OPINION: Is DA liberalism marked for death?

Then outgoing DA leader, Helen Zille with Athol Trollip at the party's federal conference on May 9, 2015 in Port Elizabeth. (Photo by Gallo Images / Rapport / Deon Ferreira)
Then outgoing DA leader, Helen Zille with Athol Trollip at the party's federal conference on May 9, 2015 in Port Elizabeth. (Photo by Gallo Images / Rapport / Deon Ferreira)

The DA gradually morphed into a political haven for pseudo liberals who, while accepting of the need to bring people from different races together, still hankered for white domination, writes Tebogo Khaas.

The political calculus of liberalism and opposition politics are undergoing a swift and radical revision as waves of racially and culturally diverse leaders of the Democratic Alliance (DA) engage in open hostilities.

In the ensuing discord, the DA risks splitting mainly along quasi-ideological and factional lines. Should this occur, our democratic experiment could be poorer.

Let me explain. 

As the apartheid beast lay dying, the ANC and the DA feasted on the carcass of the National Party (NP) – architects of the apartheid system. Most "verligte" (moderate) NP members joined the ANC while most "verkrampte" (conservative) flocked to the DA.

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The pursuit of national reconciliation and racial integration became the prevailing mantra that ushered our racially divided society into the new democratic order.

Black consciousness proponent and leader Steve Biko cautioned through his seminal writings thus, "The myth of [racial] integration as propounded under the banner of the liberal ideology must be cracked and killed because it makes people believe that something is being done when in reality the artificially integrated circles are a soporific to the blacks while salving the consciences of the guilt-stricken white. It works from the premise that, because it is difficult to bring people from different races together in this country, achievement of this is in itself a step towards the total liberation of the blacks. Nothing could be more misleading."

A contradiction of liberal values

Helen Suzman, anti-apartheid campaigner and doyen of the Patriotic Federal Party – forerunners to the DA – opened the door for her successors to stake a claim in the story of liberal politics, including the DA's acceptance within black communities. 

However, former DA leader Helen Zille, and her predecessor Tony Leon, did it in a fashion that piled myth upon myth, and racism upon more racism in our political discourse. The duo sought political relevance and to assert their authority over the party even if in so doing they contradicted the liberal values and principles imbued by their predecessors.

As our democratic experiment progressed, black political newcomers – who bore no guilt of allegiance to the liberation movement – were easily assimilated into the DA, whose anti-apartheid track record heralded the spirit of "rainbowism" and racial integration.

Sadly under Zille the DA gradually morphed into a political haven for pseudo liberals who, while accepting of the need to bring people from different races together, still hankered for white domination. This was despite the glaringly changing racial profile of the party.

The growing popularity of some black leaders caused consternation and open resentment in some influential white leaders. This was particularly pronounced in leaders who leveraged their capabilities to marshal financial resources to sway party direction. 

The "verkrampte" DA old guard conceived and introduced a more restrictive, paternalistic and racially politicised view of how to arbitrage stewardship of the party. 

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The practice of publicly rebuking, in rhetoric firmly redolent with racism, and haranguing strong-minded black leaders started with firebrand former DA parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, who dared to stand up to Zille. Regrettably, Zille dispatched Mazibuko to the political wilderness. 

Former DA Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille, a seasoned Pan Africanist, also felt the wrath of a co-ordinated political onslaught reserved for "clever blacks". Zille's acolytes led by Natasha Mazzone, viciously hounded De Lille until she left acrimoniously.

De Lille, who currently serves as minister of public works, has since established a new political party, yet again. Many other aspirant black leaders suffered different hues of Zille's choice treatment. 

Well thought of (read pliant) and assimilated black members such as Gwen Ngwenya got elevated to crucial party leadership positions in order to serve as buffer against the reasonable aspirations and legitimate expectations of fellow black members. 

It is bewildering to observe Ngwenya, ranked as the closest to "whiteness" and socio-politically redeemable to racists, unashamedly rubbish the ideals of transformation and broad-based black economic empowerment without offering any cogent alternatives. 

It is also striking, but no less unsurprising, that Ngwenya champions race denialism and disparages broad-based black economic empowerment (B-BBEE). B-BBEE is a constitutionally entrenched mechanism aimed at redressing the iniquities of our apartheid past. Clearly Ngwenya seeks to ingratiate herself with those who, like Zille, are opposed to real transformation. 

