Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Free Higher Education is Not a Universal Right: Declaration or Debate?

“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”
Mark Fischer

In a recent article, political analyst Ebrahim Fakier and medical doctor Aayesha Soni assert that “free higher education is not a universal right” and lay out their argument for why universal free higher education in South Africa is not only unfeasible, but amoral, irresponsible and unfairly privileges education above other services. They raise a number of points in their argument, however, which deserve some measure of interrogation and response. The points discussed below in this piece, speak directly to what I view as contestable points raised in their argument.

First, with respect to the key question the author’s pose – whether free education is a universal right – the answer is clearly “no”. However, it must be remembered that until recently women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and the rights of black people were not recognised. So the real question is not whether access to free education is a right or not, but if it should be, and if society desires it to be. The article critiqued in this piece does not venture into that territory sufficiently, even though that is the central point of the activism in question.

Even though the authors do briefly acknowledge the tension between right and left perspectives i.e. education as commodity (right) versus education as public good (left), the article largely lapses into fiscal and economic realism, and presents the status quo – in respect of the underlying fiscal and economic dimensions of the question – as though it were the unquestionable, permanent order of things (more on this in the concluding section of this piece). They do not, in any measure, offer an alternative way forward. In a world where techno-capitalists such as Elon Musk are arguing for basic universal income to be granted, this seems a tenuous and conservative angle to take on a cause that is increasingly gaining support in societies across the globe.

Yet there is more to the article that requires scrutiny, and indeed in some places, more debate and discussion. My critique of the key points – tendered here with the greatest respect and appreciation for their contribution – is but a limited one; I cannot pretend to be an expert on all the issues that were raised. So it is with acknowledgement of these limitations that I will proceed.

Service delivery protests and student protests:

The authors claim that service delivery protests have numbered 300 since about 20 years ago. However, research clearly showed a significant uptick in major service delivery protests since circa 2009 that was dramatically different from the preceding years since 1994 (see Figures 1 and 2 in this source document. Major service delivery protests did not number 300 per year since 20 years ago. I can’t interrogate the authors’ statistics because they did not provide a source. I can accept that that service delivery protests are counted differently depending on how they are defined. However, here are several sources that disagree with their contention. Notwithstanding that statistics can be strung together to support a variety of causal hypotheses, evidence of a post-Polokwane uptick in major service delivery protests in South Africa exists and should be acknowledged. I include a mix of research and news articles at the end of this piece that account for how difficult it is to pin down stats on ‘service delivery’ protests so that the reader can look into it themselves.

If it is accepted that there was a significant uptick in major service delivery protests circa 2008-2009, then it stands to reason that the generation who were teenagers at that time (say around 13 years old in 2009) have now entered the higher education system, and may have imported more drastic protest tactics along with them. This is especially the case in former black universities, which are generally cheaper, and hence attract less materially fortunate students. There may well be a connection between the two, and to simply dismiss it the way the authors have done constitutes a premature analysis of it.

Education vs Healthcare?

Nowhere in the debate on free higher education have I seen an argument advanced that healthcare should be defunded to fund free higher education. The authors seems to have set up this trade-off in their own imaginations – a thought experiment they were proposing – but it has no basis in reality. I noted that one of the authors is a medical doctor and that may have influenced their choice of example.

It does not seem a fair comparison to compare healthcare with education i.e. the comparison does not compare ‘apples with apples’. Education is not the same as education. Healthcare is a basic essential service, whereas education is an investment. Whereas healthcare is an essential basic service provided to society, education is an investment in society. Even though healthcare has co-benefits in terms of keeping a labour force functional, these benefits are vastly different from that of education. If we acknowledge that education is in fact an investment then it follows then it should be evaluated very differently from healthcare. For example, education should be assessed in terms of its contribution to increasing socio-economic mobility and accessibility, its contribution to entrepreneurialism and economic growth, its social and political value in terms of having an educated society and electorate, and so forth. This is not to devalue healthcare services by any means, but merely to point out that the ‘public good’ derived from healthcare is significantly different from that derived from education.

Moreover, #FeesMustFall activists have proposed increased taxation on the wealthy and the private sector, that universities make an effort to secure more funds through their channels[i], and through scrapping the R1 Trillion nuclear deal (which makes sense for a number of other reasons). The authors do not address the question of planned large-scale infrastructure expenditure such as the nuclear deal, which research has shown is not necessary, will prove more costly to consumers, and is likely to expand, likely imposing crippling costs on the South African public (in particular the next generation). Rather, the authors address the call for increased taxation by invoking fears of middle class flight, notwithstanding that that argument has been overplayed ad nauseam since pre-1994 to negate transformation efforts across the board. It is a valid concern, but it is only a limiting factor, and does not constitute an argument for failing to develop creative options for transformation of higher education institutions.

Free higher education benefits only student activists:

The authors’ characterisation that students “claims are of a particularist, special interest kind, of benefit directly to them” flies in the face of simple logic. How does it square against the often repeated argument that black graduates typically support many more family members than white graduates? How does it square against government’s strategy to increase the number and percentage of black industrialists and entrepreneurs in the economy, as well as their overall share of the economy itself? How does it square against the pressing need to reduce the high levels of inequality in South Africa, which delineates along racial lines and threatens socio-political stability? How does it square with a global future in which traditional opportunities for work and labour will increasingly decline? How does it square against the need to diversify the South African economy, so that it becomes more resilient in the emerging “postcapitalist” era?

Skills development is critical for mobility and access of those who remain marginal in the formal economy of South Africa, most of whom are young and black, and it is not good enough to fob off this necessary objective with the retort that amounts to, “well not many of them make it to university anyway”. The economy of the future cannot be accessed with basic school-leaver skills (except perhaps with the exception of ICT); high level skills are essential to access the information economy, and this is unlikely to become less so over time.

Moreover, many of the protesting students – especially in the more expensive former white universities – can afford to pay their university fees (i.e. their parents can). Their activism for free education puts them at odds with both the government and their institutions, and will likely negatively impact their chances of employment or further career development, especially at institutions of higher education. Moreover, when the cause is for free higher education for all, how can that be said to benefit only those who are activists for it? It makes no sense to state that when you fight for free universal access to a service then only you benefit from it.

Leaderless social movement is “cowardice”:

That leaderless social movements are “cowardice” is a highly contentious suggestion as in reality the movement is not leaderless; rather it has adopted an alternative model of leadership. Moreover, when attempting to formulate a new movement, one that requires extensive debate and interchange, it is wise not to box it into highly regulated structures, forms of engagement, and leadership models. In my view that will kill off the potential to generate new ways forward. Ultimately the movement will have to organise and focus itself, but it does not need to do so at its very outset; holding the space open for an agenda and vision to emerge is appropriate. Indeed, new forms of democratic social movements are embracing this; the Occupy movement is one such example; it ensures that people who hold different ideologies can come together around an issue; that is important in the current political context, where ideologies have become insufficient – even corrupted – in the political realm. It is essential for enabling new possibilities to emerge from consensus that is garnered outside and beyond ideological constraints.  

