The tragedy of Helen Zille

2011-05-09 00:00

IN nine days’ time, South Africans will go to the polls to vote in the local government elections. It is almost a foregone conclusion that the Democratic Alliance (DA) will increase its support during these elections.

The DA under the leadership of Helen Zille is a political phenomenon. It is winning more hearts and minds, including in working-class communities which had previously shunned the party. Many people are desperate for an electoral alternative to the ANC. But as tempting as it may be, South Africans must be wary of adopting an “opposition at all costs” approach.

While tons of ink have been spilled analysing the social-justice content of the ANC’s policies and practices, very little serious attention has been paid to what the post-fightback DA actually stands for, and what the long-term implications are of its growing popularity. The media’s focus on the touchy-feely aspects of Zille’s campaign has also obscured more substantive questions.

What type of society does the DA want to build? The core concept of Zille’s DA is one of an “open-opportunity society for all”, which it counterposes to the ANC’s “closed crony society for some”, where a clique rules to accumulate wealth. For the DA, a competitive, job-creating economy, supported by an efficient education system, are the main drivers of this society.

The DA is not the originator of the concept of an open-opportunity society: it has a long historical pedigree in political theory and practice. This society is a meritocracy, where the government enables individual advancement on the basis of supposedly inherent talents and industriousness, measured usually through academic credentials, rather than on characteristics such as race, gender or political affiliation.

Open-opportunity proponents proceed from the assumption that society should consist of hierarchies of achievers and non-achievers, so they do not reject the notion of social hierarchy per se.

The open-opportunity society is based on a conservative political philosophy, as it provides an ideological defence of the capitalist system. The children of the historically advantaged invariably have a head start in realising inherent talent. This society attributes an individual’s lack of success to individual weaknesses, not to the system.

Britain’s New Labour party, under Tony Blair, also adopted the open-opportunity society as the ideological counterpart to itsneoliberal restructuring of the economy and society. As a result, inequality grew more rapidly than it did under John Major’s Conservative government. The capacity of those on the higher rungs to reproduce their privileged positions increased, with no evidence of downward mobility if their offspring were less talented.

The DA does acknowledge that the enjoyment of opportunity and choice has been heavily affected by apartheid. But its proposals for redress are inadequate, and are likely to be overshadowed by its broader societal framework, which is much more neoliberal than the ANC’s: a sort of Growth, Employment and Redistribution Plan (Gear) on steroids.

The party advocates a public-sector rollback in the direct delivery of services, as a backlash against the ANC’s strong developmental state. Rather, the government should facilitate service delivery, mainly by the private sector, in the classic neoliberal mode.

The DA aims to provide what it refers to as a framework for choice of goods and services, such as schools. The party bases their conception of choice on trickle-down economics, so as global competitiveness drives economic growth and society becomes richer, its members will be able to exercise the rights and choices for services.

The DA’s economic policy is business-friendly in the main — it advocates the cutting of corporate tax and the reviewing of labour legislation to make it easier to hire and fire workers. Infrastructure rollout should be privatised through public-private partnerships, as should public health-care provision, where possible. These proposals are to the right even of the ANC’s Gear plan.

The government should devolve as much power as possible to schools, universities, hospitals and local governments to manage their own affairs. The danger with this approach is that it will entrench pockets of privilege, where dominant social groups contract themselves out of the national agenda under the guise of “self-government”.

The DA’s education policy subscribes to the human-capital theory, which considers the purpose of education to be the production of skills for the market, and the raising of productivity, and hence economic growth.

In the long term, individual advancement and competitiveness will be incentivised through a voucher system aimed at giving pupils from low-income households an opportunity to receive a better education, thereby increasing their choice of schools. Schools achieving outstanding results will also receive incentives. Underlying these proposals is the assumption that competition produces efficiencies in the delivery of services.

The voucher system has evoked controversy internationally for draining public money away from already underfunded public schools, which is then used to cross-subsidise private schooling: a sort of privatisation by stealth.

The DA sees higher education as a gateway for social mobility, where students are encouraged to hold the tragically impoverished view that personal growth amounts to advancement in professional markets. The party invokes the technocratic discourse of “innovation” — where companies seeking a competitive advantage over their competitors use universities as knowledge factories — to promote greater private-sector involvement in the higher-education sector. The negative implications for academic freedom should be self-evident.

The DA also advocates differentiation in higher education, where colleges of higher education develop skills for the market, universities provide teaching, and centres of excellence (which the DA intends to be elite institutions) provide cutting-edge research.

Such differentiation is pedagogically questionable, as it will artificially strip off teaching from research, impoverishing both teaching and research.

In addition, differentiation will probably lead to the lion’s share of public resources being directed to the most likely candidates for centres of excellence, the former historically advantaged universities, which are still populated largely by the sons and daughters of the powerful and privileged.

The DA’s communication policy argues for light-touch regulation in the era of convergence, which will pave the way for the dominance of the post-digital migration airwaves by media monopolies. Its policy is completely silent on the future of the most popular and accessible medium in the country, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, suggesting that the broadcaster’s future may be precarious under a DA government.

This is not to say that the DA does not recognise the need for redress or the social wage. The party argues for the universalisation of the old-age grant, as well as the adoption of the basic-income grant. But these proposals will do nothing to correct the structural distortions in the economy that create vulnerability.

The tent pole of the DA’s strategy for local-government elections is to use Cape Town as a model for good governance, and to capitalise on the ANC’s many failings at local-government level. Certainly, there are indications that the DA has done better administratively than the ANC.

But the roots of the near-collapse of many local governments need to be understood, as the problems are deeper than poor administration. With the onset of Gear, national government transfers to local government were drastically reduced, forcing local governments into self-sufficiency that many could simply not afford.

The DA policies suggest that the party will drive local governments even further down the road of self-sufficiency, further disadvantaging poorer municipalities outside the wealthier Western Cape.

In view of South Africa’s liberation history, it is a tragedy that the second biggest political party in the country is to the right of the ANC. It creates space for a shift to the right in South Africa’s politics generally, which in turn provides a basis for the ANC to continue its centrist shift as well.

If this shift takes place, then mass unemployment, service-delivery cut-offs and inequality generally are likely to intensify. But then these problems will be blamed on the lack of industriousness of the individual, not on the policies. Mass despondency is likely to set in.

In campaigning against the ANC’s rocky performance at local-government level, Zille has portrayed herself as a champion of social justice, even invoking the names of Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani. Yet Zille’s open-opportunity society is a clear and present danger to the social-justice agenda.

The more the political debate revolves around a centre-right axis, the more impossible it will become to achieve, or even imagine, the conditions for true human emancipation. And therein lies the tragedy of Helen Zille.

• Professor Jane Duncan is Highway Africa Chair of Media and Information Society, School of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University. This article first appeared on the website of The South African Civil Society Information Service (

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