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Opinionista

Black DA leaders are constantly portrayed as puppets, pilloried for thinking differently

Gwen Ngwenya is the head of policy at the Democratic Alliance.

The Democratic Alliance will not be intimidated because we have a cause worth defending: The strongest opposition in the democratic era, one that has held the government to account in Parliament and in the courts, and provided an alternative to racial hegemony and crony capitalism.

Raymond Suttner’s latest piece, “Making the DA white again?” misses one fundamental point: the DA won 4.9% of black voter support in 2000 and 4% of the black vote in 2019 (that’s about 520,000 people). In other words, the idea that black South Africans flocked to the DA because of its nature and character under a black leader is simply false. 

However, 4% is greater than the black voter support received by the UDM, Cope, GOOD, PAC, AIC, ATM combined. Yes combined, let the meaning of that sink in — the DA is seen by black voters as a better vehicle for challenging the failures of the ANC than any of those other parties combined. Yet you won’t see Raymond Suttner write that any one of them is becoming a white party. But he will write that of the DA. Why? Because you’re only truly black if you think in a particular way. If you don’t conform, then you are erased. 

There is something sinister to me about understanding who votes for a party through the lens of race all the time, because there are other ways of understanding a voter base: by geographic location, employment, education level, culture, beliefs, income level and so on. But let me analyse this from Suttner’s racial perspective. 

A thought experiment: if every white South African — whom everyone loves to vilify (including Suttner because becoming a white party is bad, becoming black a party is good) — if all of them were to leave South Africa, the DA would still be the official opposition. And if not, there would still be black people who vote for the values and approach of the DA. What argument will he use then, when there is no longer a white person to blame? The irony is that Suttner speaks of the DA becoming a white party, but it is his white noise which attempts to silence the very many black voices in the DA. 

With a little introspection, Suttner may realise that he and his ilk are part of the reason black DA leaders do not succeed. The commentariat engage in a persistent campaign to erase the agency of black figures in the DA. 

This is the life of many black DA leaders: you are constantly portrayed by analysts and commentators as a victim, puppet, and unnatural for disagreeing with the majority of your skin group. You are ignored at best, or otherwise pilloried for thinking differently. It is a heavy burden to bear, constantly a puppet or a sell-out. Then when you leave the DA you are embraced; finally, in their eyes you are no longer a puppet, no longer a sell-out. Then they tell you that the people who made you their leader never wanted you to succeed but we; who jabbed, jeered, and mocked you — we were the ones fully invested in your success. 

You have to be made of stern stuff to be in the DA. Luckily many of us are. But it is not all bleak. You learn that there are many opponents who will not engage in racial blackmail but will engage with you on the basis of ideas. And there are several senior ANC politicians with whom I can have lunch and debate, and not once will they embarrass themselves by trying to win an argument by telling me what black people think, or should think. So, it is possible, but we just need to fight all those who wish to converse in this manner.

The soft bigotry of low expectations

Suttner adopts the patronising tone of assuming the former leader should have been treated with kid gloves. He says:

“He was not a very experienced politician, but instead of helping to augment his qualities, he was undermined by a divided caucus and leadership, some supporting him and others undermining him. “

Caucuses are by nature susceptible to division. The job of a leader is to unite them despite their differences to a common purpose. There is a kind of well-meaning attitude that doesn’t actually treat black people as equals: the demeanour is to be overly obsequious, to see black DA politicians as victims and never agents with control; when they do well it is because of their efforts, but when they do badly it is a result of external forces. When actually the most levelling thing you can do is to ask people to own their successes as well as their mistakes.

When race becomes a professional preoccupation 

When asked about racism in the party the former leader, Mmusi Maimane, responded:

“I reject anybody who proposes that. Ultimately ours is a party for all the people when you look out here, you see South Africans from different walks of life.” 

Now people will say “of course he would say that, he was inside the party and must defend it”. But when anyone who is no longer in the party accuses the DA of racism, nobody applies the same logic: that “of course she would say that because she is now on the outside and now must attack the DA”.