The “amorphous public good”:

I don’t understand why a term like the “public good” is seen as too vague to understand or pin down. Especially when, in their absence, things go so clearly wrong. Labelling it amorphous is facetious. It’s self-evident that education is a public good, and that investing in education will yield significant public benefits beyond the private realm. Moreover, with the changing nature of work in the 21st Century, where less institutional and organisational jobs will be available i.e. employment seekers will suffer; does it not make sense that having a more educated citizenry will empower them to go out and create vehicles for themselves? This downsizing in the scales at which employment occurs (i.e. through more small to medium scale entrepreneurship, service delivery and other self-driven activities) may provide a valuable way of employing people who would otherwise not find employment through traditional channels in the future.

For a comprehensive account of why education is indisputably a public good that extends into multiple spheres of social, economic and political life, see Henry Giroux's piece, "Higher Education and the Politics of Disruption".

Private or semi-private services are superior to state services:

There is also an undercurrent that runs through all the arguments that detract from the idea of free education, namely that when services cease to be paid for their quality depreciates. There is a lack of critical engagement with the logic employed here. Are the authors suggesting that public services cannot equal private sector services? Because if they are, then the logical outcome of that argument is that privatisation should provide wonderful outcomes for society and we would not need the state as much. However, there are very many examples to the contrary.

Moreover, feeding the notion that private services are essentially better is buying into a whole system of privatisation that has crept up on services and put a stranglehold on them. Private healthcare is a good example of how global industries from big pharma to medical aid systems have inflated prices to the detriment of the public good, and indeed, squeezed people out of the service, especially the poor and unemployed. As a service it is less accessible, even if its quality may be good.

It is not enough to imply that the status quo should determine how public investment is allocated; public investment should be allocated in order to shape the future. And when it comes to SA universities, which are public institutions that function on a public-private funding model, how public investment shapes its future should be interrogated, analysed and debated thoroughly so that it leads to the outcomes that most benefit the society we live in.

Private sector services may be generally better right now, but that is a product of a highly skewed economic system that prejudices the poor and prioritises the wealthy. The question that #FMF is posing is, is that the kind of society we want to live in? Moreover, is that our unquestionable reality from which there is no escape? I can think of many who would argue that it is precisely the role of political engagement to dig ourselves out of unjust and unfair arrangements and envision better ways of ensuring the stability and security of all those in our society. What else do we need states and governments for but to improve our quality of lives?

Moral hazard of free services:

The authors also assert the now familiar retort to any request for free state-led services; that of the moral hazard incurred by non-payment for services; that these services become taken for granted, are abused and may lead to even further costs being incurred within the system. It is an argument that mirrors the now-debunked notion of the ‘tragedy of the commons’; where a shared resource is quickly destroyed by actors acting solely in their self-interest, and without regard for each other. It is a spurious assertion, as it takes for granted that the controls of the system remain the same, and are universally transferrable. Surely the question is what controls, regulations and processes are likely to negate any such moral hazard occurring?

The ‘moral hazard’ argument mirrors the argument that poor, black people in South Africa have “an entitlement complex”; a trope that has come to be mindlessly regurgitated by government and state officials, as well as the middle class citizenry in South Africa. However, even a cursory analysis of the distribution of resources and services in South Africa would reveal precisely the opposite; middle class entitlements are regularly and procedurally given priority, especially at local governance level (i.e. cross-funding of services from wealthy to poor neighbourhoods is fought tooth and nail).

Moreover, should we not study those cases where free service delivery has not been mired by the said moral hazard and learn from them? Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for economics, debunked the notion of the tragedy of the commons by conducting careful research into the co-governance of resources by communities. Should we not be taking a page out of her book rather than merely regarding the phenomenon of moral hazard as permanent, absolute and unchanging. There are countries that offer free education services, as well as other free services (e.g. healthcare, transport); can we not learn from them, devise our own systems and then adapt and evolve them over time? Is the future irrevocably bound to the past, or can we imagine new offerings?

#FeesMustFall is nothing new:

It is true that one can discern a continuity between student protests and protests going back all the way to the Apartheid era, but several factors are worth mentioning in support of the view that it is new and innovative. Firstly, in the past twenty years, government has not been directly challenged and forced to acquiesce in the manner that the students pushed it to in 2015, by organising countrywide to bring institutions to a standstill and marching on parliament, government buildings and centres of power. These events are unprecedented in the new democratic dispensation, even if they may be connected back to the pre-democratic era.  Moreover, the use of disruption as a strategic and tactical measure is new, albeit first introduced by the EFF in parliament. Lastly, the authors’ do not make the connection between global movements such as Occupy, which have adopted new forms of organisation, leadership and engagement (e.g. the rejection of traditional organisation and leadership modalities), and hence fail to understand what is new and innovative about it the student movement in the broader global political context. We live in a world that is increasingly characterised by hyper-connectivity; what happens in one place can easily influence thought and action in other places, no matter how physically remote they may be.

One political commentator points out that it is the postures that have been adopted by the establishment that is in fact old. See his article "Old Postures in New Times: Misreading Protest and Resistance".

Free higher education is prioritised above public schooling by #FMF activists:

In my understanding and reading of the student movement, there is no suggestion that free higher education is a priority above free, quality public schooling. More often than not student activists emphasize the importance of the entire education system, from early childhood development all the way through the higher education. Notwithstanding that many would argue that while the problem with the higher education system is primarily funding, the problem with the schooling system is chronic, systemic under-delivery and under-performance (i.e. the challenges are markedly different), this accusation has been levelled in such a manner as to show up student activists as ‘selfish millennials’; a trope that is repetitively churned out by critics who caricature the student movement. The accusation is a false binary that is repeatedly set up in the imaginations of critics rather than a product of actual engagement with #FMF activist positions.

As one student activist pointed out on social media last year (paraphrased here), nothing prevents others in society from taking up causes that they feel should be prioritised. Indeed it would be welcomed by the student movement if others in society mobilised on the basis of causes and issues that were important to them. The question is, why are these issues only raised as factors in opposition to the cause for free, decolonised higher education? Indeed, this observation and question cuts through to the core of the obfuscation that the establishment has engaged in in dealing with the student movement. Other priority services and the like are invoked only as obstacles to the higher education cause, and not – as they should be – as complementary ones.

Bureaucratic over-reach of government into institutions of higher education:

The authors argue that #FMF has inadvertently given government the power to extend its reach into academia. I agree with this assessment, however it is not bureaucratic overreach that concerns me but political overreach. In reality, the bureaucracies of government and the universities are equally wasteful and unfriendly to those they purport to serve.

Is free education a universal right?

Furthermore, the authors ask, “in what moral universe is it acceptable for “free higher education” to be a legitimate demand as opposed to any number of other pressing social needs in a society still in transition and transformation?” It is a fair question, but the way the authors pose it is rhetorical. It is not posed in relation to how expenditure is currently distributed, or is planned for the future. 
If it were, then it would constitute a question of trade-off between investments.
There is a simple answer to this question, however, that society be responsible for making an input into that decision. Surely it is possible to hold a referendum on whether free higher education (or perhaps a variety of models can be voted upon) is desirable to our society? It would encourage a much-needed public debate on the subject, and help establish what society actually desires. It need not be binding, but it would definitely help to obtain.

