global nonpartisan politics and policy news organisation, with offices in Brussels, London, Rome, Paris and Warsaw explained:

It’s only fitting that conservatives would reach for such a term [classical liberalism] in greater number given the existential crisis their movement currently faces.”

In academia, you are advised never to introduce new issues in a conclusion… This is not an academic space. I will venture to say, then, as I have before, that the liberal shift to the right began when Tony Leon took over its leadership. This is another discussion.

We can conclude that Helen Suzman would not be too thrilled by what is happening among the liberals. I was one of her fiercer critics as a journalist in the 1980s and early 1990s, but she was basically a decent person who believed in inclusivity, diversity and had no problem with race-based politics. She told me that, as did the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, Tiaan van der Merwe, Jan van Eck, when being liberal stood for something positive and progressive. I’m not sure it can claim those objectives any longer. DM

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