Thursday, 24 October 2019

“Empowered Powerlessness”: Who Runs the ‘Official Opposition’ in South Africa?

We should all be feeling Mmusi Maimane’s pain. For the cycle of events that have arrested his leadership is so old, so worn in the tread, that it should be instantly recognisable to all black and brown South Africans. How does a young black leader, carrying all the promise and hope of a new future, come to a pitiable end such as this?

Indeed there will be many who will say that he deserves it. That his naivety in believing he would be allowed to lead a majority and historically white party, unencumbered by the trappings of tokenhood, was sure to lead to his undoing. Did he not understand that those who believed that they had ‘made’ him, would equally believe it their place to unmake him?

Is this not a tragedy that black and brown South Africans have seen and experienced for themselves a hundred-fold over? Is not the ultimate end of tokenism to be hung out to dry? To whither under the searing heat of criticism, alone, surrounded on all sides; unable to mount a defence worthy of merit, discredited before one speaks?

Yet it is an undeniable fact that without Helen Zille’s endorsement he would likely never have stood a chance – even remotely – of becoming the leader of the DA. His victory was not won from her but bestowed upon him by her.  It was Helen Zille’s side-lining of the vastly more experienced Lindiwe Mazibuko in favour of Mmusi Maimane – her carefully selected prodigy – that put the wind behind his sails, propelling his ascendancy to power. He was effectively fast-tracked to the leadership of the party. Little did he know that a far worse fate awaited him as the new black leader of an historically white DA.

In all likelihood he was carefully courted, even flattered, into believing that he was the hope for the future of the DA. They believed they needed him to attract a broader range of the rainbow nation’s inhabitants – namely black and brown – into the fold of the DA; he spoke many languages, was relatable and pious, was in a mixed marriage himself, and had the ability to deploy visionary rhetoric reminiscent of the US’s Barack Obama. Perhaps he would be able to take the party where it had never been before; rendering them political representatives of black South Africans for the first time in their history.

Yet, comfortably ensconced in her premier’s home in the leafy foothills of Table Mountain, Helen Zille was the very first to render Mmusi Maimane’s newfound leadership toothless. Her adamant, tone deaf denial of the existence of any notion of systemic racism, and her single-minded, almost religious, faith in ‘meritocracy’ became the key irreconcilable differences between them.  

She singlehandedly sowed the seeds that undermined the new black leader and leadership of the DA without pause for thought. Her twitter account reads in the same way as Donald Trump’s does, except that she actually does read – albeit in an intellectually undisciplined and patently biased manner – and feels comfortable enough to challenge scholars and intellectuals who have spent decades studying, contributing to, and growing whole fields of knowledge. Simply because she thinks she knows better. After all, is that not the foremost of liberal white privileges; to be able to weigh in on any topic as though all opinions are equal regardless of one’s actual knowledge?

Very early on in Maimane’s leadership, Helen Zille, as Premier of the Western Cape, began a twitter campaign that would prove disastrous for the DA. With over 1.4 million twitter followers, she took to her twitter pulpit and very actively, began to raise a conservative caucus within the DA that would challenge the more social democratic black leadership of the DA, who were naturally prepared to acknowledge that race (in particular, systemic racism) is a critical factor in South African politics, and still matters for the majority of black and brown people today. It must be remembered that Mmusi Maimane rose to power at a critical political moment in South Africa. One where the ‘born free’ generation rose up and rebelled against the ‘rainbow nation’ narrative; seeking to destabilise utopian notions of a race-blind politics and re-assert the importance of race as a class delineator, one that could not be ignored in the service of an artificial ‘peace’ any longer. 

Zille was ultimately suspended (albeit temporarily) from the DA for her twitter rants, under the leadership of Maimane. But this wasn't enough to stop her, she was soon back at it!

More recently, Zille joined the Institute for Race Relations (IRR), whose ‘research’ barely qualifies as reputable scholarship; an outfit that is essentially a lobbying group for right wing neoconservative views. It was her subsequent election to the position of chair of the federal executive of the DA that led to the resignation of Herman Mashaba – the mayor of Johannesburg – and later Mmusi Maimane as leader of the DA, and ultimately from the DA itself entirely. Mashaba specifically mentioned Zille’s association with the IRR as one of the key reasons for his departure. Zille’s response was to assert that Mashaba was more right wing than her, labelling him a free market fundamentalist.

Yet Zille’s absolute and total denial of systemic racism is not a liberal position. It is an extreme conservative position. In the South African context, it ranks right up there with Donald Trump’s denial of climate science. Her belief in meritocracy is ahistorical, as though South Africa began from tabula rasa – a blank slate – after the 1994 elections. It is a dangerously delusional and divisive position; one that profits off white victimhood and the alt-right pretensions to intellectualism that is typified by the IRR.

The illusory ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ politics no longer has an audience among the black and brown middle and lower classes, who have endured growing unemployment, inflation and wage stagnation that is largely delineated along racial (and class) lines. Race and class intersect heavily in South Africa and to deny the importance of either is sheer ignorance (or lunacy). These are the key issues for the majority black and brown South Africans who are on the losing end of 25 years of growing inequality that is ranked the highest in the world by the World Bank.

Helen Zille’s racism is not malicious or personal. It is pompous, self-righteous and defensive, born of ignorance of the lived experience that underpins the plight of everyday black and brown South Africans. It is dangerous because it legitimises and reinforces systemic racism. It is precisely the racism that conservatives deny exists, but which they propagate and reproduce without end. Their ignorance of it is fuel for it. It is a vicious cycle; the more the ignorance and denial of it prevails the more it grows and endures.

