Editorial: Transparency and secrets don’t mix
Is it possible to belong to a secret society and subscribe to values such as fairness and openness? Some in the Democratic Alliance don’t think so. They have complained to the party’s national leadership that Freemasons of a certain lodge favoured each other in compiling candidate lists for the August 3 local elections in the Tshwane metro.
Among the complaints were that Freemasons called each other “brother” and swore an oath of loyalty to other brothers. Freemasons are pledged to help each other, so it’s possible they would help each other get political positions too. Because the society operates in secret – members are not allowed to “out” each other – it’s unlikely that party members or voters would get to know whether somebody was favoured because they belonged to a certain lodge, or to the Freemasons in general.
Freemason members are not allowed to talk politics. They may not join for personal or financial gain, but it’s dependent on the organisation’s own membership to police each other on this. Because of the group’s secrecy, this process isn’t transparent to the public and there is little accountability.
The issue of sexism was also raised by the complainants. The Freemasons have traditionally been all-male, but there are also women-only and mixed-gender lodges in South Africa. Some party members, however, are concerned that limits on female membership could be unconstitutional.
The DA’s late chief whip, Watty Watson, was the grand master of the Freemasons in South Africa, the highest office a Freemason can attain. In the DA’s obituary for him in 2014, the party said: “He gave expression to a deeply felt altruism through elected office and many public-spirited endeavours, of which his involvement in and leadership of the Freemasons had great and endearing meaning.” This is an endorsement.
There is nothing improper per se in belonging to the Freemasons. The South African Constitution guarantees freedom of association. But a party with liberal values and an emphasis on transparency might do well to have another look at whether this is in line with its principles. It would also have to prove that its efforts to promote more women and black people to public positions are more than mere window-dressing orchestrated by a small but powerful clique within the party.
The DA has kind of been here before. In 1989, in its previous incarnation as the Democratic Party, Wynand Malan – who had come over from the National Party – became one of the DP’s leaders. He was a member of the Broederbond, the secret society comprising almost entirely white, Afrikaner men, and one of the fibres that kept the apartheid project together.
The DP had to consider whether it would allow Broederbonders to be members of the party too. It decided to allow the dual membership, but the issue nearly split the party, and Malan retired the following year.
As local government elections loom, however, and with a myriad complaints about the list processes hitting it, the DA is evading the issue. That could be a problem in the future.