The reality is that free access to higher education is not a universal right, but surely what society’s rights are should be determined constitutionally first, and second through consultation with society itself? Or should we leave all our decisions to economists and bureaucrats who weigh up costs and benefits, incentives and penalties, and render us marginal in the decisions that affect us as a society that is constituted of much more than economic constraints and opportunities? 

Concluding Remarks

To return to the quote that this piece began with, what is most striking about the article under discussion in this piece, is that it presents the status quo as constituting a ‘natural order’ of sorts that is governed by economic factors that lie outside of the control of the state, governments and institutions of higher education; that they are subject to exogenous factors that require them to preserve the academic project and its institutional fabric as is. By presenting the debate as a mere choice between free education as a universal right versus having a functional establishment, it devolves the many varied and diverse calls for the transformation of higher education systems (both in terms of funding models and transformation of curricula[ii]), not only in South Africa but abroad, into a topic of discussion that is subject primarily to the push-and-pull, cost-benefit, and budget allocation considerations that govern financial and economic systems. It does little to acknowledge the history, sociology, culture and psychology of the academic project, and what that means for South African society as a whole.

While economic and fiscal factors have their place in the debate, and must be given due consideration, the task of emancipatory politics is precisely to challenge the status quo and to open up the space to establish new possibilities. In this sense, the article does not deal with the core drivers that lie behind the student movement (i.e. free higher education, decolonisation of the curriculum and transformation of its institutions). The authors draw attention to some of the changes that academia has already undergone in service of a transformative agenda (e.g. incorporating oral histories and the like), but the changes they refer to are largely cosmetic in nature and are more likely to be viewed as window-dressing rather than substantive transformation, especially by those who are calling for change.

Moreover, it is worth remembering that reactionary positions tend to overshoot; they defend the status quo even as it is being undermined from underneath them. The ‘establishment’ – and those who occupy it – is/are often the last to pick up on these undercurrents, as they are so fully and wholly convinced of the finality of the status quo; its inflexibility and permanence. The danger in not giving serious consideration to the calls for transformation of the higher education system in South Africa should not be evaluated in isolation from the broader socio-political context that it is occurring in – i.e. widespread political discontent and drastic inequality (the highest in the world according to the World Bank), corruption, maladministration and social malaise – which represents all the conditions and circumstances for a push-back from society. The broader global political context is also sending out these warning signals. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of right wing parties in Europe, all underline how far from ‘reality’ the establishment was (perhaps still is), and how quickly the rug can be pulled from underneath their feet.

Rather than launching attacks that go to-and-fro from left to right, what is imperative is that the societal mechanisms be set up to help navigate this crisis, as part of the broader set of crises that South Africa faces as a country. The problems that South Africa is facing – i.e. low growth, high unemployment, drastic inequality, maladministration and corruption, failing service delivery mechanisms, lack of government accountability, poor leadership, etc. – are all interlinked and manifest profoundly in the crisis that the higher education system is currently facing. Surely more dialogue, more cooperation, more debate and contestation is necessary to move the situation forward. Surely bold and visionary leadership is required to develop new options and set a new direction. After all, emancipatory politics may not achieve all its ends, and indeed some of them may prove unachievable, but its purpose is to lobby for and help set a new direction, and that is what we should be writing about, thinking about and discussing. Anything less, merely amounts to a stone rattling in a can rolling down the road. 

There is profound discontent in South African society, and in the presence of a profound lack of leadership the political vacuum is bound to be captured by one group or another. Ignoring this reality, and containing the debates over issues that are representative of deeper societal discontent to the confines of one or other disciplinary set of logics, or framing, is bound to fail in the medium and long terms. The question is not if it will fail, but when it will fail. The youth of today are sending a clear message to those in power, not just within institutions of higher learning, but to government, the state and society at large. How closely we listen will determine whether we co-create an antagonistic future, or a future that is brokered through engagement, compromise and creativity.

It is worth mentioning what the left-wing US politician Bernie Sanders, who lost the Democrat nomination to Hillary Clinton in 2016 recently stated in a speech a few days ago,

“We are looking at a totally new political world … If we play by the old rules, we will lose and they will win. Our job is not to play by the old rules.”

In the era we live in, change can happen upon us like a hurricane, and it is patently unwise to continue applying old and outdated sets of logics in the quest to create the new. Lapsing into ‘realism’ of any kind is not devoid of its own moral hazard, primarily that what is ‘real’ depends on who is assessing reality, and by what means they are assessing it; factors that can be wielded towards dramatically different ends where postmodern relativism takes hold. Setting up arguments as though they have an exclusive hold on the ‘truth’ comes with a significant moral hazard of its own. And especially in this era, where ‘alternative facts’ and fake news and opinions dominate, it is prudent to be especially careful when declaring ones opinion as fact or truth. Efforts to declare a monopoly on truth – whether through employing forms of realism or other tactics – are more likely to increase polarisation and deafness to opposing views.

Moreover, positioning the debate around that of morality – a theme which runs through the article – is itself questionable. Morality is relative, and varies depending on what one’s values, beliefs and norms are. As such it is a poor compass for an argument in this debate. The debate should rather revolve around issues of principle. While morality is relative, and will always be, matters of principle are those that are determined by what we can all find agreement around. As such, we are in fact debating a matter of principle when we debate whether a society chooses to adopt free higher education as a basic right.

Lastly, the authors lament the polarisation between left and right in the debate. However, the tone they adopt, issuing accusations that those who differ in opinion from them are being “dishonest”, “disingenuous” and so forth, lends itself to further polarisation. This is especially the case because the points of disagreement revolve around matters of opinion, and not of fact. It is perhaps worth remembering that the point of a debate is not just to win over the audience, but to win over those whom one is debating against; achieving that renders debate far more powerful than a winner-loser approach.

And to be sure, the contributions to this debate are many and varied in opinion and approach, as it rightly should be if we are to formulate an intelligent way forward. All it requires, is the ability to debate one’s point vigorously while keeping an open mind to the opinions of others. This is a failing that extends beyond this article, and student activists are often themselves equally guilty of it. Humility in the face of complex issues and challenges is undoubtedly beneficial; we are all fallible and need to look to each other to highlight our blind spots. In keeping with that, it is perhaps prudent to declare that this piece itself is but an opinion piece, and should be regarded as such; a contribution to a debate that makes no claim to a monopoly on the ‘truth’.


Note: This article was first published on 21 February 2017, and was lightly edited on 23 February 2017.

Some further articles and reports on service delivery protests:

[i] That is, whether through reserves or networks: although it must be pointed out that universities already do this in great measure.
[ii]  For example, being inclusive of and accommodating; gender, indigenous knowledge systems, decolonisation of curricula, transformation of institutions, inter- and trans-disciplinarity, sustainability discourses, etc.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

When Disruption Fails: EFF Antics at #SONA2017

What is Disruption?
The term ‘disruption’ has recently risen to prominence in the popular discourse, and as is typical of discursive jargon, has come to mean different things to different people. It is used, for example, to describe everything from the protest actions of dissenting political parties and movements, to riotous and obstructive behaviour where simmering discontent explodes and is vented upon the public realm, to significant technological and market transformations in societies and economies. Its actual meaning has hence become diluted and vague.

