DA internal debate lays bare the fallacy behind its diversity claims

The Democratic Alliance has described the death of Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as “the passing of a true freedom fighter and an iconic South African”. Her death came on the eve of the DA’s federal congress that will elect party leaders and will also make significant amendments to its constitution, if some have their way.

A debate is currently raging in the DA about diversity in the party, which surfaced through a letter written by MPs Michael Cardo and Gavin Davis to congress delegates. In that letter, the duo sought to come across as the authentic voice of the DA’s longstanding liberal values while casting aspersions on those with whom they differed.

The first cardinal error they committed was to label their nemeses as speaking “a sort of dialect of ANC-ese, in which terms like racial ‘transformation’ and demographic ‘representivity’ are parroted unselfconsciously”.

This is a profoundly striking form of intellectual intolerance. This attitude was rebutted very quickly by rejoinders from party members such as provincial legislature members Hlanganani Gumbi and Makashule Gana, making Cardo and Davis rethink their position on the diversity debate.

Their follow-up letter to congress delegates was far more considered, without labelling any “grouping” within the DA as being inauthentic progressives. Importantly, they conceded that “significantly, there is consensus that a diversity clause is overdue”. This was an important victory for those seeking such a clause but there will still be great debate on how it should be formulated.

The fact that a diversity clause is being debated in the DA shows that there are many who do not believe the political rhetoric that the DA is the most diverse party in the country. This racial and gender diversity is not reflected in its council caucus leadership in the eThekwini Metropolitan Municipality. It is not reflected in the composition of the DA caucus in the National Assembly. It is not reflected in the DA’s top eight leadership (leader, federal chairperson and three deputy federal chairs, federal council chair and deputy chair, and chairperson of its federal finance committee).

For Cardo and Davis, a diversity clause should “contain an express recognition that autonomous individuals form the bedrock of diversity. We [the DA] must go beyond demography and celebrate a plurality of thought and ideas.” This, for them, is a true liberal conception of diversity.

They also maintain that this diversity must “reject the apartheid-era doctrine of ‘representivity’ that reduces people to mere representatives of the racial category that this unjust system imposed on them”. Some leaders in the DA call this departing from race bean-counting.

Simply put, some in the DA do not want race- and gender-based targets in the party or in its approach to governance. This is completely anachronistic in the South African reality. Gender and race are important components of redress policies to dismantle the legacies of colonialism and apartheid.

Legislatively, black women in particular and black people in general have been systematically shut out of socioeconomic upward mobility. Their education was deliberately engineered to place them at the bottom of the food chain. Black people’s career paths were designed for them to be providers of labour and not managers and owners of industries.

These simple truths necessitate important policy interventions that rebalance the income and wealth inequalities in our society that were fundamentally crafted along race and gender divides. The land debate is about undoing gross violations in pursuit of land dispossession that left black families as pariahs in the land of their birth, as articulated by Sol Plaatje.

In its tribute this week, the DA affirmed that Madikizela-Mandela “stood for principles, and her values outlast the struggle and apply to this day”. Will DA members, then, resonate with Madikizela-Mandela’s values on race and gender as they meet for their federal congress over the weekend?

She was not one to mince her words. She was clear that the fruits of liberation must accrue significantly to women and to black people. She would not appreciate an apolitical interpretation of diversity that does not foresee a deliberate attempt to reorder the sociopolitical and socioeconomic landscape in favour of black people.

The diversity that Cardo and Davis envisage is a futuristic one that can be considered once the race and gender scales have been balanced. It is not relevant in today’s society. What we need is an effort to uplift the most downtrodden in our society, who identify with the struggles and disadvantages bestowed on them by history. The DA has to understand diversity squarely within this historical context. Anything short of this would be a departure from our Constitution and from the legacy of Madikizela-Mandela.

What the DA faces is far more fundamental than just formulating a diversity clause to include in its party constitution. The core question is whether or not the party should repurpose itself and even tamper with some of its coveted founding values.

In April 1995, 23 years ago, Tony Blair was faced with the same question in Britain. The Labour Party had not been in power since 1979, losing repeatedly to the Conservatives. Because the business of politics is about attaining state power, Labour realised that its message did not resonate and that change was necessary. The change was twofold: a need for constitutional amendments and a repackaging of the Labour message.

Blair dubbed the party “New Labour”, masterminding an amendment to a clause in its constitution that had been core to the identity of the Labour Party, codified in 1918, relating to the nationalisation of key industries. The new clause wanted a Labour Party that works for “a dynamic economy, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs”.

Clarifying his vision for New Labour at the time, Blair said: “I joined this party because it represented those values, but I felt something else and I think in your heart of hearts you felt it too: that however great and timeless our values, at that time our party’s politics, structure and even its ideology no longer reflected those values in a way that brought them alive for the British people. We had become separated from the very people we said we represented. We called them ‘our people’, while forgetting who they were.”

Has the DA forgotten who the South Africans they claim to represent are? Has the DA become separated from its constituency? All these questions will be answered in how the DA crafts its diversity clause.

Political parties get their mandate from constituencies. However, many have thought they can impose a mandate on these constituencies. This is not possible. The DA has attracted a number of black people to its ranks. Eventually, these will be the engines of determining the party’s agenda. Will the party allow them the space to do so, or will it attempt to manage the intellectual discourse through the likes of Cardo and Davis who view themselves as the authentic voices of liberalism in the party? Answers will, no doubt, come from the upcoming DA federal congress.

Lukhona Mnguni is a PhD intern researcher in the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

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Lukhona Mnguni
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