The unAfrican liberal

2013-02-03 10:00

If you want to run with the big dogs you’ve got to learn the can-do theatrics of an Obama and the populist dance steps of a Zuma.

Push for ideological purity at all costs, and you could be aiming too low.

Both Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille have adapted their style to mimic that of charismatic vote-pullers Barack Obama and Jacob Zuma, respectively, as a way of furthering their own and the DA’s fortunes.

Both have come under fire from liberals within the party, privately or publicly.

Some have felt that Zille has been growing the party with too much emphasis on popular and race-based appeal at the expense of liberalism, while they say Maimane’s swift rise through the ranks during his three years in the party means he didn’t really get a chance to learn what liberalism is all about.

This week, the recently resigned DA communications head, Gareth van Onselen, in his Inside Politics blog, said Maimane’s views (as expressed in an article in the Sunday Times last week) on Africanness and ubuntu were illiberal because Maimane was prescribing identity.

Liberalism would have people decide what they want to be for themselves.

In fact, Van Onselen says there is nothing like ubuntu in liberalism because it is vague and makes individual liberties subservient to “majoritarian impulses”.

Maimane’s “illiberal” view “is troubling and indicative of a broader challenge facing the party: how best to safeguard its core beliefs and values without pandering to ‘identity politics’ and group identity,” Van Onselen wrote.

The DA at its conference in November last year resolved to educate new recruits on values.

MP Ian Ollis, who proposed the motion, said that at the time the DA was formed in 2000 it committed “to a set of liberal democratic values”.

“We have to teach these to all those who join us and those who stand for office in the DA or else we are in danger of in future just becoming ANC-lite.”

But the party might first want to figure out what it wants liberalism to mean.

Does it focus narrowly on individual freedoms and a laissez faire economy, or does it include the idea of the founder of the Liberal Party of South Africa, Alan Paton, of “a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness”?

Or do you do what Zille seems to be doing, by speaking less of liberalism and instead focusing on “constitutionalism” and human rights?

Zille’s approach makes the party more palatable to prospective voters and members from an ANC background, seeing that pure liberalism has little street cred in South Africa.

Although liberals led the fight against apartheid among enfranchised whites, liberal parties locally have been led by whites.

ANC stalwart Pallo Jordan has even argued (Business Day, November 22 2012) that the problem with liberalism is that it is historically anti-majoritarian and white-dominated.

But Maimane reckons liberalism could be redefined. Liberalism is about variety, he says, adding that there is still room for clarifying issues of community and culture within the ideology.

“Every ideology defines itself in a space and a time and a context,” he told City Press.

Liberalism favours a market economy but has mutations in different countries.

For example, social liberalism, as supported by the DA, believes government should intervene in healthcare, education and social support.

Obama’s version of liberalism is similar, while some of his predecessors preferred a more classical liberalism, with a hands-off government.

Even though the DA is built on liberal values, it is likely that only a few people vote for it because of this. Rather, the DA in elections sells itself as a more efficient government than the ANC, a true nonracial party and one that adheres to the spirit of the Constitution.

Rather than splitting hairs on whether its leaders are true blue liberals or not, the party would do well to think about how its version of liberalism could include rather than reject Africanness and concepts that are a hot sell among a South African electorate craving some feel-good ubuntu.

Otherwise the DA could be wandering in an elitist wilderness forever.

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