In its simplest – and most general – conception disruption targets the everyday rhythms and flows that are key to maintaining the status quo[i]. In the political realm, disruption has the intention of; (1) voicing discontent, and (2) forcing the target of disruption to take notice of – and engage in with – dissenting and protesting voices. Political disruption is hence a form of contestation and brinkmanship; one that has legitimacy and special relevance where politics is concerned.

Yet is important to remember that disruption is fundamentally a strategic concept i.e. the utility of disruption is its strategic importance and influence. A disruption that is devoid of any clear strategy merely constitutes a momentary interruption of the day-to-day rhythms and flows that maintain the status quo. It does not disrupt the status quo in a manner that ensures that the impact of disruption is felt across space, time and/or sector and has longevity in its impact. It does not sustain itself as an influence beyond the immediate. It can hence easily be forgotten; it has no special relevance and cannot sustain its quest to bring about fundamental change in the status quo. The status quo is not marked in any significant way moving forward.

The design of political disruption is critically important; if disruption is to achieve political ends, then its strategic value must be carefully considered. It is not a simple matter of blocking the system that disrupters are in opposition to at every turn; it is a matter of finding the key points of leverage within the system that constitutes the target of disruption. It is also a matter of employing creativity and deep insight into the mechanisms and systemic factors through which an oppressive system maintains itself, which in turn can take on multiple dimensions (e.g. social, economic, cultural, religious, historical, etc.).

Simple Examples of Disruption

Take, for example, the civil disobedience campaign for equal rights for black people in the US. Civil disobedience sought to disrupt not only the day to day activities of white America, it profoundly challenged the values, beliefs and norms of white America. One of the most creative, and indeed difficult, aspects of the civil disobedience campaign was its emphasis on non-violence. It took immense effort and focus to train and prepare civil rights activists for the practicalities of non-violent protest. It is not easy to convince and train people to endure the hate and violence that an unjust system wields against them without retaliation. Yet it was worth the effort. Non-violence brought white America, into confrontation with its own inhumanity, with its own moral inferiority, and sparked both white America and the world into action in support of the civil rights movement.

I am not advocating for exclusively non-violent disruption here; to assume that that is the point of the aforementioned example of civil disobedience would be to miss the point entirely. I am emphasising that disruption, if it is to prove effective in the political domain, is required to be strategically coherent and creative in its implementation. Creativity would necessitate that there be some amount of variation at the tactical level, that different tactics can be employed within the over-arching strategic framework that underpins disruption. Needless to say, tactics that are chosen would need to be carefully scrutinised in terms of their strategic value i.e. how well oriented the tactics are towards achieving the strategic goals of disruption.

Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, for example, ran on the simple message of change, rather than a message of reinforcing the status quo. Yet that was not its only disruption. At the tactical level it; (1) used newly emerging social media platforms to reach discontented and disillusioned voters, many of them who were young and felt politically excluded, (2) it used crowdfunding to raise funds for the campaign instead of relying exclusively on large private and private sector donors, (3) it employed the rhetoric and oratory power of the civil rights movement and imbued Obama with the legitimacy of a John F Kennedy (i.e. a young leader running on a platform for change), and (4) it drew on deep popular dissatisfaction with the status quo but met it with a message of hope and vision for a new kind of world, and a new kind of America.

Similarly, the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign for the US presidency, and the Jeremy Corbyn campaign for the leadership of the UK Labour Party, were also fundamentally disruptive campaigns that were positioned around popular discontent with the status quo. They were unabashedly left wing (Bernie Sanders even declared himself a socialist), and used a variety of disruptive tactics to organise, gain support and fund their campaigns. Both were rank outsiders whom the establishment regarded as having a slim chance of success, but proved to be viable, sustainable candidates with adequate support to ensure their longevity in the political realm.

Donald Trump’s campaign was also fundamentally disruptive. He was also a rank outsider to the political establishment who was regarded with a mixture of revulsion and nervous laughter. He managed to tap into popular discontent and harness that discontent by becoming a voice for it. He broke every rule – and continues to – in respect of political diplomacy, decorum and etiquette; yet it worked to his advantage. While we may question the tone of the campaign – it harnessed and amplified anger, legitimised hate-based sentiments, and promoted a vision of exceptionalism, isolationism, protectionism and sectarianism – it stayed on message and played to its strengths. In the end, this proved to be enough to get Trump into the oval office. Trump’s campaign has proved to be a huge disruption, not just to the US political establishment, but to political establishments across the globe. Whether it can be successfully sustained remains to be seen.

Failed Disruption: The EFF at #SONA2017

A case where disruption appears to have worked against itself, however, occurred only a few days ago in the South African parliament, during the annual State of the Nation Address (SONA), which was delivered by the sitting president Jacob Zuma. President Zuma – the leader of the African National Congress – is an outgoing president, who will relinquish power in 2019, and is hence effectively a lame-duck president. Nonetheless, due to massive controversy around the President’s relationships with private sector moguls, and the finding by the constitutional court that he effectively violated his oath of office[ii], there is considerable pressure from the public and opposition parties, as well as from within the ANC, for the president to step down.

Last year, the youthful, militant radical left-wing opposition party – the Economic Freedom Fighter’s – staged a powerful disruption of the State of the Nation Address.  They filibustered the President, questioned his legitimacy, called for him to step down, and obstructed the president’s state of the nation speech at every turn. Eventually they were physically ejected by a mixture of policemen and parliamentary security. The event sent shock waves throughout South African society, and reached across the world. The EFF had courageously disrupted parliament – during one of its most public events – and spoken truth to power. It is a well-known fact that most South Africans view the president as corrupt, and are unhappy with his leadership (or rather, the lack of it).

Although the disruption shocked all and sundry who witnessed it, it nonetheless exposed the cracks in the country’s political leadership, sending out a strong message of discontent that served to embolden South African society to raise their voices and take more direct action in the political realm throughout 2016. It left a dark cloud hanging over the president’s address, which by that stage was attended by an audience mainly consisting of his own party; the EFF had been ejected, and the Democratic Alliance walked out of parliament in protest.

So it was perhaps unsurprising that the EFF would embark upon a campaign of disruption at this year’s SONA address. What was surprising, however, is that they did not vary their tactics an iota. They merely played from the same script as they had done the previous year. The effect was that the EFF came across as though it was merely ‘going through the motions’, putting up the same tired old arguments as they had before. While it definitely stayed on message, the dearth of creativity, and ability to read the moment effectively, rendered the whole disruption farcical and disingenuous.

Indeed, the leader of the EFF – Julius Malema – was the only leader to rank below the president in post-SONA polling. The EFF’s star, it appears, has waned somewhat in the wake of their SONA 2017 antics. The key failing in the disruption undertaken by the EFF was that they did not vary their tactics of disruption. They merely repeated what they had done before. While there is value to being a ‘broken record’ – in that it ensures that a consistent message is communicated – they failed to diversify their tactics. Indeed, the same message can be communicated through a variety of different tactics that underpin a strategy of disruption.

