A Reply to RW Johnson: Get Real!

2014-02-12 23:09

RW Johnson’s opinions on the Agang/Democratic Alliance betrayed more about him than he may have cared to share with a wide reading audience. One paragraph in particular illustrated his unfortunate attitude towards race. It read:

‘This, in three different ways, was a grievous mistake. First, in a democratic party it is simply not up to her to choose the next leader. Slabbert did not choose Eglin; Eglin did not choose Leon; Leon did not choose Zille. Second, she thereby accepted the ANC logic that skin colour is the all-important thing. This assumption has no place in a liberal party. Third, she made the (ridiculous) assumption that a black leader would bring a flood of black support. If that were true Buthelezi, Lekota and Holomisa would now be leading very big parties. In fact all the DA's progress since 1994 has been achieved under white leaders and everything suggests that the party would gradually add more black voters under either a white or black leader - provided that that leader can hold the party together and keep it a party of liberal and democratic principle. There may even be a positive side to the leader being white. One notes how African, Coloured and Indian parents are eager that their children should attend formerly white schools - it is seen as a guarantee of quality - and also how, for the same reason, they do not want the whites to abandon the school to them: the ideal is to be racially diverse and keep the whites involved. Parties may be the same.’

The last two lines of Johnson’s racialised bile may be read to soften the overall bigoted attitude he displays. However, the impact of his sentiments cannot be ignored. For even though Johnson is correct in his assertion that Helen Zille’s obsession with her own successor being black in order to allegedly put to bed all of the DA’s problems with attracting black voters, his rubbishing of Zille and the DA’s attempts to grow its own credible black leadership is wholly incorrect.

That is because Johnson fails to engage with the nuance of the political reality that the DA faces. Not having a black leader costs the DA politically. It is an issue that the DA is alive to and which explains why it was so eager to effectively hand over the leadership of the party to Mamphela Ramphele on more than one occasion. But that is not the same as the party’s attempt to grow its own credible black leadership.

Handing the leadership to someone that has no proven political track-record and who comes with little political credibility like Ramphele is questionable from the get go. And her handling of the merger-non-merger devastatingly illustrated just how inept she is as a leader, specifically, and at the political game, generally. This, coupled with the overt explanation that the move was motivated by the DA’s need to overcome racial issues, adds credence to the idea that many black (and white) voters have of the DA: all its black leaders are window dressing token appointments.

Why is it, then, that voters  find the likes of Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mbali Ntuli, Mmusi Maimane, Makashule Gana, Khume Ramulifho and others politically attractive – but not Ramphele? The answer lies in the fact that they have proven themselves and added value to the party. Ramphele did not.

And while Johnson attacks Zille for adding extra support and actively promoting new black talent, I do not. Institutional memory and institutional biases are real things. Given the DA’s history and the dominance of white people in the party – a fact that is now changing – it makes sense for Zille to aid and/or accelerate the promotion of black candidates of merit who, without such support, may face difficulty in seeking and securing election despite their objectively being best for the job. That is not to say that the DA’s white members bear some racial prejudice against members of colour and that they actively keep non-whites out (although some may – for their own ambitions’ sake).

These phenomenon are subliminal and can affect behaviour even when there is no intent in the way in which people exercise their choice. And the same is true for members of colour as well: when white leaders are constantly elected and thought of as being the best qualified, that is what is normalised. It is exactly the same struggle that women face in a man-dominated world. Zille’s actions are commendable because it breaks that kind of mentality and normalises credible black leadership. And that is important for the DA specifically and South Africa generally – especially when it comes to how the two view each other.

But Johnson’s denialism of this political reality is matched by how he misreads the story behind the DA’s present growth. He asserts that all the DA’s growth since 1994 until now were under white leaders. Therefore, he suggests, the DA will have no problem in gaining black support with a white leader.

Johnson assumes that the DA presently enjoys support from black voters and so it will be able to easily attract more black support. That is not true: the DA itself recognises that of its present support, less than 3% comes from black voters. Further, the DA’s growth in recent years, under white leaders, has been because the party has maximised (and maxed out) the support of minority voters.

Then what about the other assertion Johnson makes: black leadership itself may not be decisive to winning black support. As evidence for this he cites other (black-led) political parties and points out how politically weak and irrelevant they are. As his argument goes, this demonstrates that having a black leader is not the be-all-and-end-all. It would be foolish to disagree.

The Democratic Alliance stands out in stark contrast to this: its machinery, its vision, its policy platform and its stability as a party means that it cannot easily be compared to other opposition parties. Johnson’s equating them is mischievous and should be ignored. The counter-examples are only valid in that they have black leaders but they are invalid to the extent that a direct comparison can be made between them and the DA. If anything, this suggests that the DA needs a strong party platform and a strong black leader in order to be competitive. It has one but not the other.

But Johnson’s soothsaying is not nearly as ludicrous as his understanding of race relations in a post-Apartheid South Africa. That he can blithely assert, in good conscience, that people of colour would be happy with white leadership because the same people of colour want to send their children to previously white schools confirms for me that Johnson lives on another planet.

Johnson’s lack of explaining why previously white schools have obtained their structural advantage over other schools across South Africa is telling. The assertion that black people prefer their children to go to previously white schools because they are better illustrates just what Johnson thinks of whiteness and excellence. While Johnson is factually correct in the strictest sense, that previously all white schools are the top performing ones overall, his failure to substantiate why that is the case demonstrates his seeming underlying belief that because those institutions were dominated and run by white people they are, as a matter of fact, better.

Had Johnson been more truthful and critical, he would have qualified this egregious statement with the facts: white schools were (and are) better because Apartheid deliberately overdeveloped them at the expense of the possible development of people of colour. As africanhistory.com states: in 1982, the government spent R1211 on the education of every white child whereas it spent R146 on every black child.[1] That means spending per capita was astoundingly eight times higher for white children than black children. A pity such a discrepancy does not enter his calculation of excellence. It needs hardly any explanation as to why such disparate levels of government support will tend to create some schools better than others.

It should come as no surprise then that aspirational parents would want their children to attend these better ‘white’ schools. This has nothing to do with the fact that they are white but everything to do with the fact that they are objectively offering a better education which they have been able to do as a result of their ill-gotten comparative advantage. Embarrassingly, these schools continue to prejudice their selections towards white children and parents in any case – as recent studies have shown, white people still earn and own more than black people in South Africa. Given that these schools have significant powers to set fees – most of which are on the rise and are prohibitively expensive to the masses of our people – it should come as no surprise that they remain islands of cosseted white privilege. Their excellence has nothing to do with their whiteness per se but everything to do with their exclusivity which, unfortunately, in South Africa is one and the same thing.

To suggest then that whiteness is indicative of excellence may have been valid had white people built racially exclusive schools that excelled on an equal playing field. But Apartheid South Africa was not the case and Johnson is deluded to pretend otherwise.

Essentialisation is a horrible thing. Johnson has distinguished himself by his trenchant opposition to the ‘illiberal’ employment equity principles that most people support. His palpable disgust at race reductionism and tinkering is legendary. How unfortunate then that he has engaged in the exact opposite of what he supposedly stands up against. How ironic that this classical liberal ends up sounding like a racialised Nat. Get real Mr Johnson, get real.


[1] http://africanhistory.about.com/od/apartheid/ss/ApartheidSkool1.htm

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