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The lessons for everyone in the DA’s civil war over the two meanings of liberalism


Jeff Rudin works at the Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC)

Ultimately, the split in the DA boils down to a difference over race. The new DA’s return to liberalism’s non-racialism is unacceptable to the old DA, as personified by Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba.

Liberalism has both a political and economic meaning. The DA’s civil war, a clash between these two meanings, is much more than a matter of party-political interest. This seemingly narrow DA-specific event offers insight into post-apartheid South Africa’s 25-year attempt to grapple with what appears to be racialised poverty and inequality.

Capturing the common theme in much of the commentary on the ruptures within the DA is Ebrahim Harvey’s article, DA’s Big Mistake has been to Ignore the Relevance of Race in SA Society. When perceived skin colour is seemingly all that matters, as suggested by Harvey’s rhetorical question, “how is it possible to remove race from politics in the DA when all the contenders for the federal council chair of the party were white in a country that is 90% black?”

And, indeed, when even such an astute observer as Daily Maverick’s Richard Poplak endorses this view – “black and white South Africans are separated by a gulf so wide it appears forever unbridgeable” – then the Constitution declaring South Africa to be a non-racial society might seem to be an orphaned dream.

Helen Zille’s election as Chairperson of the DA’s Federal Council has been widely perceived as a racist Zille, endorsed by a racist DA that unceremoniously ditched its first black leader. Again, it is Poplak who best captures this meme: Get Out – a gutted DA stumbles into the past. Even Thabo Mbeki lamented the DA’s “deeply enshrined” racism that he saw to be behind Mmusi Maimane’s resignation.

I suggest a different interpretation; beginning with two basic flaws in the current pronouncements:

  • Although four of the six DA leaders who resigned were white, this hasn’t dented the simplistic view that the white supremacist DA rid itself of two disposable black leaders; and

  • Coverage of Zille’s election by the Federal Council was extensive. Yet, it took a Google search to find out the composition of the Federal Council. Apart from a commendably representative Federal Executive and other widespread representation, the Council includes 24 MPs; 24 MPLs; 24 local government councillors; and 24 DA members who are not public representatives. Given the now standard colour coding of everyone, it is remarkable that (to my knowledge) no racial profiling of the Federal Council was done. We are thus left with the implication that Zille either, somehow, elected herself or that the council was packed with whites, who, being white, were also automatically white supremacists.

Exemplifying this ignoring of facts, the EFF, for instance, in a statement expressing regret over Maimane’s resignation, refers to the “white-dominated DA” and asserts “the simple fact that whites actually fundamentally refuse black leadership”. Far more concerning is Richard Poplak’s description of a “remodelled Democratic Alliance” being “almost entirely denuded of black leadership and re-conceived as a white libertarian beachhead in an ocean of black nationalism”.

If, as I’m arguing, all this is a serious misreading of what is going on in the DA and, much more importantly, what is being said, or implied, about a South Africa that might still want to become “post-apartheid”, what, then, might be a better understanding of what is happening in the DA?

Liberalism’s two meanings:

This brings us to the two different meanings of liberalism and with it the possibility of a very different South Africa.

Before continuing, I should affirm (or confess, given the prejudices of the age) to being not only white and male but also old. Moreover, I write as one of Ebrahim Harvey’s unnamed Marxists who allegedly “play down race”. Having already written nearly 600 words on the domination of race-thinking in contemporary South Africa, let me immediately move to the first meaning of liberalism and how it challenged the reality of race when, unlike now, white supremacy was enshrined in law and defended by the full might of the apartheid state, when, in other words, “playing down race”, even as social construct, required a leap beyond reality, as opposed to the current, heavily racialised perceptions.

The standard meaning of liberal is an expression of values: open-minded, broad-minded, tolerant of different views and standards of behaviour in others. The meaning also includes favouring gradual reform, especially political reforms that extend democracy, distribute wealth more evenly, and protect the personal freedom of the individual. Equality among free individuals is the essence of this liberalism.

It was for these reasons that the South African Liberal Party, formed as early as 1953, was South Africa’s second non-racial party. The first non-racial party was the (then illegal) South African Communist Party formed in 1921. The ANC became partially non-racial only in 1968. One doesn’t have to agree with the policies of the Liberal Party to acknowledge that it was opposed to apartheid long before it became fashionable – and safe – to do so. To equate liberal with racism is thus not only a travesty but a cruelty in the South African context.

The DA proudly proclaims its liberalism. With that should go a firm commitment to non-racialism.

Helen Zille confesses to having been instrumental in the DA’s abandonment of non-racialism. In a mea culpa, she called “My Biggest Mistake,” written, most notably, almost five months before her election as Chair of the DA’s Federal Council, she acknowledged that “My greatest failure, by far, is that I did not fight hard enough to prevent the DA from entering the ANC/EFF’s ‘race narrative’ arena. What’s more, I actually sometimes facilitated our entry and (even worse) proceeded to play their game.

It was a game we should never have engaged because it was impossible to compete, and undesirable to win. The rules of this game meant that winning would strip us of one of our primary reasons for existence – to promote genuine and inclusive non-racialism.”

She concluded this self-critique with the promise:

I intend to spend the rest of my career in the political domain seeking to make amends and being true to my belief in an inclusive form of non-racialism.”

This commitment to return to the non-racial foundations of liberalism was voiced by another leading DA member and helped precipitate the DA’s current turmoil. In a Daily Maverick Op-Ed, titled It’s not just BEE, race-based affirmative action must go too, Gwen Ngwenya, the former policy head of the DA, laments: “Unfortunately, the DA has spent the better half of the past decade… in support of a race-based policy…” Her conclusion is “to remove race from all economic policy – as it is all based on the same, underlying and illiberal position”.