In my opinion, had the EFF showed some measure of creativity, their disruption would likely have proven more effective and strategically valuable than it ultimately did. Rather than following the same script as the previous year – which was a historical first and hence had serious impact – the EFF would have done well to conceptualise a different set of tactics to get their message across to the South African parliament. Instead of predictably filibustering the speaker and the president, and engaging in a game of brinkmanship that ended predictably in fisticuffs with parliamentary security, the EFF could have chosen to embark upon a protest that was meaningful; one that would resonate with South Africans for more than its shock value.

Even simply reading a statement, or embarking on a sombre sit in while singing struggle songs that speak to the oppressive nature of the current presidency would – in my opinion – have had a much more profound impact on South African society. They did not need to resist the parliamentary police and engage them in fisticuffs; rather by simply remaining seated on the floor they would have ensured that it would take a lot longer to remove each EFF member from the chambers. Indeed, the impact of revealing their powerlessness in the face of an increasingly overbearing and securitised government, and it’s compromised leader, would have resonated strongly with the frustration that South Africans feel at the political status quo in government right now; especially the profound feeling of powerlessness that resides within South African society.

This would have left a dark cloud hanging over the president’s speech; one that would have occupied the public imagination for a lot longer than the EFF’s 2017 SONA disruption ultimately did. Unsurprisingly, the disruption of this year’s SONA had precisely the reverse effect than it had the previous year. Rather than an effective disruption, all the EFF managed to achieve was a momentary obstruction of activities, an obstruction that proved as boring and ineffective as the president’s speech. 

The EFF made a cardinal error; it did not stay true to its radical populism, one that relies on spectacle and entertainment value to capture the attention of the public. Indeed, populism cannot survive by being boring; it has to be creative to ensure that it holds the attention of society. Like or loathe Donald Trump, his unconventional manner of speaking off the cuff, tweeting out his thoughts, and acting erratically, ensures that the cameras stay focused on him. He is, after all, a reality television star; and he knows how to capitalise on the entertainment value of his odd persona. What seems clear, in the case of the EFF as a political force in South Africa, is that more of the same is unlikely to make much of a difference. The EFF requires a serious strategic rethink if it is to win over more voters, and secure its place as kingmaker in the 2019 national elections.

Disruption in the 21st Century

Of course it is entirely possible to be revolutionary without being disruptive or populist. But in the times we live, there are disruptions on multiple levels reverberating throughout society i.e. whether in politics, economics, culture, religion, identity, urbanisation, environment, climate, technology and so forth. We live in complex times, where rates of change are faster and more discontinuous than ever before and uncertainty over the future is rife. In this era, strategic and creative disruption is what sets actors apart. There is competition amongst disruptors, and in order to elevate one’s political agenda to prominence in the societal and political realms it is worth remembering that disruption devoid of strategy and creative tactics quickly dips beneath society’s radar and is flushed away.

Disruptions fail when disruption is seen to be committed for its own sake, with scant regard for its effectiveness in tapping into public sentiment and sensibilities. Disruptions devoid of strategy are political acts that possess inadequate political awareness; they can potentially generate political blowback and create setbacks for both disruptors and disrupted alike without revealing a clear way forward. In the end, everybody loses, and all acts of political disruption become stigmatised as mere anarchy loosed upon the political realm. The whole political realm suffers the consequences of ill-conceived disruption. If political actors are to employ disruptive tactics as part of their politics, they need to be acutely aware of where failure leads, because losing political legitimacy with the electorate is precisely the opposite intention of political disruption.   



[i] In my ownwork, I have gone to great lengths to conceptualise disruption as a general strategic concept that goes beyond its use in advertising strategy and innovation theory. The technical definition of disruption that I employ can be summarised as follows;

‘A disruption is a non-linear intervention that forces a rapid shift or transition of a set of flows from one state to another.’

The flows referred to in this definition are those that maintain the hierarchies (i.e. of values, beliefs, norms and behaviours; power and influence; information; materials; decisions; etc.) that underpin the fabric of society.

[ii] The president was found to have effectively violated his oath of office in how he handled the Public Protector’s investigation and findings over expenditure on his private dwellings. The Public Protector’s report “Secure in Comfort” found that he benefited personally from state expenditure on upgrades to his private dwellings.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Elusive Heart of the DA: Liberal or Conservative?

