Take leftist posturing over DA leadership contest with a shaker of salt

Mbali Ntuli. (Herman Verwey, City Press)
Mbali Ntuli. (Herman Verwey, City Press)

It was amusing to see Imraan Buccus suggest that Mbali Ntuli might help return the DA to its "liberal roots" in a column run by City Press, Daily Maverick and News24.

That is because Buccus has hardly distinguished himself as someone who is sympathetic to the liberal tradition in South African politics.

On the contrary, Buccus is a dyed-in-the-wool leftist.

His fervent hope is that the South African Communist Party (SACP) will eventually "find the gumption" to split from the ANC.

He wants the communists to throw in their lot with the trade unions and social protest movements, and ultimately win over the "progressive intelligentsia".

If this were to happen, he has written, "the SA Left could be back in the game. And this could change our politics".

Leaving aside the fact that the SACP is stuck in an ideological time warp, and wouldn’t recognise gumption if it came gift-wrapped in an old copy of Pravda delivered by Stalin himself, it’s hard to see how the re-invigoration of liberalism fits into Buccus's dream preferred.

The truth is, it doesn’t.

Buccus couldn’t care less about liberalism. He's not remotely interested in the DA electing a leader who can serve as a torchbearer for the liberal tradition.

He would sooner see the party's liberal roots ripped out than patiently tended.

In that sense, his endorsement of Ntuli would seem to count as a mixed blessing for her.

When it comes to elections, Buccus doesn’t always back winners.

Before last year’s national poll in the UK, Buccus wrote, somewhat breathlessly, that Jeremy Corbyn was "like a rocket illuminating the night sky".

He gushed that Magic Grandpa would "put social hope back on the table".

Tell that to the 60 MPs who lost their seats in Labour’s worst showing since 1935.

Perhaps Buccus has yet to encounter a crackpot socialist he doesn’t like.

After all, he hopes that Bernie Sanders' bid to become the Democratic presidential candidate will "inspire a generation of young intellectuals to turn to socialist ideas".

Even poor old Elizabeth Warren fails to measure up on the Buccus barometer of socialist salubrity: according to him, she's not even a genuine social democrat.

Buccus hailed the victory of Alberto Fernández, the Peronist who won last year’s Argentinian elections.

Buccus celebrated the mass street protests in Chile and Ecuador for "pushing a clearly Left agenda".

And he expressed the hope that a "Latin American rebirth" might "alter SA politics".

This is all very far removed from the liberal tradition that Buccus writes was "once embodied by Helen Suzman", and that he feigns to know and care about.

After Mmusi Maimane's resignation as DA leader, Buccus recycled the madcap mutterings of Herman Mashaba, warning that the DA had been captured by the "right-wing zealots of the Institute of Race Relations".

He reproduces this strawman analysis in his latest column (in almost pure carbon copy, incidentally) without the slightest attempt at verisimilitude.

The only evidence he tries to muster of the DA’s supposed swing to "reactionary politics" is a section of the "Values and Principles" document released by the party in the run-up to its April policy conference.

It states that the DA is opposed to the ANC’s doctrine of "demographic representivity" and that it rejects race quotas.

This is nothing new.

It has always been DA policy.

And it was the Progressive Party’s policy long before that, with the Progs' emphasis on "merit, not race".

It was a progressive position then, and it is a progressive position now.

Helen Suzman, whose authority Buccus invokes, was a fierce critic of Black Economic Empowerment, employment equity and other race-based laws.

So Buccus's disingenuous attempt to refashion Suzman’s liberalism in support of Ntuli’s candidature rings hollow.

Buccus's posturing about the DA’s leadership election - like his musings on Corbyn’s electoral prospects - should be taken with a large shaker of salt.

One of the reasons Labour fared so badly under Corbyn was that he led his party on a single-minded march away from its traditional working-class voter base.

Propelled by the ideologically hard-line Momentum, and buoyed by an influx of young, woke, urban, millennial members principally concerned with identity politics, Corbyn’s Labour lost sight of its core values and lost touch with its core constituents.

The DA learnt a similar lesson after the 2019 elections.

In order to maintain your electoral base, let alone grow it, you need to carry your historic core along with you.

That requires clarity of vision, the lodestar of principle, and a decisive captain who can steer the ship through uncharted waters while relying on the party's history and traditions as a compass.

It doesn’t matter whether that leader is black or white.

Electorally, the next DA leader cannot afford to embark on a project of liberal purification.

Yet nor is he or she faced, as many commentators lazily like to claim, with a choice between a "regressive" brand of classical liberalism and a "progressive" brand of social democracy.

In any event, what those commentators (like Buccus) mean is not social democracy in the conventional sense.

What they have in mind is a watered-down version of the ANC’s policy platform: a more enlightened variety of racial hegemony, minus the corruption, with a few commitments on social justice thrown into the mix.

What the DA really needs is a leader who can reinvigorate the party’s historical non-racial mission, anchored in our core values. In my view, based on the track record of the three declared candidates, John Steenhuisen will best fulfil that role.

Michael Cardo

DA MP and the party’s spokesman on employment and labour

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