Moreover, her vision of ‘meritocratic liberalism’ is even more irrelevant in the South Africa of today. In a society predominantly characterised by drastic inequality, talk of ‘meritocracy’ is more utopian than pure communism. It has no place in any South African discourse that is characterised by a semblance of realism. It is simply delusional, yet it enjoys the support of many white South Africans in particular, who have remained politically ignorant since the “dark days of Apartheid”, as Zille puts it.

Clearly, these dark days of Apartheid inequalities, exclusion and lack of upward mobility have not ended, and the well-evidenced plight and experience of the majority black marginal and poor bears testament to this. The importance of race and class is also evidenced in part by the student protests for free higher education in 2016 and the rapid rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters, but more-so by the turn that the internal politics of the ANC itself took under Jacob Zuma (i.e radical economic transformation). It is clear as day that aspirations to a meritocratic society are grossly misplaced in the current South African context, where historical legacies persist and endure.

Zille, however, and this is clear, will not be stopped. She will carry the holy but peculiar cross of new South African ‘liberalism a la IRR', where colour blindness and meritocracy intersect, in the vain hope that the majority of black and brown people, who are direct victims of systemic racism and rampant tokenism, will take the bait. Either that, or the DA’s venture into securing black voters is over – prematurely I would add – and that the ‘powers that be’ in the DA have decided to hang on to the old conservatives they absorbed when the National Party collapsed (and merged with the ANC).

What the DA’s old senior politicians and federal executive do not understand – and likely do not care a fig about – is how black South Africans, who have endured the politics of tokenism and exclusion, will experience and judge the DA’s most recent actions. It is true that in the political climate of today’s world an Obama styled rhetoritician is bound to fare badly. Nonetheless, how Mmusi Maimane has been systematically undermined from within as the first black leader of  the official opposition – a majority white party – speaks volumes for the skewed racial power relations and inherited injustices that permeate current day South Africa; the most unequal society in the world. Helen Zille’s return to power as a Trojan horse, (buoyed by the IRR) for the disgruntled conservative core of the DA was the ultimate nail in the coffin to the DA’s diversification drive. The rank hypocrisy of it all is spellbinding. 

Moreover, the manner of Musi Maimane’s exit epitomises the stark contradiction that lies at the heart of the DA’s ‘race-blind’ politics. That is, it constitutes a perfect demonstration of the very systemic racism that Zille’s IRR-oriented DA camp so vehemently denies exists. How Mmusi Maimane was systematically undermined brings to mind a phenomenon that a close colleague of mine, refers to as “empowered powerlessness”[i]. By remaining blind to it, they enact and perpetuate it. It is a banal evil, born of a cognitive dissonance driven in large part by half-baked intellectualism, arrogance and denialism. 

And is it not entirely peculiar that both Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane met their ends after proclaiming their opinions – grounded in their own black experience – that recognising the historical and current condition of the black majority in South Africa is unavoidable in South African politics? They clearly went off Helen Zille’s preferred script for the DA and paid the ultimate price for it.

Cry the beloved country, for its history lives on regardless, promulgated in large part by the messianics among us; those who would view themselves as saviours from above, and not representatives from within. As long as this brash Trumpism prevails there is precious little hope for an opposition politics that ‘gets it’ and can unite South Africans across the racial and socio-cultural spectrum.



On 27 October 2019 the media announced that John Steenhuisen has been elected as the new parliamentary leader of the DA. It is ironic that the party that denies the existence of white privilege and systemic racism undermines and pushes out its elected black leader who has two masters degrees, and promptly replaces him with a white male who only possesses a matriculation certificate as his highest qualification.

That's not to suggest to that Steenhuisen isn't up to the task, but the optics are pretty bad, especially when considering the near-religious fervour with which they have defended their "classic liberal" belief in 'meritocracy'. The truth is that the reverse would be inconceivable for the DA. 

The DA's ideological schizophrenia continues, fueled by a profound cognitive dissonance and utter incapability to put themselves in the shoes of black and brown South Africans, who have endured these injustices for far too long, and at far too high a cost.


Other related posts that chronicle how events unfolded in the DA leading up to Maimane's exit (and discuss it's political lack of coherence) can be read here:

[i] Note that the term “empowered powerlessness” was originally coined by Namhla Mniki-Mangaliso and Professor Kurt April at the University of Cape Town.

They researched how emerging, younger and first generation African black executives are fast-tracked into senior positions – without necessarily having the requisite experience – and thereafter suffer the adverse effects of their majority white governance structures (i.e. “white boards of directors/trustees”)

As they account for the experience of black professionals in South Africa who are empowered (i.e. whether through education, station or other) but remain powerless;

“Failure to give voice to an experience is to perpetrate the myth that such an experience does not exist.”

Their study concludes that:

“ … the empowered powerless phenomenon begins with a perpetrator who, as a result of racism, sexism, and/or ageism, has a fundamental mistrust in the abilities of the emerging top executive. As a result, the perpetrator is convinced that the executive is not good enough to play the role they are playing in the organisation. Feelings of superiority are an integral part of this belief system. The perpetrator may then do a number of things to create an uncomfortable and hostile environment for the black executive. He/she may directly undermine the executive’s decision-making space; or he/she may silence the executive through co-option, collude against the executive, or exclude the executive from important work processes. All of these efforts fundamentally come to the same thing, which is undermined decision-making space.”

See the full text here:

Vassilopoulou, J., Da Rocha, J. P., Seierstad, C., April, K., & Özbilgin, M. (2013). International diversity management: Examples from the USA, South Africa and Norway. In B. Christiansen, E. Turkina, & N. Williams (eds.), Cultural and technological influences on global business (pp. 14-28). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

No comments:

Post a comment