The DA’s Ideological Schizophrenia
South Africa’s official opposition – the Democratic Alliance – has no clear ideology to speak of, and like Donald Trump, this has worked to its advantage. Instead of a clear and coherent political messaging, its politics has revolved around leveraging the widespread discontent with the lack of leadership, performance and delivery of the ruling party, the African National Congress.
In many instances its strategy has simply been to appropriate ANC policy, political vision and sentiment. Indeed, the DA’s new black leader (the first black leader in its history) has argued that the DA is now the party that is “carrying forward the vision and values of Mandela” in South Africa. His bold narrative asserts that while the ANC has fractured and collapsed from within due to infighting, corruption and lack of competent leadership (this is indeed true!) and has retreated into divisive race-based politics; the DA has steadily built itself up into a vehicle that not only resembled the “rainbow nation” but sought – above all – to safeguard a vision of unity and diversity between all South Africans.
The DA – the South African public are being led to believe – is now a party that espouses social democratic values and could easily step into the shoes of the ANC and lead the country towards greater equality, prosperity and dignity. Voters are left with the impression that the DA seeks to provide a viable alternative to the ANC; one that will deliver on the promises of the national democratic transition (the ANC calls it the national democratic revolution).
Indeed, the DA mirrors the ANC’s rhetoric of the 1990s and early 2000s very closely. The question is if it is sincere, or just an attempt to capture the votes of discontented ANC supporters. A closer look at the DA reveals a number of internal contradictions that when taken together reveal a startling lack of coherence in its politics.
The first of these contradictions is underpinned by the mixture of older white conservatives and liberals the DA became a home for after the collapse of the Apartheid era National Party[1], and its absorption into the ANC. With only the minority, right leaning Freedom Front to turn to for conservative representation, many former white supporters of the National Party threw their lot in with the DA. The DA was their only viable alternative in terms of sizable parliamentary and local government representation; the Freedom Front simply did not come close, and is still largely viewed as a white Afrikaans minority party.
Many of the old conservatives that vote DA today, are products of the Thatcher-Reagan conservative era, and identify closely with the values, beliefs and norms of that era. Indeed, it is – in a very real sense – their golden era; one where the world made sense to them; a world where Western capitalism and Christianity combined with great intensity in their political realm. There is a patent nostalgia for that era by the ageing products of the 20th Century in the new millennium. Society – whether global or local – has simply changed too fast for them, and they feel marginalised and voiceless.
The kind of capitalism they believed in has all but turned inward upon them and cannibalised them, even though they haven’t quite understood it clearly yet. Moreover, the world where Western Christian norms dominated the public and political sphere, and where being white itself held tremendous value, appears to be receding and joining with the past. The new world – a world of liberal values, human rights, identity politics, alternative lifestyles and living, rapid technological change, social media and social networking,  and asymmetric threats such as terrorism and climate change – is threatening and foreign to them. Hence, the DA has selectively embraced issues that are convenient for them; for example, the DA has a strong push towards green and sustainable development, but is largely viewed as lacking in terms of its sensitivity towards the poor and marginal in South African society.
In contrast, the white liberals within the DA fold saw themselves as progressives both before and during the transition to democracy. They credit themselves with stabilising the fear that white South Africa faced when confronted with the proposition of transition to democratic rule. While essentially socially progressive, in that they aspired towards multicultural societies that are founded on tolerance of diversity, their economic orientation remains largely neoliberal in orientation. Neoliberalism remains an unquestionable framework in their understanding of how societies, economies and politics should function and coexist. They are hence easily swayed by fiscal conservatism and conservative economics, which in many ways overlaps strongly with neoliberalism as an economic project; which is itself a direct product of the Thatcher-Reagan era.
The DA hence suffers from an internal ideological schizophrenia that isn’t easily recognised for what it is. At first glance it appears as a direct descendent of the liberal political establishment that challenged the Apartheid government from within and gradually won over white public support for change. Luminaries such as Helen Suzman are often invoked as the forebears of today’s DA, but its current political reality is heavily influenced by those it has assimilated in order to grow as rapidly as it has in the new democratic dispensation. Its major challenge in the new democracy continues, that is, it’s inability to make significant inroads into the black voter base that has traditionally remained loyal to the ANC. Even with a black leader, and an increasingly black top leadership, the DA remains a party that is viewed – by black South Africans – as heavily invested in serving white interests.
And in reality, it has had to pander to white interests and white fears in order to retain its core following. The fact that there are scarce viable alternatives for them in the South African political spectrum guarantees their support. However, those within the DA who understand the realities of the DA’s main voter base continue to woo their constituency by voicing their fears and supporting hard-line conservative views.
For example, the ex-leader of the DA – the Western Cape Premier Helen Zille – has a brash take-no-prisoners approach towards her twitter account, which she wields as effectively as Donald Trump. A natural hard-headed populist, she isn’t afraid to be the voice of the DA’s would-be Tea Party equivalents. The matter of Helen Zille’s twitter account has become an issue that greatly vexes many of the more politically moderate and progressive politicians within the DA, and there have been numerous suggestions and hints that she would do well to abandon the account entirely.
Like Trump, she engages followers and critics on twitter with little pause for thought, often with embarrassing results for the current leadership of the party. Nobody within the party has the strength to take her on head-on, so instead of denouncing her often ill-advised and ill-timed incursions into the political fray via twitter and its inevitable media amplification, they DA seem to have settled into a pattern of ignoring her comments, choosing instead to emphasise the message that the new leadership want to send out. It is a non-confrontational strategy, and with good reason. With over one million followers, most of whom are social conservatives in orientation, any direct rebuke of Helen Zille would undoubtedly raise the hackles of many within the conservative core within the DA.
Indeed, should the new – now significantly black – leadership of the DA be seen to be embarking upon a campaign to distance themselves from her views vocally and unequivocally, they run the risk of losing the support of their main base. Without having made significant inroads into the black voter base they are caught within a rock and hard place. They need their traditionalist (and yes: racist and quasi-racist) old hard-line conservatives to make their marks on the DA slot on the ballot.
So they have left it to others within the twitter-sphere to take her on directly over her pronouncements, which like Trump, border significantly close to being racist, but do not overstep the mark clearly enough to be called out on it. To be fair, many of her incendiary comments appear to be more a product of hard-headed ignorance than unrefined racism, but it is difficult to ignore the tacit, systemic racism in her comments and their delivery. Much like Donald Trump, she skirts the line with a sense of her own inviolability; she is utterly convinced of herself and can see nothing wrong with her approach. Indeed, many black people do take offense at her remarks, and it is clear that the closet-racists within the DA find comfort in them. One only needs to criticise her directly on twitter to bear witness to the army of twitter trolls who descend upon you in her defence.
The DA mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, and former businessman who founded the “Black Like Me” hair product line, is a self-confessed Donald Trump supporter and fan. Mayor Mashaba strongly believes in the free market, and views business and entrepreneurship as the route out of poverty for disadvantaged – mainly black – South Africans. This, despite the fact that the ANC adopted neoliberal free market policies wholesale early in the new dispensation, and while the South African economy has grown, South Africa now has the highest inequality in the world (according to the World Bank).
Like Donald Trump – and Helen Zille – Herman Mashaba takes a dim view of immigrants to South Africa, viewing them as harbouring criminal elements and engaging in criminality. Not long after he took office he ranted about immigrants in the inner city of Johannesburg, labelling them criminals; an act that drew widespread outrage from human rights and other groups in South Africa. Like Trump, however, he was merely giving voice to deep-seated prejudices that reside within many South Africans, who are ignorant of the plight of refugees and immigrants from other African countries. And while the same sentiments can be found within the ranks of the ANC, the ANC is subject to stricter leadership correction in this regard; COSATU, the SACP as well as the ANC are quick to correct misconceptions regarding immigrants and refugees from the continent, decrying ‘afrophobia’ as a destructive and dis-unifying sentiment.
