Thursday, 18 August 2016

Will The Real DA Please Stand Up!

The official opposition in South Africa, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has suffered from the lack of a clear, coherent political vision for many years. Its political messaging has largely consisted of a pledge to provide better governance than the African National Congress (ANC), and for many years its actual policies – on paper – have mirrored that of the ANC so closely that it has become difficult to distinguish them from the ANC in substantial terms. 

Both parties are largely centrist in nature, with the ANC leaning slightly left of centre, promising social welfare and transformation through state intervention – and the DA leaning slight right of centre viewing business and private sector growth as critical vectors to address social problems such as inequality and unemployment. Until very recently, they have mainly been distinguished by their racial composition, with the ANC being largely inhabited and supported by black South Africans, and the DA largely being composed and supported by white South Africans and minorities such as ‘coloureds’ and Indians. The minority vote for the DA is not guaranteed, but has drifted towards the DA over time as the perception that the ANC has become less responsive to their needs has grown.

The DA’s lack of a distinctive politics (i.e. a set of political principles and an ideological foundation that clearly identifies it as different from the ANC) has persisted since the dawn of a democratic dispensation in 1994. Its first leader in the new democracy – Tony Leon – was an unrestrained contrarian, who consistently lodged objections (especially to how black economic empowerment and affirmative action was being implemented), which reinforced white minority fears of the new black government. In 1998, he famously referred to the Employment Equity Bill as “a pernicious piece of social engineering” that codified “the politics of envy”, and decried the impact it would have on business, whom he claimed was “anxious” to transform. In his view, business would transform better left to its own devices as ‘market forces’ would ensure it.

Almost twenty years later, despite the bill being passed, South African organizations are still mainly run by white male managers (i.e. whites made up 68.9 per cent, with 78.6 per cent of these being men). Nonetheless, most of Tony Leon’s original electorate (and their offspring) continue to believe that affirmative action simply amounts to denying whites opportunities on the basis of race. He grew the DA during his leadership, but not significantly beyond the white minority, occasionally capturing the vote of local minorities who could be swayed.

While Tony Leon’s political philosophy was not overt, the assumptions underlying his tenure as leader was typical of the neoliberal age; pro-business and pro “market forces” as substitute for political intervention and political programmes of action that the government and state could implement. At the height of the neoliberal era, the notion that governments and the state performed best by facilitating business and private sector interests was pervasive, and his fervent devotion to relegating critical issues like transformation and diversification to “market forces” is now thoroughly discredited by historical evidence.

In 2007, he was still arguing against affirmative action as outgoing leader of the DA. In the end, he never offered a coherent alternative political vision for the majority of South Africans, who suffered greatly under the Apartheid project, which was described by the United Nations as “a crime against humanity”. His politics amounted to that of a self-referential righteous indignation, a reactionary politics that offered little alternative to that which it so vehemently criticised. His exit became imminent when it became clear that his brand of politics augured no viable political future for the DA as a considerable force in opposition politics.

The next leader of the DA, Helen Zille, had far more success in growing the DA. Under her leadership, the DA adopted a far more grassroots, populist approach to canvassing and campaigning, using methods that mirrored the ANC, which enjoyed strong grassroots linkages and support. Unlike Tony Leon, she spoke Xhosa, danced on stage, and was not above getting into the realm of populist discourse that emerged with the likes of sitting ANC president Jacob Zuma and the firebrand ex-leader of the ANC Youth League Julius Malema (who helped Zuma get into power, but who is now the president and “commander in chief” of the Economic Freedom Fighters after being kicked out of Zuma’s ANC).

As Mayor of Cape Town, Helen Zille, quickly obtained a reputation for a vigorous work ethic and efficient micro-management of critical administrative issues, going on radio shows to take direct feedback from the public and following up on it personally, and for making inroads (albeit slight) into black communities despite the various challenges she faced in doing so. She would trade insults with Julius Malema on public platforms, referring to him as an “Nkwenkwe” (a derogatory term for an uncircumcised male) in Xhosa. Like Tony Leon, however, her leadership of the DA was also characterised by a lack of a clear political philosophy or vision that distinguished the DA from the ANC.

The clues to her personal political orientation, however, emerged most often in instances where she spoke off-the-cuff, often drawing accusations of racism from black South Africans in the process. Her pejorative nickname has, for many years, been “Madame Zille”, a reference to the servant-master relationship that black South Africans have long been subjected to under Apartheid “baaskap”, which saw millions of black men and women relegated to the roles of domestic workers and gardeners in white homes where they answered to a male “baas” (boss) and a female “madam”.

As leader of the DA she offered up little in the form of a coherent political vision, choosing instead to fight it out on populist turf that average South Africans, both black and white, could relate to with ease. She fully embraced the politics of plastic and “make-overs”, receiving voice coaching and taking Botox injections to fit the part. What she lacked in terms of gravitas, she made up for with a strict work ethic and a willingness to get down and dirty with the best of the populists that hijacked the political realm after Thabo Mbeki was recalled as president of the country and the ANC in 2007.

