The DA's Mbeki Revisionism

2014-03-17 00:06

  Unlikely bedfellows. Former DA Leader Tony Leon and his long-standing political opponent President Thabo Mbeki. The new messaging on Mbeki's legacy seems to suggest that Leon's DA, which opposed Mbeki, is the same DA of today, that praises him.  (mosselbay.com) Gareth Van Onselen, writing for the BusinessDay, has written a brilliant piece on the disquiet among the DA’s senior MPs. The group, he writes, are deeply unhappy with the party’s new messaging that portrays Thabo Mbeki in a positive light.

He is right to do so. The DA’s new messaging, that things only started going wrong at Polokwane when Jacob Zuma was elected to head the ANC, is ahistoric revisionism at its finest.

As Van Onselen points out, in doing so, the DA has betrayed its own track-record of opposing Mbeki as strenuously as it did. The three biggest issues the DA went on the attack over during the Mbeki presidency was AIDS, the re-racialisation of the state and Zimbabwe. Each was, arguably, a policy disaster that caused havoc in the lives of many.

As Van Onselen writes, the fact that this unqualified wholesome praise is now being heaped on Mbeki strips the current DA of the (principled) stand it once made. Unfortunately, in doing this, the DA not only downplays the terrible consequences of those and other policy errors made during the Mbeki era, they also abandon the principled record the party had.

(One wonders whether the conspicuous absence of Tony Leon’s tenure during the #KnowYourDA campaign is now manifesting itself in other ways. The sad reality is that Leon has become his own worst enemy in DA folklore: he was crucial for creating an opposition force that was sustainable and functional but, as it grew and aimed for government, his methods for doing so also made him a liability. In praising Mbeki like this, one wonders whether the DA has now completely erased Leon from the annals of its history)

Van Onselen also makes important points about some of the language used in the adverts, particularly the one by Mmusi Maimane, where he refers to how ‘we’ voted for Mandela and Mbeki. Van Onselen’s issue, as he has always had with Maimane, is that Maimane betrays his lack of liberalism in speaking in group-centric and possibly race-based terms. That is an interesting point and I would be interested to see whether anyone from the DA picks it up.

But why would the DA do such a thing? Many voters, including long-standing DA members and supporters, are asking the same question.

To my mind, there are three reasons why the party has deployed this tactic, each of which are not that convincing.

Firstly, people seem to generally agree that Mbeki was a good president. His administration’s economic growth, corruption and governance was moderately good. Barring the fiascos I have mentioned, people think that he at least seemed competent enough to govern. When you compare this to Jacob Zuma, not many will argue. Essentially, things seem to have gotten so bad now that the DA is happy to ask for the other guy to come back. Under normal circumstances, it is likely that the DA would suggest that Mbeki was a bad President (which it, in fact, has done), but because things are so bad and public opinion seems to favour Mbeki, going easy on him makes pragmatic sense.

Secondly, it is reasonable to assume that Maimane meant ‘we’ to refer to black people (considering that it would be odd for him to use the royal plural or to be mentioning the DA as ANC supporters). The DA has to be careful of how quickly racial narratives can turn against it. Maimane’s use of the word ‘we’ was not accidental. The DA is aggressively seeking to endear itself to black voters (the great irony being, so far, that the more that it has tried, the more it has been called a phoney and rebuffed). This can be understood as another effort to do so. By saying ‘we,’ Maimane places himself, a prominent black candidate, and the DA, a ‘white’ party, within that group that applauds the achievements of SA’s two first black Presidents. And then by reorienting the ‘we,’ Maimane possibly continues the idea that it is okay for black people to vote for the DA today. The tell tale signs that the race reductionism the DA has been warned of is still strong in how the party fights this campaign. And that is troublesome.

Thirdly, the DA is caught in a rather unenviable position. It is always accused of opposing and criticising the ANC and never having anything good to say. So the story goes, this continuous negativity is off-putting, especially to (younger) black voters who are possibly not yet comfortable with voting against the ANC. And so, in order to blunt the sharp-edges they inherited from Leon, the DA must say good things about people, including Mbeki. Even if it means, in light of its own historical record and the facts, that it must be economical with the truth.

This election is significant not only because it represents the single greatest threat to the ANC so far; but, also because it heralds a fundamental transition that the DA is making too. Now, more so than ever, it can proudly say that it is a party of government. But in its effort to become a party of government in more provinces and, eventually, for all of South Africa, the DA runs the risk of sacrificing principle for the sake of pragmatism. It is not an easy position to be in for the DA or any party for that matter.

The DA must make certain changes which are necessary in order to win power. But it must be careful in doing so. A failure to understand its history, its principles and its track record will mean that it makes short-term decisions that may seem transient benefits but which will have devastating long-term effects.

As I have already warned, and will do so again, in the words of John Arbuthnot, ‘all political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.’

** Visit the dedicated News24 page for all the latest updates regarding the upcoming elections.**

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