To add to this, there have been a number of incidents of anti-black racism of late involving white DA members – one who was a member of parliament – that blew up in the public sphere and has resulted in widespread condemnation; followed by reluctant apologies and even court action. Within this context it makes little sense for Premier Zille to proceed with her shoot-from-the-hip approach towards social media, but such is the nature of our time that any and all publicity inevitably works to the advantage of those in the public eye. It matters little whether they do wrong or right, as long as they are in the limelight.
In the era of globalisation and social media, the changes that threaten conservatives ironically also work in their favour. Moreover, globalisation and change ensures that it is not simply a black-white issue either. There are many black and brown conservatives who find a home in this mix as well. Further afield, reactionary postures have been adopted towards what has been termed the “liberal consensus” – the social engine of globalisation – across the globe. Whether one looks to India under Narendra Modi, or the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte, or to France, the Netherlands, Greece and the UK, there is a consistent push-back against the centrist liberal consensus that now threatens to destabilise the global world order as it was at the end of the 20th Century.
It is within this context that the DA’s particular unspoken ideological foundation needs to be understood. It itself is split between occupying the territory of the liberal consensus, and the territory of the emerging resistance to it on the conservative right. This, paradoxically, is how the DA maintains its legitimacy with its support base, which is split between the two. The DA’s pro-establishment credentials give it a sense of legitimacy and authority – as evidenced in the Obama styled rhetoric of its leader Mmusi Maimane – while its tea-party styled conservatism gives it legitimacy with those who are deeply aggrieved wtih the very same establishment that has ushered in secularism, LGBTQ rights, abortion rights and services, gender equality, sustainability, green tech and green economic growth, climate change awareness, black economic empowerment, identity politics and so forth.
The aggrieved conservative, religious right are a strong component of the make-up of the DA, and only tolerated the transition to a liberal, egalitarian constitutional democracy because they believed – at the time – that it would preserve their ‘way of life’ amidst the upheaval of change and transition. Instead, they have seen their old, 20th Century way of life eroded by the vast changes that globalisation has brought with it.
To liberals and the left, these changes are inevitable, and to be welcomed, as they represented a freer, fairer public sphere, one where all can find their place within it. To the conservative right, however, they have seen their hegemony over the public sphere – especially in terms of the dominance of religious morality in the values, beliefs and norms that ascribe the polis – steadily eroded and ground down to a nub. To many, who aren’t fiscal conservatives in the traditional sense, but are social and religious conservatives, the changes have left them wondering what kind of world they live in. They no longer relate to it.
The DA - Trump/Tea Party/Breitbart Connection
In order to trace the thread between the DA’s conservatism and the rise of right wing conservative sentiment across the globe, the following story is instructive.
Joel Pollak is Breitbart News’s senior editor at large. Breitbart News is the voice of the alt-right in America. It represents the voice and the heart of the new conservatism in the United States of America. He once stood as the Republican nominee for Illinois’s 9th congressional district (he lost), and, endorsed by the Chicago Tea Party, is a self-proclaimed Tea Party Republican. He has authored several books (some self-published), and is infamous – according to Wikipedia – for his role in pushing out Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields who alleged that she was manhandled by Donald Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski while trying to get close to Trump. Apparently he ordered staffers at Breitbart to stop defending her. Editor Ben Shapiro and Michelle Fields both resigned over the incident. Yet there is more. Earlier in his career, Pollak claimed that Yasser Arafat had faked a blood donation to the victims of 911. But Pollak is still going strong.
Not many people know Joel Pollak’s name in South Africa. He is, however, a historically significant behind-the-scenes player in the DA’s growth under Tony Leon, the first leader of the DA in the new, democratic dispensation in South Africa. Joel Pollak was Tony Leon’s speechwriter. Tony Leon’s speeches were nothing like that of the DA of today. His speeches were incendiary and inflammatory, was dead set against affirmative action of any kind, and were filled with a combination of neoliberal idealism – i.e. an almost religious conviction in the effectiveness of unregulated free markets – and social conservatism. His central proposition was that promoting the interests of business would uplift the South African economy enough to yield significant trickle down and socio-economic upliftment amongst the previously oppressed and disenfranchised majority. Tony Leon gave the impression that he fell within the American styled conservative camp that viewed the welfare state – erroneously – as the equivalent of socialist and communist states.
Joel Pollak wrote many of Tony Leon’s speeches, all of which appealed to the conservative white core of South Africa, and helped the DA capture the territory that the National Party once held. However, and unsurprisingly, it did little to help the DA capture black voters and the DA faced the prospect of remaining a white and minority interest party in South Africa under Tony Leon. In a 2015 piece entitled “Why Zille’s wrong about Obama”, Pollak articulates the central quandary facing the DA (i.e. its inherent ideological schizophrenia) as follows:
I can hear some of my old friends in the DA say–as many have said–that their party rejects the social conservatism of the Republican Party. Not really.
The truth is that South Africans are a deeply conservative, religious, and traditionalist nation. If the voters were allowed to decide issues like gay marriage and the death penalty–which have been placed beyond politics by the constitution and the courts–few DA members would be happy. The party wisely gives its members a “free vote” on issues of moral conscience as a quiet acknowledgment of that reality.
The DA has also embraced welfare state policies over the past decade, while Republicans in the U.S. have been moving in the other direction. That, however, has more to do with circumstance than conviction–the DA’s hunt for votes among the disaffected black underclass in South Africa, and the Republicans’ growing concern about America’s exploding national debt and entitlements.
Both the DA and the Republicans favour words like “individual opportunity” to describe their vision of the society they want to create. There are other similarities besides.”
Pollak is somewhat trite, however, when providing an account of how his personal political ideology developed. In his description when he returned to the United States from South Africa he had “spurned the radical leftism” of his “college years”. This, rather conveniently, led him to switch his politics from Democrat to Republican after finding it difficult to position himself within the Democratic Party.
To those who knew him in South Africa, however, Pollak’s turnaround was drastic. He arrived in South Africa and quickly positioned himself within the South African left. His convictions were taken seriously, and he did not appear to be merely engaging in a brief, youthful flirtation with left wing sentiment. He was an active leftist. He was one of the drafters of the South African “Not In Our Name” group’s public statement, and curried favour with leftist South African Jews, many of whom had played an instrumental role in the anti-Apartheid struggle, and who played a strong role in the ANC, the South African Communist Party and in the labour union movements. His defection from the left was sudden, and was only noted when he suddenly came out in opposition to the very public statement he had helped draft. From that point on Pollak infiltrated the DA and made it all the way to the top, becoming the party leader’s (i.e. Tony Leon’s) speechwriter for four years.
His sudden ideological turnaround rendered him a subject of suspicion within the left, who have seen many US intelligence operators infiltrate their organisations both before and after the end of Apartheid. It is unclear whether there is any merit to these suspicions, but he certainly managed to attach himself to some of the top leaders in the country, and as Tony Leon’s speechwriter, would have been party to all kinds of sensitive – and indeed valuable – information. Indeed, his powers as a political observer seem to far outweigh his depth as a political intellectual i.e. while his observations are accurate, his analysis and interpretation is often shallow and overly biased. Nonetheless, it is indeed difficult to believe that Pollak, then a first-rate student and now a seasoned political operator, would have taken his left-wing views any less seriously than he now takes his right wing views. It is perhaps more likely that he saw an opportunity – as a very young person – to get a one-way ticket to the top of South African politics in the DA and grasped it eagerly in order to further his personal ambitions.  Pollak is now being touted as the potential new US ambassador to South Africa under Trump.
The Zille Era
When Helen Zille took over the reins of the DA, she was a perfect fit for the moment that South Africa had arrived at in its infancy as a new democracy. She was unlike the stiff, repressed Tony Leon, who couldn’t relate to the ordinary South African. In contrast, Helen Zille spoke Xhosa fluently, could get down and jive and toyi-toyi at rallies and marches, and had a gift for simplifying matters into digestible packages that the South African public could lap up. She was not afraid to bulldoze those she held in low regard, and easily integrated into contemporary culture; she even had Botox injections and speech therapy lessons that resulted in a dramatic change in how she spoke; her voice grew deeper and increasingly hoarse, and she often sounded as though she had a cold or flu.