Indeed, it was her rejection of the DA’s “race-based policy” that led to her resignation, as policy head, on 18 January 2019.

Ten months later, it was the DA’s about-turn: its rejection of race-based policies this time led to the resignation of both Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba, the DA’s Mayor of Johannesburg!

In his resignation statement, Mashaba explained I cannot reconcile myself with a group of people who believe that race is irrelevant in the discussion of inequality and poverty in SA in 2019. I cannot reconcile myself with people who do not see that SA is more unequal today than it was in 1994.”

This statement brings us to the second of the two meanings of liberalism and how unravelling the confusion between the two meanings holds the prospect of a non-racial South Africa.

Liberal has an extended, more specifically economic meaning. Historically, liberalism also meant the freedom of, initially, the emerging capitalist class in 18th and 19th century Britain, to invest in whatever was expected to maximise profit and to do so with minimal state interference in the “free market”. “Neo-liberalism” is the modern capitalist world’s return to this freedom of capital to do more or less as it pleases, ideally without state interference, or, at worst, with a state that knows that what is best for the free market is ipso facto best for the liberated individual standing at the centre of liberalism.

The DA has now disrupted this tenuous unity between liberal’s two meanings. Neither Maimane nor Mashaba have been willing to return to liberalism’s core value of non-racialism. This is because, when they see poverty, they are confronted by a sea of black faces. Based on his experience as Johannesburg mayor, Mashaba writes: “Having spent a great deal of time in the poorest areas of the city… there can be no doubt that there is a persistent correlation between poverty and race.

I take issue with those who would have us turn colour blind and stop talking about race altogether. This is not to suggest that poverty and inequality are exclusively ‘black’. Nor is it to suggest that race should be the sole consideration when we talk about economic exclusion and disadvantage. Neither of these positions captures the nuance of these incredibly complex issues.”

However, I believe that we can acknowledge race without being racist.

The conflict between liberalism’s two meanings

Mashaba’s Op-Ed is tellingly titled: “Race denialism is on the rise in the guise of nonracialism.”

Ironically, he might well be right insofar as his comment is directed at the now, brand new DA that prioritises non-racialism above all else. But, like the new DA, he can’t have it both ways. The neoliberalism championed by both the new and old DA guarantees poverty, which, because of national demographics, unavoidably wears a black face.

He might dispute that there is a contradiction, for he does not support BEE or affirmative action: “I maintain,” he assures us, “that these policies are misguided and have done nothing to address the underlying causes of economic exclusion”. Indeed, true to free-market principles, and consistent with what he calls “my capitalist crusade,” he believes that “the only way” to achieve a situation where our success in life is determined by our own efforts and not by the circumstances of our birth is by growing the economy, increasing investor confidence and repealing legislation that undermines these objectives”.

The new DA doesn’t disagree with this; which is the DA’s tragedy —they’ve split over a contradiction that confronts both of them: their joint commitment to the economic meaning of liberalism. Ultimately, what it boils down to is a difference over race. The new DA’s return to liberalism’s non-racialism is unacceptable to the old DA, as personified by Maimane and Mashaba. It is their identity with blackness that leaves them haunted by the spectacle of the black face poverty wears in South Africa; a spectre spared the new DA by its non-racialism.

The sociology behind the appearance of racialised poverty and inequality:

What neither of them address is why the majority of black people remain poor after 25 years, when the only legal discrimination allowed is to promote specifically black advancement. Nor do they say why – by contrast – a significant and growing number of black people are now rich, some, indeed, very rich. Apartheid openly created and defended racialised poverty. What is now sustaining it? By the same token, why has white privilege remained unchanged?

Like the consensus that sees an automatic equation between black and poor, white and rich, they fail to recognise that class-structured societies, everywhere worldwide, naturally reproduce themselves and have done so ever since the first emergence of competing classes. This natural reproduction continues indefinitely unless stopped by concerted and prolonged state interventions or societal upheavals.

Locate this sociological reality in a country where the vast majority of the poor – regardless of whether they be workers or unemployed – are black (for whatever historical reasons) and that country’s demographics alone will ensure the reproduction of a black majority among the poor; a black condition that will remain unchanged for as long as the country remains class divided.

In need of repeated emphasis is that any different causal link between poverty and colour would need to be demonstrated. This demonstration would need to address the claimed specificity of colour causation, because poverty – and inequality – are global features of capitalism, the current form of class society. In other words, if the only difference between all countries is their particular form and level of inequality, the black face of South African poverty needs detailing that is different from most South African’s being black. It would simultaneously need to explain why this is the case despite 25 years of a black government, committed to black advancement. Indeed, it would additionally have to provide a racial explanation of why some black South Africans have become very rich during the same period that condemns most black people to imprisonment in poverty.

So much for the DA. Where does all this leave everyone else?

A non-racial future:

If capitalism, rather than race, connects all the answers, then at least the road to a non-racial future has an essential Starting Point. Rather than the paralysis of current despair, a new and invigorating challenge beckons. The secure Starting Point has a beacon proclaiming the much delayed, final burial of the apartheid-invented “races” that continue to divide us, as a contingent cost of elite black wealth. This beacon marks the end of our colour-coding of everything as we see beyond and behind the misleading appearance of our racialised poverty and inequality: our equivalent of a seemingly flat and stationary Earth.

The Starting Point has many additional beacons pointing in all directions to signal that the quickest and shortest road to a non-capitalist, non-racist future has still to be mapped. Contributing to the mapping is the challenge facing all of us in our collective activities and imaginations. DM


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