Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 27 November 2019

The DA 2.0 has (finally) killed the liberalism of Helen Suzman, Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine

Helen Zille has brought Gwen Ngwenya back to head the Democratic Alliance’s policy unit. Ngwenya brings with her all the horripilation and secular eschatological panic of the end of Western civilisation. The DA 2.0 is no longer the liberal party that housed the decency and progressivism of people like Alex Boraine or Dene Smuts.

When viewed from the outside, South Africa’s classical liberals seem well on their way to completing cognitive capture of the Democratic Alliance (DA 2.0). This is the type of cognitive capture that Wall Street alumni completed in the build-up to the global economic crisis of 2008. And we know how that ended….

With this, they have, once and for all, shed the decency and political liberalism of the old Progressive Federal Party, the progressivism of Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, Alex Boraine, Tiaan van der Merwe, Dene Smuts, and Peter Gastrow, among a few others.

The best thing that can be said about the DA 2.0 is that it is at least in touch with global political movements of the 21st century, not the good ones, it should be said. In fact, it joins a group of “fighters” who want to rescue “Western civilisation,” who are quite unable to accept the failures of the Enlightenment, emboldened as they are by the likes of Steven Pinker – who conveniently ignores the fact that modern science (very much in an era of Artificial Intelligence, but ever since the Manhattan Project), lacks an inherent ethical basis.

Nevertheless, the new DA 2.0, now increasingly being captured by the classical liberals, would defend the most egregious of capitalism’s iniquities with claims that 5,000 years ago we did not have flushing toilets and now we have smartphones – so “shut up!” and don’t complain about inequality or patriarchy. They would insist, also, that meritocracy would solve all the problems in a country wracked for nigh on 400 years by the structural and somatic violence of European colonialism (which the British historian JM Roberts described as an “assault on the world”), settler colonialism and apartheid.

What the DA 2.0 overlooks is that when individuals or groups are purposefully restricted, directly or indirectly (stripped of their land, their families and communities destroyed) over decades or centuries, they are prevented from outliving their potential as human beings. But, the DA 2.0 is up there with the best of early 21st-century alt-rightists who pray at the shrine of Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro.

As for the ruling alliance (while we’re at it) well, they remain in revolutionary reverie with Cold War imaginaries, beholden to “structures” (How did “structures” become such an infuriating word?) by democratic centralism (Vladimir Lenin’s favourite form of decision-making), and the insistence that the party line before conscience must determine everything a party member does. The EFF seem like a bunch of ideologically lost bandits who have to be saved from themselves, and are not worth discussing, here, now.

Fear of a non-white planet

A global, more historicist approach to the political economy may help us understand the significance of the return of Helen Zille and Gwen Ngwenya to the DA. Daily Maverick has previously reflected on the way that Zille slipped seamlessly among the more presentable folk in the alt-right. The so-called classical liberals – the blue-blazer with the crested breast-pocket branch of the alt-right – are in some sort of panic – an almost eschatological panic – over “the decline of liberalism” and the end of Western civilisation around the world. There is a significant collection of more recently published books and academic papers published on this decline of liberalism. We can deal with this in a simple way.

The eschatological part of the panic is its association with the “decline of the West” or “the end of Western civilisation”. Here we have echoes of Peterson, Shapiro, Pinker, and Niall Ferguson. In this respect, the DA 2.0 are what the woke would describe as defenders of white heteronormativity. Jokes aside, the “decline of the West” is a serious drift. So often by “the West” people refer to European values, the Enlightenment and generally how everything that everyone does in the world every day (well, almost) was established by white males – dead or alive. In some ways “the West” is an imagined community (imagined because not every member of this community has actually met and broken bread with every other member), as much as it is an imaginary construct; “the West” here refers to a kinship of sorts among the WENAO nations (Western Europe, North America and Oceania) – not all of which lies in the actual west.

It is from this “West” that we, almost everyone in the world, today, use the Georgian calendar; before that, we used the Julian calendar, and before that, we used the Roman calendar. In fact, the physical world as we know it, as a cartographic reality and the states that make up the international community, are all Western constructs. Very many people still speak of BC, Before Christ, and Anno Domini, the year that Christ was born. This is the Christ, mind you, that is always depicted as a white dude. From the West, we also got capitalism and communism, television and telephones.

Almost all our heroes are “westerners” (and we follow them in cult formation on satellite TV, live streams and literature, from Middlemarch to Maya Angelou – an “American writer”). For most of the past 100 years, the (white) cowboys were the good guys and the bad guys were the Indians. We could go on and on, but the point is that the DA 2.0 fits into that bracket which believes that the West is best. It follows that “Western” ways of thought and methods – rationalism, reason, facts that speak for themselves, utility maximisation, the constant search for greater profit, meritocracy and “hard work” – have moved us from the time before flushing toilets to smartphones – and who wants to give up all that progress?

The West’s ‘others’ are coming: Be afraid

This discussion is philosophically rich, but I always come back to an October 2011 cover of The Economist which tells its readers to be afraid, and successive others which refer with great foreboding to the rise of China and India, the putative hegemons that are positioning themselves geo-economically, militarily and strategically to replace the US.

This time it’s different, though, this changing of the guard. Recall that after the Second World War, world dominance shifted from Whitehall to Washington. But that was okay, “the West” (white people) were still in control of the world, and all the beliefs and values referred to above remained unchallenged. It is these beliefs and values that remain so precious to the DA 2.0. It becomes clear when DA 2.0 members complain about black people dancing and singing in Parliament – that institution that South Africa adopted from “the West”. How dare its sanctity be soiled by dancing and ululating natives.

So, we get back to Ngwenya, the hummingbird that flew so high and ended up in a hurricane of Western (white) fear and loathing, of a secular eschatology that is everything the classical liberals hold dear. Everything is being destroyed by all this talk about race, rolling back injustices of the past through meaningful and deliberate intervention, and searches for justice. Ngwenya, now apparently Zille’s chosen one, believes (and she may be right) that everything she (and Zille) has achieved was through individual hard work and endeavour. If hard work was a guarantee of prosperity, Africa would have tens of millions of women billionaires.

So, here we are, then. The former home of liberals has been rebooted and is, now, unequivocally among the classical liberals living in fear of the decline of Western Civilisation, and everything associated with it. And Gwen Ngwenya is back as policy head of the DA 2.0. What could go wrong? DM

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