The DA, Equality and Liberalism

2013-11-15 16:03

The recent furore around the DA’s stance on the Employment Equity Act  (EEAAB) and Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) Amendment Bills has been an interesting exercise to say the least. Not only will the party have learn better communication and parliamentary management, two reasons Helen Zille admitted as being problems for its early stumbling, but, hopefully, after some soul-searching, I believe there are a few more pertinent lessons that it must take away from this. Chief among them are two realisations: first, the DA cannot be things to all people; and, second, no matter the intensity of the opposition it faces, the party must hold firm.

The DA is usually quite good at both these things. The party has, broadly, been unforgiving of its ‘liberal’ agenda and has actively excluded or alienated itself from people who do not identify with it. And despite the criticism it faced, and continues to face, that liberalism does not mean electoral success (in Africa), it has held on nonetheless. And to a large degree, that has paid off. By actively being the opposite of what it is characterised to be (a white, elitist and racist party), the DA is slowly building credibility among black voters that it is what it says it is: truly non-racist and non-sexist. So too, through hard-slogged determination, has it been able to show that a liberal agenda can be pro-poor in real terms. This is but one factor why Gauteng, the bedrock of ANC support for decades, has suddenly come into play.

Past Lessons

But one can forgive the DA, in the last few days, for forgetting its tried and tested script. When influential figures from the party’s past feel the need, en masse, to participate in what seems like a coordinated attack on the party’s present leadership, then it is understandable that the DA faltered. It’s being in a similar position to when your parent or teacher turns around and tells you that what you’re doing, what they taught you to do, is wrong. The natural reaction is to plead mea culpa and start again.

The truth is, though, in the DA’s case, had it continued to listen to the pearls of wisdom of yesteryear, it would probably not exist today and the liberal project, as we know it, may possibly have been dead. Rejection of ‘conventional wisdom’ for the sake of progress, real and perceived, has been in the DA’s, and its forebearers’, blood. This is especially the case where the wisdom so offered is so conformist (read uncourageous) that it is unwise (read foolish).

The irony is, of course, that those offering the conventional wisdom with respect to these Amendment Bills ignored the same type of ‘wisdom’ when many of them were in charge. Leon, bravely, ignored them and went ahead with the merger with the Nats. Many traditional liberals were appalled and decried it as the end of liberalism. But as Leon, and other realists, knew, had the DA not merged with the Nats, liberalism would have died anyway. The party would have been a fringe voice in a fierce debate between two competing racial-nationalisms. Noone would speak for liberalism and constitutionalism. In as much as old Progs were sickened with the idea, the DA would become a fully-fledged political party that would play politics in order to make its agenda real and appealing. It would no longer be confined to white, genteel suburbia. And the lesson there holds true today.

Intellectual Capacity

Eusebius McKaiser argues that the DA is both right and wrong in its handling of this ‘crisis.’ He suggests that the DA ‘‘lacks the intellectual rigour’’ to deal with the historical conundrum it faces, putting it rather bluntly: how can the DA be, at the same time, both liberal and champions of redress policies based on race?

McKaiser does a good job too of doing something that no one from within the DA has done thus far: clearing up ideological fault lines in this debate. For thus far the DA’s critics and its leaders have been erroneously arguing over whether the DA, by supporting EE and BBBEE, is liberal or is not liberal. The truth, as Zille acknowledged in her response to McKaiser, is that, where the DA is forced into a binary narrative of either being liberal or not, ‘‘there is no room for nuance.’’

This lack of nuance has allowed critics to portray the DA to be everything it is not. Those from the left say it is lily-livered white, blanched of any racial consciousness whatsoever. Those to the left, varyingly, paint it red, or black, depending on whether they’re engaging in rooi- or swaart-gevaar tactics. What is missing is the DA’s clear, liberal blue.

In disagreement with McKaiser, I believe Zille has showed that the DA already has the intellectual underpinnings of a liberal policy that seeks social redress.

The principles of that policy may be summarised as follows: the DA recognises the need to redress past injustices. It recognises that the best way to do so is through a general, holistic plan to uplift people out of poverty by creating conditions of suitable to jobs, economic growth and empowerment through education. It similarly recognises, however, that such redress depends on a variety of factors, including the party coming to power and taking a long time for its agenda to start working. In the meanwhile, the party cannot support policies that are race-based and limit empowerment and access to a few. But it can support those same policies where it is targeted at groups who bore the brunt of Apartheid and whom may benefit immediately, or in the medium-term, provided that such policies are applied fairy, legally and meritoriously. Race is not a substitute for merit. And these policies will be supported, and ultimately replaced, by other policies which support job creation, skills development and growth.

