Now that the DA has elected a white man as its interim leader, it will find it harder – at least in the interim period – to lead on some crucial, uncomfortable discussions we must have in a still racially polarised South Africa.
Don’t get me wrong, John Steenhuisen is a fine gentleman and a committed South African who, I have no doubt, wants the best for this country; and he is not a racist.
But his messages on race-based policies are already not receiving the attention and responses they should because many will be blinded by the colour of his skin.
As he speaks, some people will be gazing at his skin colour, mouths agape, imagining the spectre of Helen Zille standing behind him, urging him on. And instead of engaging the content of his calls, they will talk past him; either by deliberate, cynical, choice, or by historic conditioning.
This, sadly, is the South Africa we still live in, in almost 2020. And it shouldn’t be.
To function well and to have a semblance of balance even in a one party dominated political environment, the South African democracy must continue to have strong opposition and many voices that do not simply toe the line. But the opposition party that has to lead on dissenting voices in parliament cannot be seen to only, or primarily, represent the interests of racial minorities.
Otherwise the majority – already protected by a raft of race-based policies aimed at dealing with a stubborn legacy of a slowly receding past – will see it fit to push back, resulting in the racial unity many have sacrificed so much for remaining a dream deferred.
I know that many will disagree, but it made sense, 25 years ago, to introduce policies such as affirmative action and BEE in order to create an environment that would enable a progressive inclusion of the excluded into the mainstream of social and economic life in South Africa. The historic exclusions had been systemic and too harsh for nothing to be done to attempt to bridge the divides. In fact, it would have been madness not to try.
The key mistake that was made was to leave out sunset clauses, to omit a date, a time period - e.g. 20 years later - when the said race-based policies would come under an independent, objective, evaluation. This would be done to see the extent to which they would have had the desired impact.
And such an evaluation would not only have to focus on the extent to which beneficiaries of race-based policies would have begun to benefit from their implementation. That would only be one side of the equation.
It would also have to look at the extent to which they impacted the "other side", specifically young white South Africans who were born in the years following the end of apartheid; and especially those who come from poor white families who cannot afford to take their kids through university or lack silver platters to hand over to them, as many assume all whites to be in a position to. As things stand, there seems to be an unintended collective punishment of such citizens on the basis only of their skin colour.
It cannot be right that it remains politically inappropriate to start a conversation about why a young white citizen who starts a business must first look for black friends/business partners to own a significant ownership of it if such a business is to stand a chance of getting project work from the government of his/her own country; a government to which he/she too pays taxes. Or that the seeming implementation of race-based policies into perpetuity drives young white South Africans to no longer hope for a future here; a country to whose fortunes they could be nurtured to contribute to because they too would be seeing themselves as sharing its fate.
In his recent public utterances, Steenhuisen seemed to be lamenting the DA’s 2019 electoral loss; determined to win back people who left the DA, ostensibly for the FF+, and to return the party to its "core values".
At face value, he seems to have lost sight of the possibility that the party he now leads had to necessarily experience an electoral dip before it could rise again to become the political machine it must be if it is to stand any chance of unseating the ANC. At least that is what the Mmusi Maimane led DA had been telling us in recent years.
The DA cannot have it both ways. Either it goes back to its roots and remains a well-funded opposition machine staring the governing party of the day in the eyes, primarily representing the rights of minorities, and spending millions of rand in the courts to get what it wants; struggling to be taken seriously by the majority of South Africans. Or it accept that an electoral dip was necessary but that it would be a short one, allowing the party to re-calibrate its policies from those of a small sectoral party to a one with unstoppable national ambitions.
Self-flagellating over the 2019 electoral loss is a strategic error of potentially great proportions, as it will forces party strategists to focus their energy on regaining votes the DA needed to lose in order to grow, instead of coming up with future- facing winning strategies.
An inclusive SA
In any case, DA or no DA, we, South Africans, need to come to terms with one basic fact: that our country will always by a racially, ethnically, culturally, and religiously diverse one. Some people may leave but many others will stay. And those who leave will always be South African, wherever they go, potential constructive ambassadors or our country around the world.
We will always need the goodwill they can generate in their new homes around the world to help us attract investments and other foreign exchange earning opportunities. Celebrating their departure is both foolish and shortsighted, which amount to the same thing.
The question becomes, what kind of country do we want to be known for? One that that would have overcome the horrific burden of race-based policies imposed by one group over the other by leading the way in ensuring that history never repeats itself, or one that simply reversed the situation by visiting the horrors of race-based policies upon others?
* Solly Moeng is brand reputation management adviser and CEO of strategic corporate communications consultancy DonValley Reputation Managers. Views expressed are his own.