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.

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