Lindiwe Mazibuko, the DA’s Parliamentary Leader, acknowledged as much when she wrote:

‘‘In light of recent commentary … I would like to clarify the DA’s position … The DA supports employment equity that redresses the legacy of Apartheid and expands job opportunities for all. But this cannot be done at the cost f economic growth and job creation. Ultimately, a growing economic with increasing employment is the surest and most sustainable way to ensure the creation of (a) non-racial economy with fair distribution and opportunity for all.’’

Both Mazibuko and Zille set out the extensive grounds of opposition, of the DA, to the EEAA and the BBBEE Practice Codes because they failed to meet this metric.

If this is read generously, then, this provides the intellectual framework against which individual policies that, ostensibly, seek to redress the legacy of our past will be judged.  However, evident from both explanations, there is little or no reconciliation between the race-based nature of these policies and ‘‘liberalism’’ as has been presented. Perhaps Mazibuko and Zille do not see the need to justify this tension because, to their mind, despite the harping of their critics, there is none. I would tend to agree.

The DA’s Position

The liberal position of the DA is neither particularly ideologically hide-bound, to a particular conception of liberalism, nor rudderless, to the extent that it can hide a multitude of sins under the guise of being liberal. Rather, it is informed by the reality of South Africa, a reality which shapes its political outlook, as it should. It is founded in the proud traditions of liberalism (‘‘a basic commitment to individualism and a healthy disdain for a state that is too keen to intervene in our lives’’) but at the same time realises that ideological overzealousness, to a particular idea, in all circumstances, irrespective of nuance or difference, is as simplistic as it irresponsible.

In this case, it is simplistic, and indeed offensive, to reduce the attempt to give meaningful, short- to medium-term, redress to hundreds of years of economic racial prejudice to political pragmatism and a failure to think the decision through. Indeed, the failure to recognise the unique quality of this form of state intervention, but rather to apply a more ‘traditionalist’ liberal approach that the DA’s critics would prefer, would be in effect to deny the moral and legal right that systemically disadvantaged groups have to state assistance. In effect, those who articulate this position, it seems, genuinely believe that in order to overcome the legacy of Apartheid, formal political equality was, and is, enough. And, unfortunately, many can see why some of their number would hold that view: inevitably, they themselves are beneficiaries, directly and indirectly, of state oppression. So formal equality, blind of any consciousness of the past; and, absent any serious attempt to engage with it, is acceptable. Of course it would be. They have accrued enough privilege which, by this stage, is, probably, attributed to natural talent and merit that they are blinded to the absolute advantage it gave them, historically, and the competitive advantage it perpetuates, today. It is no coincidence that, despite democracy in 1994, the socio-economic statistics of South Africa, largely, seem to tell the story of white rule in its heyday.

This is not to say that these policies will create the redress that South Africa is seeking. No. It is one of a multitude of measures that need to be implemented in order to create redress in the fullest sense. This measure is a short- to medium-term measure that is adopted so that society, the middle class in particular, starts fairly and accurately reflecting our racial demographics, insofar as economic distribution is concerned. It is not the only policy that the DA supports and its critics should have remembered this. It is but one of them. Indeed, one of the great ironies of this debate is how, applying the logic of the ‘traditionalists’ to its logical conclusion, the DA would play to its caricature of being a white, middle class political party that is unable to understand, nor connect with, the masses of South Africans. And in the face of increasing social tension directly related income inequality, and flamed by the likes of Julius Malema and populists in the EFF, the outcome of South Africa’s future will probably be their worst nightmare. But, at least they would have been ‘right.’

Sadly, those who hold this view may be as liberal as me, in a broad sense, but, thankfully, their liberalism does not influence the DA’s thinking. The DA has a difficult role to play by ensuring the values of a liberal constitution continue to reign supreme in a society that has been ravaged by racial-nationalism of various sorts. It is not the easy task for the liberal to always argue, against both left and right, but it is a critical position that we must take, and take proudly. For as we saw after 1948 and as we see after 1994, racial-nationalism is a dastardly policy that would ruin this country. It is up to us liberals to keep them, and ourselves, to account.

(Footnotes omitted)

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