Supposedly, every black person that leaves the DA does so because they are black — but all senior white people leave for professional reasons. In other words, the lazy analyst’s narrative is this: if a black person leaves the DA it’s because the party is racist, if a white person leaves it’s because he is pursuing different career interests.

The ‘black vote’

Suttner asks: “Is it desirable for a party in South Africa to have the face that it puts before the public remain a primarily white one, 25 years into democracy? Certainly, many of its leaders are competent and articulate. They have many merits, but these are very different in their reference points from people in the townships or emerging from the townships or deep rural areas.”

Analysts are prone to talking about the black vote, the township vote, or the rural vote like it’s one nebulous mass. I was born in the township, I lived there, my family still lives there, my mother teaches there. Now this may be Suttner’s experience too. But in my experience, and Suttner agrees the lived experiences of people are important, people in the township are not homogenous amoebae. They think for themselves and often disagree with one another. 

And yes, in some areas black voters still think they can only be represented by people who share “their reference points”. But many have witnessed elderly women lose their pensions and psychiatric patients starve to death due to the neglect and other times wilful callousness of those who look like them. Loyalty to politicians who are only loyal to their pockets does not translate to a better life. And people want a better life for themselves and their children. 

My family, their neighbours, and the neighbours’ neighbours would be most curious to know that there are self-appointed clairvoyants of the township who have already decided on their behalf what will and will not alienate all of them.

Everybody deserves representation

Let us for argument’s sake concede that the DA will never get the majority of black voters. What nobody dares to explain is why millions of voters black, white, coloured, and Indian who do vote DA, don’t deserve to be represented? Why should their voices be quashed in favour of majoritarian appeal?

You will notice that most DA dissidents will not try to reason or explain their ideas — their principal strategy is majority gevaar:

“The majority is coming; the majority is coming. Quick, quick, all of you change your views!”

We will not be intimidated. If you want to run, then run. But we in the DA will stand our ground. Because we have a cause worth defending: the strongest opposition in the democratic era, that has held the government to account in Parliament and in the courts, and provided an alternative to racial hegemony and crony capitalism. And we have little doubt that without the DA there would be a virulent racial opportunism, collusion of the corrupt, and fewer municipalities with clean records. 

The thing about change

Last, Suttner claims that “Zille supporters never wanted the party to change and that is why she never actually retired”. Analysts give themselves license to state absolute fabrications as truth. Change is such a sneaky word because there are things which must be changed and others that need not be changed. Resistance is seldom an issue of resisting change, but the thing which is to be changed. 

This fact is not intuitive to everyone so an analogy helps — one can imagine that Starbucks with a new CEO might change its culture and branding, but still remain a coffee company. If shareholders resisted it becoming a sneaker company, it would not be because they are resistant to change per se.

The DA is in the business of selling and showing the benefits of freedom, nonracialism, a market-led economy, merit, and so on, to society. There will naturally not be as much resistance to how it goes about doing that. But change which cuts to the core of who it is will be met with greater resistance.

In one important way, the DA has constantly been changing. There are a growing number of young black South Africans who are sick and tired of being lectured to by old white men (quite frankly black, too, as Mbali Ntuli recently pointed out to Mzwanele Manyi) about what black people think, feel and do. As though we have to all think, feel and do the same things. Some will agree with elements of this piece, and some will not — because shock, horror, they are individuals.

 Suttner’s argument is Mzwanele Manyi’s world view, dressed up in more sophisticated language.

We have a right to differ with others who have the same skin colour, even when they are the majority. Suttner would rather we knew our place in a hegemonic world — he essentially asks with incredulity, you want to disagree with the majority? Be an individual? Wherever did you pluck such wild and fanciful ideas?

Perhaps in a field where hope and imagination still grow. Many could use a trip there; we’d love to say please follow us — but you would need to see us first to do that. DM

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