OPINION: The DA's stance on equal opportunity continues to be misunderstood

DA interim leader John Steenhuisen addresses the Parliamentary Press Gallery Association. (Jan Gerber, News24)
DA interim leader John Steenhuisen addresses the Parliamentary Press Gallery Association. (Jan Gerber, News24)

When the DA speaks of promoting "equality of opportunity", we do not mean that everyone already has equal opportunities, but that everyone should have equal opportunities, writes Zakhele Mbhele.

In responding to Ralph Mathekga's opinion piece "DA's classical liberalism borders on classical lunacy", it is important to start with the clarification that while the DA may have many members and supporters who identify as classical liberals, we do not define ourselves as a classical liberal party.

The Democratic Alliance is a liberal democratic party that embraces a broad liberalism, probably best captured in the Alan Paton quote: "By liberalism, I don't mean the creed of any party or any century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom."

This broad liberal tradition encompasses a spectrum from libertarians to social liberals to social democrats who share a core set of values and principles on which all agree, anchored in the primacy of individual freedom. The diversity of opinion and ideas within that tradition enriches debate, while contestation sharpens ideas and arguments for or against different approaches.

Dr Mathekga unfortunately betrays a profound misunderstanding of liberalism. Even if one was to confine oneself to the classical liberal strain of it, its approach in governance would indeed be to "address the historical challenges of inequality" which exist as legacies of colonialism and apartheid, based on the reasoning to follow.

In liberal philosophy, the role of the state is two-fold: firstly, to protect, uphold and give substance to the rights and freedoms of all individuals and secondly, to ensure consequence and restitution/reparation/redress for any violation of those rights.

That is why even the most purist of minarchist libertarians would generally agree that it is right and proper for the state to run and maintain a police service and independent courts to dispense justice (ensuring rights protection and restitution for the violation thereof), as well as a national defence force (deterring and, if needed, rebuffing rights violations by a foreign aggressor, be it a state or non-state actor).

This restitution/reparation/redress role of the state is the moral premise for it to tackle structural disadvantage because any substantively and historically informed analysis of South Africa, which Dr Mathekga correctly characterises as being an abnormal society, would recognise that the status quo is in many ways the product of past acts of uncompensated theft and violence.

Since restitution/reparation/redress is inherent and core to the role of the state in liberal thought, in terms of ensuring justice when an individual's rights are violated, the substantive agenda of any liberal government would be redress for the legacy of past dispossession; in a sense to deal with the backlog of justice that should have been meted out previously by the state.

Redress is the state playing catch-up for failing to do its proper duty in the past. Redress is about ensuring that justice delayed does not in fact become justice denied. This understanding would be shared by liberals across the spectrum; where the contestation and debate would begin is the how of giving effect to it, with those of libertarian leaning towards promoting vouchers to ensure that all people have the means to be purchasing power-bearing consumers with choice in, and equitable access to, the market of goods and services, while social liberals/social democrats would be more inclined to direct state delivery of goods and services like education, health, transport and housing.

Dr Mathekga is also patently wrong in describing the DA's approach as one of "treating people equally irrespective of the conditions in which they find themselves". Rather, we have been explicit and fulsome in our commitment to promoting "positive liberty", as articulated by the liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin. Indeed, one of the DA's longstanding slogans which expresses that commitment is our vision for all South Africans to have "Freedom You Can Use". As Helen Zille said in her speech at the opening of the 2012 DA Federal Congress, "Freedom is hollow if people who suffered under apartheid remain trapped in poverty… freedom means nothing unless it is Freedom You Can Use to build a better life."

Our Values Charter, contained in the DA Federal Constitution, codifies this understanding in saying that "[a]ccess to opportunity gives life and meaning to our hard won freedoms" and we fully recognise that "[a] society cannot be fair if there exists large-scale inequality". So when we speak of promoting "equality of opportunity", we do not mean that everyone already has equal opportunities. We mean that everyone should have equal opportunities and thus redress policies must be implemented to benefit those who are unfairly disadvantaged, especially by socio-economic circumstance resulting from past injustice, in order to ensure a level playing field.

That is why we promote the idea of an 'Opportunity Society', which is the corollary of the 'Open Society'. Speaking for myself, I know full well what access to opportunities can mean for one's prospects to build a better life: my high school education was funded by a scholarship, I got through university on a bursary and my first job was an internship that was ultimately converted into a permanent contract position. All of these were opportunities that enabled me to apply my talents and abilities to pursue my aspirations.

The biggest shame about structural inequality in South Africa is that it locks millions of talented South Africans out of opportunity to develop skills, start businesses and make a contribution to our society, whether as educators, engineers or entrepreneurs. As the DA, we are indeed "repulsed by the unfair privileges that flowed from the apartheid system or colonialism" and that is why where we govern, our DA governments are making steady progress to redress the legacy of apartheid and colonialism through quality education and healthcare, investment attraction that creates jobs, efficient delivery that ensures near-universal access to basic services and clean governance that ensures public benefit from the public purse.

We do not claim to be perfect, nor do we promise that we can deliver paradise, but it is ill-informed at best, and disingenuous at worst, for any of our detractors to argue that the DA, as a liberal party, has no commitment to redress, both in creed and in deed. 

- 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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