LAST week was a very eventful and indeed traumatic one for the Democratic Alliance (DA). The return to politics by Helen Zille with her election as federal chairperson of the DA, the resignation of Herman Mashaba as mayor of Johannesburg and subsequently the resignation of Mmusi Maimane as leader of the party, are obviously going to demand profound introspection from the DA and its leadership.Although in a sense it can be described as a debacle of the first order, it also creates opportunities for the new leadership of the DA and a reconsideration or perhaps a reconfiguration of its policies and leadership style. Indeed, if handled correctly, it could be cathartic.The DA, and to some considerable extent the ANC, are both grappling with the challenge of relative emphasis to be accorded to race and merit in their policies and administration. This is an acute issue within the DA because of its genesis as a liberal party and its historic attachment to merit as a fundamental requirement in its political philosophy.Less so for the ANC, with its historic attachment to non-racialism, rather than racial nationalism. The ANC’s schism in 1959 and the emergence of the PAC, led by Robert Sobukwe, were evidence of this. At Codesa and subsequently in both the Interim and 1996 Constitution, as part of the political settlement that ushered in the new democratic dispensation, a compromise was crafted on this vexed issue which is clearly reflected in section 9(2) of the Constitution which states that “[e]quality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedom. To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken.”This is the constitutional and legal justification for affirmative action, which finds more complete expression in the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000.What this means is that race is a constitutional and legal factor in our political administration and in the manner in which the private sector is obliged to act as well. It is also, it is submitted, essential for the attainment of social justice in the light of the legacies of apartheid and colonialism. The crucial issue, as William Saunderson-Meyer observes in his piece: “Why the DA’s survival should concern us” (Saturday Independent, October 26), is to find the “relative prominence to be accorded to race and merit in its policies”. He adds: “finding the golden mean is not simple”.Although he also continues to declare that the “ANC stress on skin colour has been enormously successful at drawing into the machinery of society the hitherto deliberately excluded”, what he fails to point out is that when this involves unqualified cadre deployment, it is unconstitutional, illegal and politically counter-productive.This is indeed what occurred in the nearly 10 years of the disastrous Jacob Zuma administration, since it gave rise to maladministration, state capture and corruption, which is the brief of the investigation of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry. It is therefore not merely of some but indeed of fundamental importance, for the political parties and public administration in the three spheres of government to get the equation involving race and merit correct.This is no easy task, and no party or individual has the monopoly of knowledge or insight in this regard.However, this issue involving race and merit is not the only vexed issue confronting the politicians and parties. Equally important is the nature of the economic system that South Africa requires. On the one hand, an unqualified capitalist system would exacerbate the existing economic and other inequalities that obstruct social and economic justice in South Africa, and on the other hand, pure Marxist-Leninist socialism, involving a centralised economy and complete nationalisation within a one-party state, would negate and destroy the democratic system on which the extant Constitution is premised.Some kind of social democracy and welfare state, as exemplified by the Scandinavian models, adapted for our particular circumstances would appear to be what is required.Maimane and Mashabe have been far too hasty in their resignations and pronouncements and they should have remained and contributed to finding “the golden mean”. There may, however, very well be other reasons for their departure.President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his commitment to a resource-driven economy, along with Tito Mboweni is grappling to find the most advantageous economic model.It is to be fervently hoped that the present debacle in the DA will lead to a more informed public debate involving the political parties and civil society on the issue of the relative weight to be accorded to race and merit on the one hand, and on the other hand, on the nature of the different economic models and their respective merits.Such a discourse could have important political consequences for our country since the ANC’s Ramaphosa faction and DA in general, or at least an influential and progressive element within it, may realise how much they have in common.• George Devenish is professor emeritus at UKZN and one of the jurists that assisted in drafting the Interim Constitution in 1993.