OPINION: The DA's awkward history with race

Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane. (Getty Images)
Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane. (Getty Images)

Little recourse exists for members when a party decides to get rid of them. Just ask Mmusi Maimane, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Patricia de Lille. But in the DA's official history, their forced departures will probably be presented as “voluntary" resignations, writes Christi van der Westhuizen.

The "classical liberals" have got their way, and Mmusi Maimane has been replaced with John Steenhuisen as interim leader. To their credit, as dominant bloc they seem concerned about the message that the party’s internal racial conflict and resultant repeated purges of black leaders sends to the wider voting public.

Columns that I and others have written, have evoked responses from DA public representatives that indicate the party’s trajectory ahead, at least when it comes to race.

This is my reply to an article by DA MP Zakhele Mbhele, former spokesperson of DA federal chair Helen Zille.

He accuses me of setting up a "straw man argument" with my analysis of the recent machinations in the party as the consequence of white denialism of both the persistent effects of racism, and of the potential for a dynamic liberalism rooted in Africa to address those very effects.

Firstly, Mbhele is of the opinion that analysts must necessarily engage the party’s internal review panel report on the DA 2019 election results.

This report, which recommended that Maimane step down, was partly drafted by two stalwarts of the liberal establishment: Ryan Coetzee and Tony Leon.

They were the axis around which the party revolved in their previous capacities as respectively DA strategist and party leader at the turn of the century.

The DA's demolition of the so-called New National Party (NNP) had much to do with Leon and Coetzee's contribution. But they come with a certain racial baggage, apart from Leon’s open opposition to black DA MPs' support of employment equity in 2013.

The "fight back" campaign with which the DA mortally wounded the NNP in the 1999 election was associated with white people who refused to take responsibility for apartheid and felt resentful that they had to share the country on an equal footing.

Some black people read "fight back" as "fight blacks", and the party's electoral prospects among black voters were negatively affected.

Hence Coetzee and subsequent party leader Helen Zille's efforts to reach out to black voters by changing the party's image with inclusive messaging.

While the review panel report should also be analysed by independent pundits, it is defensive to insist on this as a criterion for analysis.

Such an insistence suggests a party skittish about criticism if it does not emerge out of the DA's dominant framework.

This skittishness is also visible in the liberal establishment’s reluctance to make sense of the history of the party – even the most recent history.

For example, Maimane's moving declaration at his election as party leader in May 2015 that "if you don't see that I'm black, then you don't see me", which I quoted in my original article.

Mbhele in his reaction alleges that my quotation is partial, because Maimane also said, "if all you see is that I am black, then you don't see me either".

But Mbhele - perhaps intentionally - confuses two speeches. It was much later, at the party's federal congress in April 2018, that Maimane qualified his original statement in that way.

Back in 2015, Maimane followed up his refutation of colour blindness in his speech with the following assertion in support of active redress, which does not fit Mbhele's argument: "This doesn't mean our skin colour must define us forever… we cannot stay trapped in that way of thinking. We must triumph over the evil of apartheid by building a new bridge into a new future… We can transcend race."

He added an important proviso: "But this can only happen if every South African acknowledges the injustices of apartheid; and it can only happen if we all recognise that the racial inequality of the past remains with us today. And so we will stand firm on our commitment to implement policies that redress the legacy of the past."

In contrast, in the 2018 address that Mbhele quotes, Maimane made no mention of redress. Instead, he backtracked on his 2015 position by saying that his blackness did not define other aspects of his identity, such as fatherhood and patriotism.

He added that whoever thought that race defined other identity dimensions would be guilty of "groupthink".

This prevarication can probably be thrown at Maimane as proof of the accusations that he was an inconsistent leader. But the fingerprints of the self-declared classical liberals are visible on the 2018 speech.

The use of the term "groupthink" is a giveaway, especially.

Maimane was on the backfoot by 2018: the interference with his public utterances reveals the extent of the white pushback against his project of racial redress.

This reactionary white streak can be traced back, including to the decision in the late 1960s by the Progressive Party, the DA’s original permutation, to become white.

This decision is conveniently pinned on the black members. Mbhele quotes lone Prog MP Helen Suzman who alleged that the black members "requested" to be suspended from the party when the apartheid regime banned interracial parties. How nice of them.

Little recourse exists for members when a party decides to get rid of them. Just ask Maimane, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Patricia de Lille. But in the DA's official history, their forced departures will probably be presented as “voluntary" resignations.

Mbhele vehemently denies in his response that the DA is "blind to history, context and race".

As examples, he mentions the party's constitution which refers to "the duty to redress any disadvantages caused by our past", as well as the diversity clause. The latter states, among others, that the party will "take active steps to promote and advance diversity in its own ranks".

It is opportunistic of Mbhele to cite the diversity clause here. The addition of diversity as core value, alongside freedom, fairness and opportunity, is after all one of Maimane's legacies that his group fought hard for.

Indeed, the explicit rejection of legal mechanisms to undo inequalities was added as a principle at the time, to serve as a counterweight to the inclusion of diversity.

This is another illustration of the liberal establishment's resistance to racial redress. It creates contradictions in the DA constitution: ultimately the lack of instruments for redress makes the acknowledgment of diversity in the constitution meaningless.

This is part of the syndrome of denial in which the DA has unfortunately become stuck. My argument that the party’s denial of the continuing effects of race serves white interests is regarded as contradictory by Mbhele.

This reveals how the party's resistance to introspection about race has incapacitated its members when it comes to understanding the workings of race in entrenching inequalities.

Apartheid and colonialism's most destructive legacy is socio-economic inequality, which is exacerbated at the intersections with race, gender and geographical location.

To ignore intersecting differences when formulating policy has only one result: to reproduce the negative effects of these historical discriminations.

The noises we are hearing from the DA, including Zille, to apply “disadvantage” as basis for redress can only bear fruit if actual policy mechanisms are created. Otherwise, like the DA’s diversity clause, it will amount to another empty promise.

 - Van der Westhuizen is Associate Professor at the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD) at the Nelson Mandela University.

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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