Current DA leader Mmusi Maimane, widely believed to have been Zille's anointed successor seems to have betrayed Zille's expectations. Maimane's vision to align the party with the national imperative of building nationhood through enduring transformation and racial integration, has made him Zille's marked man. 

In a smart move calculated to second-guess recommendations of the organisational review report produced by Leon, Maimane has called for an early elective conference where he intends to seek a fresh, unencumbered mandate to lead. 

Zille and Leon's persistent efforts to dislodge Maimane under the pretext of the party's dwindling electoral performance are predictable and absurd. 

Hubris blinded the party

The hubris that followed the DA's impressive performance in the 2014 elections, largely propelled by black voter disenchantment with an incorrigibly corrupt ANC, blinded the DA from the evolving opposition party calculus.

It was inevitable that most "verkramptes" would abandon the DA of Maimane upon Zille's stepping down as leader and vote for the Freedom Front Plus. Being led by blacks is surely not their cup of rooibos tea. 

Another credible theory advanced for the DA's poor showing at the last election is that, frustrated with the DA's caustic brew of liberalism, some disenchanted black DA voters found resonance in the politics of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

In fairness to Maimane, most of the blame for the DA's poor performance in the last election should be placed on the party's apparent prevarication in making cogent policy choices, including entrenched paternalism. 

The DA disregards black voter sophistication and desires at its own peril. 

It cannot expect to attract black voters, or remain politically relevant, whilst it is seen to be sympathetic to white supremacist tendencies in its ranks or is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as opposed to real socioeconomic transformation. 

The apparent ire of a pesky DA old guard seem to have been raised by the growing political influence of the EFF in some of the key metros under DA management. 

DA Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba, who enjoys the support of the EFF, revealed that the City spurned Leon's attempts at scoring multimillion-rand contracts in the city. If true, this is deeply concerning. 

A growing crisis of relevance

In cahoots with Leon, Zille is planning to recapture the DA, having realized the futility of ruling from their political graves. Their conduct has appalled and outraged many.

The duo's distressingly weak and opaque reasons for mounting co-ordinated political comebacks are as ill-conceived as they are self-serving. They seem to suffer a growing crisis of relevance and self-awareness. They can no longer dispense political patronage nor command the loyalty of independent black DA leaders and their supporters.

And as attempts at political alchemy of "clever blacks" in the DA continue to flounder, the racial and cultural fault lines have widened. This has exposed the hegemony of white supremacists in the party hierarchies and alliances.

Zille is notorious for her fantastical claims regarding colonialism and African civilisation. She habitually makes incendiary statements redolent with racism, which is why her exit from the political stage was tonic relief to many. 

However, barely five months into her purported retirement from active party politics, the serenity of retirement from active politics and attendant loss of influence seem too unbearable. 

Should Zille succeed in her political comeback as she bids for the party's federal executive chairperson position, some prominent leaders, including Maimane, Mashaba and Athol Trollip, could find their positions untenable. 

Any split, although highly unlikely at this juncture, wouldn't be along racial lines, even though race is at the centre of the crisis engulfing the DA.

Zille's comeback isn't a fait accompli, as Trollip has strong grassroots appeal within the party, including the crucial support of party stalwart Douglas Gibson. 

Nonetheless, a tectonic shift in the DNA of the party seems almost assured, irrespective of who is elected the new chairperson of the federal executive council. The problems faced by the DA are not unique nor insoluble. It needs to make a deep introspection, and take painful policy choices for it to survive this crisis and thrive. 

The unmasking of Zille's racial proclivities and Machiavellianism occurred during her iron-fisted reign, and was completed during her short stint at the awkwardly named Institute of Race Relations (IRR). 

Zille, Leon, and the IRR present ominous links in a chain of the evolution of white supremacy under the guise of liberalism.

Legitimate political expectations of black DA members, and the persistent quest to maintain white domination of a predominantly black party are mutually exclusive and irreconcilable. In the ensuing dissonance, the party risks exposing the inherent paradox of advancing racial integration and its brand of liberalism as an ideological chimera.

Surely as they witness the promise of a multi-generational dream of Suzman wither and potentially die, most loyal DA members must feel betrayed by the current crop of divisive, paternalistic leaders.

Forlornly, many South Africans are left to wonder: Whither liberalism? 

- Khaas is chairman of Corporate SA, a strategic advisory and consultancy.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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