Should We Care that Herman Mashaba Joined the DA?

2014-06-01 23:58

Herman Mashaba (CityPress)

Much has been made recently about Herman Mashaba’s decision to join the Democratic Alliance (DA). Truthfully, I can understand why. Someone of his talent, and wealth, joining any political party is a cause for celebration. It is, or can be seen as, an endorsement of the party’s ideology and political programme. One imagines that someone with his experience would not make such a decision easily and without due diligence.

The one aspect that is worrisome, though, is the racial narrative that has accompanied this move. While I do think that, in terms of representivity, this decision does say something, I am concerned by the extent to which it is being portrayed.

On one hand, some (who also happen to be within the DA) are using Mashaba’s decision to show that the party does not have a transformation problem and that it is a party for all people. On the other hand, and less palatably, are those who criticise Mashaba for ‘betraying the cause’ by joining a ‘white party.’ Both of these attitudes, to my mind, are simplistic at best.

The former is dangerous because it overstates Mashaba’s decision. By reducing him to his race, in order to illustrate the wider point, proponents may be guilty of the kind of racial profiling they spend their days fighting. Mashaba is an individual who, yes, is black. That is not to extract his race from his identity. The relationship between the two is something for him to decide. His biology should not determine how he seems himself and nor should it determine how we see him. And, it is for that reason that I suggest, he is not, on his own, necessarily representative of the thinking of all black people. So his decision to join, while worthy of celebration, does not mean that the DA should give up its internal drive to transform. And it does not mean that the DA is transformed either.

Indeed, it would be remiss of anyone to ignore the fact that Mashaba’s socioeconomic position, as illustrated by his Chairmanship of the Free Market Foundation (FMF), could do more to explain his decision than his race. Indeed, if the DA truly wanted to show just how much it is transforming, and assuming that in order to do so it must crassly advertise whenever black members join, then it should show the country just how many non-billionaire black people are joining it. That would speak in numbers and in significance. Though, regrettably, that demonstrates the same mentality that is imposed upon it all the time: that it must show that it is transformed, rather than just be so.

The latter attitude is equally dangerous. It, too, is also guilty of race reductionism. By reducing Mashaba to his blackness – something which opponents automatically assume to mean that he must be supportive of the ANC; the DA’s opponents seek to, ironically, rob him of the one quality they ascribe political value to. The rationale is clear. By attempting to make Mashaba seem less black, they hope to create a wedge for black voters generally: they are either black and part of the majority’s history or they support the DA (and that robs them of their blackness). It is a false, and utterly reprehensible, choice.

It also conveniently ignores the fact that the DA’s growth among black communities is genuine. It may not be at levels that are enjoyed by the EFF and the ANC, a fact which both parties directly attempt to bring about, but it is there and it is growing. In fact, the desperation with which people have leapt to discredit Mashaba may demonstrate their fears rather than their nonchalance: the DA is growing in black communities which could be counted on to vote in a particular way all the time.

The temptations for both sides to do what they do is clear. But, it can only further perpetuate the kind of racial stereotypes and narratives that are so easily used to separate rather than unite a healing nation. Mashaba’s decision is meritorious. It shows that the DA is being considered seriously by serious people. That’s what should be celebrated. And, that we live in a society, despite the craziness, that we can make such a political decision and that we have the freedom to carry it out. Should we care, then? Yes. But perhaps not for the reasons we are being told.

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