OPINION: No 'white denialism' in the DA, despite what critics say

A crowd cheers for Premier-elect in the Western Cape Alan Winde. (Ethan Van Diemen, News24)
A crowd cheers for Premier-elect in the Western Cape Alan Winde. (Ethan Van Diemen, News24)

Prof Christi van der Westhuizen's opinion piece "Liberals are failing to wrap their heads around race" amounts to a straw man argument. It criticises the DA for positions and perspectives that we have never expressed, or for distortions thereof. It is important to expose the two legs of this straw man and demonstrate that the argument does not stand, writes Zakhele Mbhele.

'White denialism'

Van der Westhuizen makes the bold claim of "white denialism" that lies at the heart of the DA's problems that led to a slight regression in our electoral performance in 2019 – a denialism that apparently entails an "inability to acknowledge the continuing repercussions of race and racism in the country" and is intent on "a version of liberalism… which is untouched by history and context… and cannot be adapted to address the problem of racism".

Firstly, the root problems that contributed to the party's slight regression (massively over-exaggerated by many media pundits as a "crisis" and "implosion") are well-analysed and clearly laid-out in the review panel report, as commissioned by Mmusi Maimane and accepted by the DA's Federal Council. The fact that Van der Westhuizen's opinion piece never once makes reference to it or its findings (if for no other reason than to challenge its analysis of the state of the party in contrast to her analysis) makes her argument under-researched at best and, at worst, makes the straw man more salient.

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Secondly, it is patently untrue that the DA is blind to history, context and race. Our Values Charter, contained in the DA Federal Constitution, explicitly acknowledges "the injustices suffered by previous generations" and that "the effects of the past are still felt", therefore making one of our core principles "the redress of past discrimination" as well as "any disadvantages caused by our past". The Diversity Clause, inserted into the DA Federal Constitution at our 2018 Federal Congress, also underscores this.

What we will not do however is to be held captive to history and race. That is what the ANC wants because constant references to our painful past (which, is not to say the DA endorses amnesia about that past) and race-based political division and polarisation serve the ANC in two ways: firstly, as a distraction from its misgovernance and service delivery failures and, secondly, by making electoral choice about stoking the fires of racial solidarity and tugging the heart-strings with nostalgic memories of an imagined great liberation movement, instead of being about different policy offers and comparative performance in government.


A most fascinating feature of this straw man argument is that the DA can apparently be simultaneously denialist about, or blind to, race and yet have an active "concern with keeping the party as a base for white interests".

Well, which is it: do we see race or do we not?

Van der Westhuizen's effort to paint Maimane as having been the vanguard of a "black leaders' attempt to turn the party away from its legacy of race-blindness" is also cut at the knees by its reliance on selective quoting. He did indeed say that, "If you don't see that I'm black, you don't see me", but he also followed that up with, "but if you look at me and only see that I'm black, you also don't see me".

This a nuanced line of thinking that the ANC racial nationalist worldview cannot accommodate or understand. Within that paradigm, race is paramount and comrade connections are the "one ring to rule them all" (which is why, for example, Bathabile Dlamini was recently appointed as the chairperson of the social housing regulatory authority interim board). It is thus inconceivable from that perspective that the rejection of race-based identity politics or race-based policy is not necessarily about or grounded in ahistorical race-blindness.

Apart from babies and toddlers (before their innocence is tainted by the social scripts of racialised thinking from adults), we all "see race" (the fact that some population groups look different others). As mentioned above, the DA fully acknowledges the fact and legacy of race-based discrimination and oppression during colonialism and apartheid but that acknowledgement and understanding does not automatically require buy-in to, and participation in, race discourse and race-based identity politics, and it certainly creates no obligation to instrumentalise race in policy, whether for redress purposes or otherwise.

The inconvenient truth for peddlers of race-based identity politics is that it will be effective non-racial governance and delivery that will actually progressively and sustainably address the "race question". How? Because non-racialism, not just in rhetoric but in reality, can only be cultivated and entrenched by reducing and ultimately removing the material conditions of racialised poverty and inequality that were first borne of past racialism and racism, and now provide fertile ground for race-based identity politics and political mobilisation, as well as perpetuating stereotypes that feed current racism.

This effective governance and delivery, pursued with a redress-oriented policy platform, automatically ensures that the beneficiaries are overwhelmingly black by directing resource distribution to the most disadvantaged communities and individuals. It is why no-fee schools and the building of social services facilities and infrastructure (schools, clinics, hospitals, recreational and sporting facilities, etc.) would be mostly in black communities and why public housing, NSFAS and social welfare beneficiaries would be almost entirely black.

Racialism or liberalism?

The notion of "racial liberalism" which Van der Westhuizen tries to ascribe to the DA is an oxymoron of note. Either you're a racialist (subscribing to racial essentialism, without regard for individuality) or you're a liberal (valuing the primacy of the individual, above their demography). What she refers to is more accurately described as the trumping of liberalism by racialism (as indeed there was a trumping of liberalism by sexism, until the vote was progressively extended to women, within the confines of the status quo racialism of the day). That is why one of the most powerful slogans of the liberal counter-effort to colonial and apartheid discrimination (and still a valid one) was "Merit, Not Colour".

It is perhaps this "racial liberalism" thesis that leads her to mischaracterise the early but later abandoned Progressive Party position as having been "qualified black franchise" when it was in fact non-racial qualified franchise (meaning an equal application across all races, not a specific dispensation for black voters), as well as to distort the Progressive Party decision in response to the 1968 Prohibition of Political Interference Act as an "ejection" of its black, coloured and Indian members, when in fact it was taken with the consent and agreement of those members because it was considered vital by all that a liberal voice remain within parliamentary politics to continue opposition to apartheid and advocacy of liberal values and principles.

As Helen Suzman wrote in her autobiography, the Prog black, coloured and Indian members were "suspended at their request" and "[t]hey asked us to continue to play our part in Parliament and so exercise whatever influence we could muster".

The DA is not averse to criticism and, as demonstrated by the post-election review process, we do not shy away from self-introspection and reflection when needed in order to course-correct. Unfortunately, Van der Westhuizen has misdiagnosed the problem and expounded an analysis that conforms to the ANC's frame on race-based identity politics that constantly looks backwards.

As the DA, we are intent on redoubling our efforts to craft a clear blue water alternative to the ANC and leading a future-focussed revolution of aspiration, hope and change. We will not be demonised into a stereotype, or constrained by false dichotomies, of our detractors' making.

- Zakhele Mbhele is a DA MP and the party's spokesperson on police.

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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