The resignation of Mmusi Maimane from the DA has sparked an instructive debate about the place of liberalism and non-racialism in contemporary South Africa; in particular the column by Richard Poplak in this publication and another from Professor Stephen Friedman.
Both highlight an important point: the racist history of this country has ensured that a white male standard is regarded as the yardstick for many, if not most organisations in South Africa. Headhunters or internal HR departments and, as they both argue in the case of the DA, influential members of the party, ensure the appointment of black CEOs and other leadership positions without a comprehensive change of the organisational culture and a concomitant eradication of the dominant white male norm which can also be sustained by Margaret Thatcher-type women. As this is a legal column, much the same can be said about the legal profession, particularly the Bar.
The Constitution, which was supposed to be the roadmap for a newly constructed democratic state based upon the foundational values of freedom, dignity and equality, envisaged as essential to this project that a new South African identity would be born, one that eschewed the previous white male standard by which to judge conduct or performance. Twenty- five years into democracy and, as both Poplak and Friedman have shown, in all too many quarters this part of the project has still not seen the light of the political day.
The point is not to deny the imperative of change which ensures that the vast majority of CEOs and other leaders are black; to the contrary, this is vital to our long-term future but not without an urgent and simultaneous overhaul of the standards by which we create organisational culture. It is small wonder, given what was inherited from our racist past, that the non-racial project promised by the Constitution is now in its most perilous state since the dawn of democracy.
At the same time, the term “liberalism” is in the news, with it being argued that there is a need to restore liberal values into the politics of South Africa. Much of the claim for the demise of liberalism comes from libertarians who argue that individuals must be left alone, without interference from central government and that the critical value for any democracy is personal responsibility. That is a far cry from a modern conception of liberalism which, although sharing a robust concern about the danger of state or religious authority eroding personal freedom, recognises that the state has a key role to play in removing structural obstacles that prevent individuals from living freely or fully realising their innate potential. Thus poverty, disease, discrimination and similar structural barriers are not only legitimate but key targets for state action.
Indeed, even Adam Smith, whose book The Wealth of Nations is said to have been carried around by Margaret Thatcher, did not deny the importance of state regulation even as he heralded the market as the optimum mechanism for allocation and distribution. He wrote not of free markets but of effective competition which required mechanisms that compel companies to internalise their own costs and not to push them on to others, of a system that prevented crony capitalism and asymmetrical information as well as rent extraction; hence the challenge posed by Smith was for the state to enable markets that work for the common good as opposed to destroying the market by ill-considered interference.
The point is that it’s a monstrous mistake to argue in 21st century South Africa that the state has no primary obligation to create the conditions whereby the structural barriers constructed over 300 years of colonial and apartheid rule, which denied any meaningful participation in the polity or economy to black South Africans, are totally dismantled. It can only come from the same myopic mindset saturated by the white male norm which denies that race and gender are not central questions to be addressed in South Africa.
Indeed, the libertarians who deny that race should play any significant part in state policy and who would scrap much of protective labour law, or industrial policy are, in effect, at war with the innermost commitments of the Constitution. These commitments are that we build a society that fuses equality with freedom and dignity for all and in which the state has an obligation to break down the institutional and structural barriers created by race, gender, sexual orientation, to protect workers and ensure a basic level of social provisioning for all.
A modern form of liberalism as advocated by Ronald Dworkin or John Rawls is, of course, not the only or indeed the most effective means to achieve democracy in South Africa where all have an equal stake and rights of political and economic participation. The debate about how best to achieve these constitutional goals is best left to political contestation.
But if those who claim to be liberals are to ensure their arguments have traction in the South Africa of the 21st century, they cannot continue to reproduce a white male world-view, thereby denying the imperative of confronting critical race and gender questions – inextricably linked to the past 300 years and continue to bedevil the constitutional project and which must propel the need for the eradication of the archipelago of structural obstacles that prevent the creation of a non-racial, non-sexist society. DM