So much of politics is about perception to the extent that it’s often difficult to separate the two. One of my favourite writers of the last century once wrote that there is no truth, only perception. I’m not sure I entirely agree, nonetheless.
Perception may be the biggest problem with the Democratic Alliance (DA). They are perceived to be an exclusively white party that looks after white interests (most of whom vote for the DA) and are blamed for everything that goes wrong in Cape Town, or wherever they govern. Imagine the misogynist driving around a city of six million cars, he sees a woman making a right turn without indicating – and that is sufficient evidence to “prove” that women are bad drivers. The DA may quite well be their own worst enemy; one small misstep for the DA, and all the zombies of racism rise.
Without sounding like an appeal for Sympathy for the Devil, (the removal, banning or harassment of homeless people in Cape Town’s City Bowl was not a matter of perception, it verged on inhumane and stripping the poorest of the poor of what dignity they have left) the DA have generally had the cleanest municipal records in the country. In some ways, however, the DA cannot do right for doing wrong.
With local government elections (LGE21) a few weeks away, the DA should get a sense of the collective impact of the body blows it has taken over the past couple of years. The loss of credible black leaders — Mmusi Maimane, Phumzile van Damme — and much much earlier, Lindiwe Mazibuko — Helen Zille’s adoption of Trump-esque fear of a black planet (okay, I mean to say Critical Race Theory), and John Steenhuisen’s use of flag-waving black people as props during his (cringeworthy) sophomoric special announcement.
The DA has also been accused of using black members as token blacks. Personally, I have some problem with that claim in that it strips people like Van Damme and Maimane of agency. I also disagree with Modidima Mannya’s claim that the DA is the “direct descendant of the National Party”. It draws attention away from the Freedom Front Plus and the knuckle-dragging mouth breathers of AfriForum. The DA has presented itself as liberal — which we will get to below. It may be more accurate to say the DA are the descendants of the Progressive Federal Party which eventually lost its way when Tony Leon became leader in 1999. That was when the DA drifted to where the Institute of Race Relations finds itself today. So, do read intertextually what I wrote over the past two weeks (here and here). The LGE21 is about municipal matters and the provision of local public goods and services.
The game is not played on paper
There’s a phrase in football (please don’t refer to it as soccer) which goes something like this: “They are a great team on paper, but the game is not played on paper, it’s played on the pitch.” And so on paper — and one should not traduce these results – the DA has received the cleanest audits in almost every municipality where it governs. The George Herald reported last month that:
“All 25 DA-run municipalities in the Western Cape province have received unqualified audit outcomes. This was revealed at the Auditor-General’s 2019/20 Local Government (MFMA) Audit Outcomes.”
We should probably accept the following as propaganda or public relations (though it’s accurate) – the DA’s Anton Bredell “praised municipalities in the province for their efforts”.
“Despite the ongoing Covid challenges, Western Cape municipalities have improved their performance, last year we had 13 clean audits. The outcomes provide further assurance to citizens of the province that their money is going where it should and not into the pockets of corrupt politicians and officials. Good service delivery from municipalities goes hand in hand with quality financial performance. The one is impossible without the other,” he said.
There is no getting away from what the Sunday Times reported in April this year: “The Western Cape continues to be the shining light of financial accountability among the country’s nine provinces. This has once again become the case following the release of the auditor-general’s audit outcomes for provinces and national government for the 2019-20 financial year.”
What we can say then, with confidence, is that the DA’s record at municipal level is only slightly short of outstanding. If we take Cape Town’s Atlantic Seaboard, the Mink and Manure belt down Newlands and Constantia way, and pockets in Somerset West, Strand and Stellenbosch voters probably have no reason to complain. But this is key to understanding municipal elections. Voters elect people who will provide public goods and services (trash collection, clean streets, community safety etc), and the DA has served its loyal voters in the above-mentioned areas rather well. Just so we “balance things out” we have to assume that people who voted for the ANC around the country have been well served by the ruling party… We do, however, need to insert a heavy caveat here.
At the level of perception and propaganda (that misogynist who sees a woman not using the car’s indicators and generalises from that), the DA has not served the people of Khayelitsha and the greater Cape Flats area or Khayamandi very well at all. Intellectual honesty compels us to accept that the sprawl and spread of informal settlements, the destruction of infrastructure (especially railway lines, train stations and rolling stock) are a national problem.
Our ideological (racial) blinkers can blame the DA for the problems of the squalor, poverty and precarity in the Western Cape — as if the province is somehow a different country. For LGE21, though, the party has appealed to voters to keep the province DA. This brings us to the question that may emanate from the Cape Flats or Khayelitsha: what has the DA done for us lately? The voters will answer that question on 1 November.
Liberalism and its discontents
Apart from the fact that the DA is a predominantly white party, and elected by predominantly white people, one of the party’s bigger “problems” is that it is liberal — which in South African politics has become a pejorative term, never mind the fact that most people enjoy the historical gains of liberalism like freedom from want, freedom of speech and association, freedom from fear, freedom of conscience and freedom from discrimination.
Yet liberal parties have transmogrified over the years to the extent that in countries like Australia, the Liberal Party tends towards the right. Under these conditions, in liberal societies charity tends to replace justice, while liberal parties focus extensively on serving commercial interests and hoping that “the market” would allocate resources efficiently. Bertrand Russell once described liberalism as a culture “most naturally associated with commerce” and, as a belief system, its “central” principle for the organisation of capitalist society is the promotion of economic and individual liberty coupled with belief in Darwinian competition.
If then you want to understand why the DA may want to build buildings for large corporations instead of affordable housing, this should help provide an answer. Corporations and liberal politicians follow the money, the poor vote for better lives, social justice and human dignity — almost all of which pervades the black community, while the DA does not see race.
Enter the DA’s tryst with the SA Institute of Race Relations. In the Open Letter to the SAIRR written by a group of leading South African figures, the claim is made that the “IRR fosters a ‘free-market, small state’ agenda while representing itself as a human rights research organisation devoted to impartial fact-based analysis. This testifies to its open association with Northern libertarian groups such as the Atlas Network and the Heritage Foundation, the latter supporting Trump’s presidential campaigns.”
Based on its performance on paper, it doesn’t take much to state that the DA will probably win most of what is up for grabs in the Western Cape. The people who might feel aggrieved that they have been in the DA’s blindspot for the past decade or so may want to bear in mind a statement attributed to Elie Wiesel: We might not have justice anytime soon, but that does not mean we should stop fighting for it.
As voters go to the polls on 1 November the choice of who to elect is theirs. They have to look at what politicians have done for them lately, and whether they can expect anything better in the coming years. DM