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Opinionista

Most political parties in SA would have little to say if forced to abandon identity politics

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Brett Herron is the Secretary-General of GOOD and a Member of the National Assembly.

In a country like South Africa, with its particular history of identity-based division and exclusion, identity politics has the opposite effect of nation- or consensus-building. It subverts national interests in favour of the interests of a particular group.

Comparative advertising is prohibited in South Africa. It is unlawful, for example, for one brand of toothpaste to market itself by pointing out the foul taste of a competitor’s product, or for a chicken franchise to proclaim the superiority of its wings by trashing a rival’s.

The opposite holds true for the advertising campaigns of political parties. Here, not only is the naming and shaming of rivals lawful; it’s just about the only show in town. And it’s usually colour-coded. Instead of encouraging voters to support them for reasons of policy or principle, they are fixated on discouraging voters from supporting rivals.

That’s why, at the conclusion of the blue party’s recent elective conference, the main item on the menu was not “this is what we’re going to do to fix X, Y or Z”; it was to declare the red party public enemy number one. Not just the reds, mind you, but also the ruling yellow, green and blacks (preferably, unless we enter into a coalition with them, the blues seemed to say). Both the reds and yellow et als happen to be predominantly supported by people of a particular colour.

Identity politics is described by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as “a political approach wherein people of a particular race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, social background, social class, or other identifying factors develop political agendas that are based upon these identities”.

The campaign to keep the reds out echoes the 1999 campaign of then Democratic Party leader Tony Leon to “Fight Back”, which was interpreted by some as a subliminal message to fight the black leadership of the nation.

The DA isn’t alone in brandishing identity politics as a weapon; nor is the EFF the only other culprit. The ANC has slept very comfortably at night for nearly three decades in the knowledge that its official opposition represented minority interests. There are also various other parties specifically aimed at religious, ethnic, language and/or geographic constituencies.

In a country like South Africa, with its particular history of identity-based division and exclusion, identity politics has the opposite effect of nation- or consensus-building. It subverts national interests in favour of the interests of a particular group.

As the Stanford Encyclopedia tells us, “identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalised within its larger context”.

The fact that continuing inequality today, nearly three decades into democracy, largely mirrors the colour-based economic inequality of the apartheid state, is the real enemy of the people and stable democracy, not the reds – or the pinks, or blacks.

Had the government of the past three decades managed to narrow the colour-coded gap in the standard of living between citizens it would have reduced the marginalisation of people of colour from the economy and, with it, the effectiveness of identity politics.

When we defocus from identity we can refocus on a development agenda based on common purpose and common justice as envisaged by the Constitution. We can turn down the volume on populism and fearmongering (of both the crude and sophisticated varieties) and begin to insert issues of policy, principle and natural justice into our political discourse.

Many politicians are excited at the prospect of the governing party dipping below 50% in next year’s election; some see themselves at the helm of new governing coalitions. But are the types of coalition arrangements we’ve seen playing out in Gauteng really what we want or need?

In environments of trust and common purpose, coalition governments can work. In order to create trust and common purpose, it requires shelving identity-based comparative marketing to discuss real national priorities that will deliver a better deal for citizens.

The Good Party views poverty as enemy number one. Poverty that humiliates, degrades and destroys people’s prospects. Poverty that forcibly removes their dignity and hope. Poverty like a rubber band that will eventually snap.

A country with resources, in which a small minority of citizens lead First World existences while millions subsist on a R350 monthly grant, is neither fair nor sustainable.

According to the government, the amount of money individuals need to afford the minimum required daily energy intake is R624, which is referred to as the food poverty line.

As we enter electioneering season ahead of next year’s national and provincial polls, Good will consciously seek to avoid the potholes of identity politics and comparative advertising, because what we should be talking about is how to fund and deliver a basic income grant.

The value of the grant must exceed the food poverty line, because sometimes people have to buy a bus ticket or medicine or…

The rate at which the economy is forecast to grow this year, and in the short- to medium-term future, won’t be sufficient to turn South Africa around with speed. We aren’t quickly going to be generating enough new jobs to seriously dent the rate of unemployment.

Poverty isn’t just going to miraculously disappear.

The State has constitutional and moral obligations to provide for citizens’ basic needs. In order to do so, it has to prioritise finding space in the budget to accommodate a basic income grant. Our research shows it’s possible if we’re willing to start cutting away fat. DM

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  • R S says:

    Good grief. I thought maybe this would be a decent article by Herron criticising parties like the PA who have extensively ridden the identity politics bandwagon, and to a lesser degree the EFF (who, if you took away the racial angle, still has a slew of far-left policies that other parties don’t offer), and other clearly racial parties.

    Instead it’s another poor attempt at character assassination of the DA. The DA, whether people like it or not, has for the most part aligned it’s members with the overall objective of non-racialism, private markets, support for the poor regardless of race etc. so their elective conference all has people reading from the same play book. It’s not like there’s suddenly going to be a DA member who comes in and says “We are going to expropriate the land”. The DA has made it clear, these are our values. Get on board or get out. So at the end of the day their conference was simply a vote on who they believed could best execute on their policies…

    But of course acknowledging this would leave little opportunity for Herron to take a jab at his former political home.

  • - Matt says:

    I appreciate that the Good Party “views poverty as enemy number one.” The disparity of Wealth across the country is not tolerable.

    Let’s be clear though, that in the 30 years the ANC have been in power (the past 4 with the Good Party in leadership with them), if the focus had been on great education, and on serving the total population and striving to make things better, we would not be in the situation we are now.

    The reality is education has overall gone backwards – yes, we still have top schools achieving top results, but they are the exception, where this should be the norm. And that seems the trend in everything… an ambivalence within the ruling party (parties?), and no accountability of those responsible as we watch the downward trend across the board.

    Accountability should be your focus no. 1. The longer no-one is held accountable for delivering decent education (performance appraisals for teachers and heads, and administrators and Ministers?) or ensuring good governance (any accountability yet for corruption found in the public service, or employees just not doing what they were hired to do) the faster we will rush down the hill we are currently careening down.

  • Jacques Wessels says:

    Without going into the merits of providing people with sustainable jobs vs depriving people of their dignity by providing them with “beggers unsustainable living grand” remember cutting the fat away implies taking away from others and reducing the cake. It is NO solution

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