Editorial: Race and respectability

Helen Zille's long and single-minded courtship of Agang SA leader Mamphela Ramphele may seem clumsy and driven by forlorn hope. In particular, it is unlikely to have any appreciable effect on voter behaviour in the April general elections.

One could argue that Agang SA was a no-hoper that should have been left to wither on the vine and that Ramphele, a key voice of liberal-democratic principles, could do more good by strengthening civil society than she will ever do in Parliament, a sideshow that exercises almost no moderating influence on the ANC.

But we believe it would be a mistake to dismiss Zille's move as nothing more than an electoral gimmick. In the longer term, her legacy project is to make the Democratic Alliance's face more acceptable to black South Africans, and particularly to younger, urban-based blacks whose ties with the ANC have been loosened by 20 years of single-party dominance and misrule. It is quite possible that Ramphele is being groomed as Zille's replacement, perhaps in time for the 2019 elections.

There are other signs that Zille's transformation project is slowly reshaping the "fight back" party of Tony Leon. At federal level, the DA's emerging black caucus helped to retune policy on employment equity and black economic empowerment (BEE) to reflect a keener consciousness of the need for redress.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the list process also bears out a slow shift of power from conservative whites to a new echelon of black leaders. Only in the Western Cape, the stone in the gut of the DA, does the traditional balance seem to persist unaltered: Zille's provincial Cabinet is overwhelmingly dominated by white men and the provincial list suggests that this will continue after April.

It is a strategy that is not without political risk. Zille's sponsorship of Lindiwe Mazibuko as the DA's parliamentary leader was fiercely contested by the white old guard, which believed that the need to reward seniority and long service outweighs the transformation imperative.

Their take on the Ramphele issue is no doubt captured by this week's email tirade by right-wing commentator RW Johnson, which describes the move to draw her into the DA leadership as "quixotic, even suicidal".

Zille's argument is that the DA is now more truly a nonracial party than the ANC and, allowing for some hyperbole, she has a point. It is certainly possible to see a retreat from the ruling party's broad South Africanism and nonracial traditions, and their replacement by what the DA has termed "racial nationalism". In KwaZulu-Natal, anti-Indian feeling appears to be on the increase, with demands among African businessmen who consider themselves ANC supporters for BEE to be confined to Africans. In the Western Cape, there can be little doubt that the push for African leadership by one faction of the provincial party played an important role in alienating coloured professionals.

Nor are Zuma's ministers above crude racial rhetoric. In a recent speech quoted in the Daily Sun, Blade Nzimande combined his customary intolerance for the independent media with a racial jibe, reportedly saying that the South African Communist Party will not be bullied on Nkandla by "white boys who write for newspapers" and claiming, quite incorrectly, that "those newspapers are also owned by whites".

Racism has not yet become a respectable public stance in South African politics, as it has in Zimbabwe. But one could certainly argue that, by inviting Ramphele into the party's leadership, Zille's DA is striking a more acceptable tone on race than the ruling party.

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