To some she was Mama Zille – a throwback to Mama Suzman – but to others she was South Africa’s Iron Lady, cut in the mould of Margaret Thatcher. As a young journalist Helen Zille was part of a group of journalists who broke the story of the murder of anti-Apartheid black consciousness activist Steve Biko by police, but that is where her proximity to black consciousness ends. Her own political philosophy couldn’t be further from it. Her political philosophy is a strange blend of neoliberal and neoconservative convictions, blended together on the basis of anecdotal observations and interpretations of society and political history. She thoughtlessly transfers lessons from the developed world to the developing world context that we live in, and applies economic and political theory simplistically and crudely.
The result was a DA that had no clear, coherent ideology to speak of. Helen Zille’s popularity is largely personality-based; she is a hard-nosed, no-nonsense broker who delivers blunt appraisals and criticism. Nuance and diplomacy is not her thing, and South Africans who needed a voice revelled in her candid criticism of the ruling ANC government. She appears to view herself as a person who ‘tells it like it is’ and has endured great adversity to get where she is.  Yet this is the same reason South Africans love Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema; they are not sophisticated politicians who exhibit finesse, combining  knowledge, experience, diplomacy and well-positioned rhetoric to win over their audience – they win over their audience by voicing the audience’s fears and anxieties, and providing simplistic solutions that masquerade as common sense determinations. And like Zuma and Malema, her politicking is strategically astute, albeit lacking in substance.
The New DA Leadership: Their Key Challenges
The DA’s new leader, however, employs rhetoric and diplomacy effectively, and has pulled the party closer towards the centre, and has made left of centre noises. One analyst – Professor Ivor Chipkin – described the DA’s new leadership as more social democratic in nature. Yet the reality is that the political philosophy or ideology of the DA depends on whom you speak to in its leadership. If you speak to Mmusi Maimane the political face of the DA seems very different from that which you get from Helen Zille or Herman Mashaba (the mayor of Johannesburg). The political heart of the DA remains elusive because it is constituted of a hodgepodge of actors who have been brought together solely by anti-ANC sentiments.  Their unity is not defined by what brings them together as a coherent political formation as much as it is informed by their desperate need to form a serious opposition to the ANC. Yet the catch is this; without a clear, distinct political message they cannot – in real political terms – provide a viable political alternative to the South African public.
Indeed, the ANC’s own unholy tripartite alliance – which brings together compatible but different ideological centres of the anti-Apartheid liberation movement – has fragmented and splintered and left the ANC weakened from within, unable to adequately regulate its own leaders and officials. It is not difficult to imagine that the DA may also find itself disabled by internal wrangling and splits should it succeed in wresting power away from the ANC at the ballot. Its schizophrenia is magnitudes worse than that of the ANC’s. The constituting members of the ANC government – the South African Communist Party, the Council of South African Trade Unions and the ANC – have a long history of working side by side to challenge the Apartheid government. They are also all fundamentally left wing organisations.
In contrast, the DA leadership and constituency is split between left of centre, centrist, conservative and right wing ideologies i.e. it is constituted of political ideologies that are, for the large part, irreconcilable. Moreover, their potential coalition partners range from left to radical left to conservative. The expectation that they will be able to govern the whole country effectively is therefore highly optimistic. At best they will form a technocratic government that emphasises bureaucratic and administrative efficiency, but they will not – in its current state – be able to provide a coherent political vision that ensures top-down synergy and coherence throughout government and the state.
It is hence clear that South Africans are in trouble whether they turn to the ANC or the DA for leadership; they are both alliances of convenience with little internal cohesion and coherence. It means that no matter who is in power, South Africans will not get clear, concerted leadership that they can understand and engage with. Instead, they will be consigned to an endless series of leaders who spout empty rhetoric while implementing policies and programmes on the basis of their own preference at best, and on the basis of self-interest at worst.
Resolving the elusive heart of the DA, and converting it into a recognisable, coherent political formation that has a compass, is hence critically important – not necessarily for its political survival – but that of the country. It simply cannot continue along as a rag-tag band, a coalition of convenience; it needs to plant a flag in the ground and boldly stake a claim to its political and ideological territory clearly for all and sundry to see. It needs to distinguish itself and demonstrate a strong coherence.
The key to achieving this is strong, concerted leadership that is consistent with the liberalism that the DA lays claim to. However, the DA’s new leader, while an effective ‘rhetoritician’, lacks an adequate grasp of political philosophy and ideology. This is evident in some of the shortcomings in his leadership.
First, and foremost, while he has been quick to condemn incidents of racism and race insensitivity within his own party, he has remained tellingly silent on the remarks that Helen Zille routinely sparks outrage with. This leaves one with the impression that he, like many others within the DA, is afraid to assert his leadership over the party for fear of how her support base may take it.
Second, Mmusi Maimane’s speaking style derives from his experience as a devoted elder and pastor within a Christian church named the Liberty Church; one that is avowedly socially conservative. He famously once preached that gays, Muslims and the like were all “sinners” and we should hence embrace them for their flaws.
More recently, and in an unprecedented move, he visited Benyamin Netanyahu – the right wing Prime Minister of Israel – whose leadership has proved disastrous for the prospect of a two-state solution (he has relentlessly waged war on Gaza and expanded illegal Israeli settlements into Palestinian territory). No liberal democracy in the world deals with Benyamin Netanyahu without reservation, they do not accept him with open arms. Even US policy under Barack Obama became more critical of Netanyahu, and Obama famously once joked (he didn’t know the microphones were still on) that he reluctantly took calls from Netanyahu. Visiting Benyamin Netanyahu is not the act of a liberal leader; it is more akin to the act of a Christian conservative leader whose religious sentiments dictate that Israel is rightly the long lost home of the Jewish people.
It is rather difficult, in light of the incoherence between the DA’s espoused ideology and its public statements and actions, to believe that the DA is ideologically liberal. This has huge implications for South African politics.  Were the DA to admit to its more conservative orientations, and own up to it, it is not entirely clear how well black South Africans may react. It is true, that very many black South Africans fit well into the mould of Christian conservatism, but the history of the anti-Apartheid struggle was largely held back, even undermined, by US and UK conservatives such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.
Hence, political and economic conservatism does not sit easily with most black South Africans, who believe strongly in the role of the state in addressing the basic needs of the citizenry, and correcting historical injustices. Perhaps the DA keeps its sacred heart as elusive as it can precisely because were the majority of South Africans be able to identify it clearly they may find it to be far uglier and more dangerous than the DA appears on the surface. It is easy for them to rely on the congeniality and appeal of their young leader, who makes all the right noises and remains consistent with (ironically) the ANC’s rhetoric, than to show their true colours. And to be sure, while the DA does have strong roots in liberal, progressive values; those roots have long been distilled by the passage of time as South Africa has ventured into the new territory of democracy. It is now a complex mix of liberal and conservative actors and it’s positioning is opportunistic, not principled.
Many have come to view the DA as the party they hope can keep the ANC in check and perhaps match or beat it at the polls at some point in the future. They are eager to see true democracy at work, where a change in leadership can be achieved at the polls. One party rule has led South Africa down a dangerous path that has led to political and economic instability. South Africans want to know that power can be constrained and held to account. Yet it is highly questionable whether the DA can play an effective role in this aspiration should it continue down its current path, where the absence of a clear political philosophy and ideology renders it a political vessel that has no essential core that members or supporters can turn to in order to orient themselves through trying times.
This in turn may have disastrous consequences for national policy and governance should the DA rise to political power in South Africa, and especially if it brokers broader political coalitions in order to do so as this will only exacerbate the pre-existing problem of internal consistency within the DA. Currently, the DA is all things to all people, depending on which constituency it is trying to woo, and where that constituency lies in the South African political spectrum. It can only continue down this path for so long before the cracks begin to show. Currently, with a large, overbearing ANC playing a role as the ‘villain’ it is fighting against, it is easy to forge unity. That will not prove to be so easy, however, if and when power is transferred into their hands.

[1]  The National Party initiated and oversaw the Apartheid project.