In attempting to examine the Democratic Alliance’s current condition, Roger Southall in his article on November 12, “Party’s woes signify historical dilemma of South Africa’s liberals” , succeeds only in showing how rusty his stethoscope is. His skewed diagnosis of liberals’ historical “dilemma” leads to a faulty prognosis of the DA’s prospects.
Southall provides a potted history of South African liberalism to make the tendentious claim that “liberalism has always been reluctant to grant black people equality unless they achieve certain designated standards”. He paints a bleak picture of liberalism’s future.
Yet this account ignores the fact that liberalism is the oldest and most durable tradition in South African politics. After four decades of apartheid, liberalism offered rival groups of Afrikaner and African nationalists the conceptual tools they needed to negotiate a constitutional settlement. The values of non-racialism and equality, upon which our democratic state are based (and which are expressed in the founding provisions of the Constitution), have always animated the liberal project.
It is true that South African liberals have sometimes failed to match word with deed on the subject of colour-blind non-racialism. The Progressive Party, formed in 1959, adopted the principle of universal suffrage only in 1978, long after the more radical Liberal Party had abandoned the qualified franchise. In 1968, the Progressives complied with the Prohibition of Political Interference Act by depriving black, coloured and Indian South Africans of their party membership. The Liberal Party, by contrast, shut up shop on principle.
The Progressives made pragmatic choices that enabled them to stay in the parliamentary arena and build an institutional legacy for successor parties such as the DA. But there is no reason why echoes of ancient, long-settled rumblings (intra-liberal squabbles over the qualified franchise, for example) should reverberate so loudly in Southall’s ear. They provide no proof that the DA is unable to deal with what Southall mock-seriously calls the “native question”. That, in any event, is a wilfully distorted and anachronistic characterisation of the problems facing the most racially diverse party in South Africa.
Southall’s determination to assess the present as the past (or the patient as a corpse) means he overlooks the DA’s vital signs. It is true that the party has been through a period of weakened health in recent times. One of the main symptoms was that we lost voter support in the 2019 national and provincial elections. As a result, the DA’s former leader, Mmusi Maimane, appointed a panel to diagnose what went wrong and propose a course of remedy.
It is not clear whether Southall has read the panel’s report, since he only references a news24.com article on the subject and not the original document, which is available online.
One of the panel’s key findings was that there was a critical failure of leadership at the top of the party, resulting in “confusion about the party’s values and vision, uncertainty about its direction and a fragmentation of its purpose”. The panel recommended that the top leadership and management team should step down and make way for new leadership. This is now happening in a transparent and orderly fashion.
The fact that the DA was able and willing to hold its leadership accountable for suboptimal electoral outcomes (an exception to the rule in South African politics) shows that the party is resilient. Recent by-election results, which in several instances have seen the DA retain wards with increased majorities, underscore that the party remains robust.
The DA now has a chance to reinvigorate its historic mission — to establish a non-racial democracy, driven by a market economy, anchored in the values of freedom, fairness, opportunity and diversity.
Central to this project, as the review panel noted, is the imperative to transcend South Africa’s history of competing racial nationalisms and the “discrimination, division and inequality” that are the legacy of apartheid. Overcoming this legacy is the only way South Africans will be able to enjoy substantive freedom, which the DA exists to promote.
The real dilemma for South African liberals is how to achieve this without pandering to racial communalism or categorisation in policymaking, or being sucked into the vortex of racial identity politics when we position ourselves on topical issues. That is the toxic domain of the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters. It is a powerful but malignant maelstrom that, once entered, is difficult to exit. But occupying that space is an act of self-harm (indeed self-immolation), because it is so fundamentally antithetical to non-racialism, which is the DA’s reason for being.
The DA needs to champion a new kind of non-racial politics, one that eschews the ANC’s hegemonic doctrine of “demographic representivity”. We must discard pale imitations of race-based policies such as black economic empowerment (BEE) and reject the racial essentialism of regressive identitarians masquerading as progressives.
If we don’t, we run the risk of abandoning the central idea that has animated the liberal project in South Africa. This is the notion that individuals have intrinsic worth and agency, and that they are not bound by, or a product of, the group to which they have been assigned by virtue of their demographic characteristics.
Southall claims that a stronger emphasis on “non-racial liberalism” is unlikely to appeal to black voters, who “view forms of racial redress as the only sure route to greater racial equality”. There is no evidence for this. Survey after survey suggests that jobs are the number one priority for the majority of South Africans, who regard employment as a guarantor of greater equality and upward mobility.
The DA gains little by trying to ingratiate itself with those who think that BEE or race-based affirmative action are the panacea for the country’s economic problems, instead of jobs, education and the expansion of opportunity. And we waste our time with the small coterie of victimhood-peddling identitarians who trade in vague but absolutist concepts like “whiteness”. Most of these people are neither liberals nor non-racialists, even less so constitutionalists. They resent the constitutional settlement and regard the Constitution not as an enabler of substantive freedom, but as the foundation stone of “white privilege” and “black pain”. They will never share the DA’s values.
Southall also asserts that “black aversion to the DA is likely to increase even more if the party replaces its former black leader with someone…who is white”. Again, this is unsubstantiated. Between 1994 and 2015, the Democratic Party and DA’s advance took place under white leadership and the party gained in every election. The 2019 election marked the first regression in what had been a consistent trend of electoral growth over 25 years. There is no reason the DA, reimbued with a clearer sense of purpose, should not return to an upward electoral trend, regardless of the leader’s colour.
At any rate, there is no point in the DA chasing after voters — black or white — if that entails discarding liberal principles. The party may not be in its rudest health, but it is well into its convalescence. And it is far more likely to make a full recovery at the polls if it becomes clearer about its vision and direction, and regains its unity of purpose.
Roger Southall’s article was republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Michael Cardo is a DA MP and author of Opening Men’s Eyes: Peter Brown and the Liberal Struggle for South Africa (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2010)