However, she did manage to transform the DA leadership’s racial profile significantly, attracting Patricia de Lille (from the Pan African Congress) into the DA fold, grooming the young black middle class parliamentarian Lindiwe Mazibuko, who was later controversially shelved for the current leader of the DA Mmusi Maimane, who in real terms, enjoys far wider appeal due to his working class origins, his rhetorical oratory ability, his ability to communicate in different languages, and his natural qualities as a unifying leader. In addition, the fact that he is in a mixed relationship with a white woman, lends additional credence to his standing as a proponent of non-racialism (which has long been the ANC’s political mantra).

Mmusi Maimane made his political debut in the last municipal election, by running for mayor of Johannesburg as the DA candidate. He is a self-declared man of faith, a devoted member and pastor of a conservative Christian church, whose rhetorical oratory power is strengthened by his experience as a preacher. It cuts the same tone as Obama adopted in his 2008 campaign, where he drew on the oratory style and phrasing of civil rights leaders such as the Reverend Martin Luther King. However, in Obama’s campaign there was another voice within it, one that held the promise of a new society that the young John F Kennedy once inspired. In Mmusi Maimane’s leadership, this has thus far been missing.

He is, however, a powerful unifier, and exudes a genuine love for people and public service. He rises above the race-baiting and hysterics of populist politics, seeking to remind South Africans of their similarities rather than their differences. The major change in the DA’s politics under Maimane, is that it has begun to embrace the social democratic values of the ANC government (i.e. according to Professor Ivor Chipkin), placing a strong emphasis on addressing poverty, providing services, creating employment and so forth. In this, his messaging is very far removed from that of Tony Leon, and is effectively reorienting the DA, bringing it closer to the centre than it has ever been before.

Yet while the DA has paid lip service to social democratic goals under Mmusi Maimane, details of how it seeks to achieve these goals has been scant. When pushed for clarification the DA’s response has consistently been that wherever it has governed people have enjoyed better services, higher levels of employment, etc. This notwithstanding that the DA has mainly governed in the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town, which is hardly representative of the rest of South Africa or its major metropoles, especially in terms of demographics and economics. What Cape Town shares with the rest of the country is that it also ranks among the most unequal cities in the world.

The DA’s messaging in the recent municipal elections held in August, constituted a bold strategy. The DA claimed that were Nelson Mandela alive today, he would be supporting the DA, and that the DA was the only party that still upheld the dream of a non-racial society in South Africa. Combining the message to eradicate poverty with it, and proclaiming support for affirmative action, was an effective way of accessing the trust of black South African voters.  In effect, it served to complete the DA’s political profile as constituting a mirror image of the ANC’s. 

Yet, while the DA performed well, increasing its national percentage by just under 3 per cent (i.e. 2.95 per cent), but even though it earned large portions of the vote in the major metropoles (i.e. the Cape Town, Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan and Tshwane/Pretoria municipalities), only Cape Town was an outright win. That is, the DA's overall improvement was incremental. In reality, the ANC lost mainly due to the abstention of 3.3 million voters, and the votes it lost to the breakaway EFF (i.e. 8.2 per cent nationally, with slightly larger percentages in the metropoles).

The DA is still a long way off from securing the support of black voters, and the poor state of transformation, high levels of inequality, recent racist outbursts on social media by whites – notably by one very senior DA member (Dianne Kohler-Barnard) and an ordinary DA member (Penny Sparrow) – and the casting of the DA as a party that serves white interests (i.e. by the ANC and EFF) have served to reinforce and entrench racial politics.

So it was strange and surprising to see Helen Zille’s twitter post immediately after the municipal election polls closed. In a bizarre turn of events, she tweeted a photograph of a newspaper article in which black student activists proclaimed their love for the University of Cape Town but lamented their plight as “drops in the ocean”. In her tweet, she suggested that their funding be withdrawn, implying that they were ungrateful recipients of it and that the funding would be better allocated to those who ‘wanted’ to be at the university. As the inevitable twitter storm grew, she dug her heels in deeper and attempted to debate with what appeared to be entire twitterverse that black twitter inhabits.

She changed her argument along the way, stating that she was merely pointing out the contradictions inherent in the student’s position, and that her view was that if they were not happy they should leave. When a female 40 plus employee of the university objected, she was told that she could leave too; revealing a startling lack of judgement and sensitivity on the part of Zille. The university employee replied that she was ashamed to have just voted for the DA. 

This sentiment was widely shared.  Helen Zille’s position on transformation and affirmative action (i.e. ‘if you don’t like it you can leave’) – to many – smacked of precisely the reactionary venom that Tony Leon regularly espoused, at length, and even white DA supporters were soon calling on her to quit twitter, for the sake of the party. Rightly, many viewed alienating young black youth as a disastrous strategy that would negatively impact Mmusi Maimane’s leadership of the party. It is not the first time that Zille has been criticized for transgressing the DA's social media policy.

Yet all attempts, even ones that sought to placate and convince her with gentle reasoning, were met with blunt rejection and avid reiteration of her position. Her blanket characterisation of all the criticism that was directed at her was that it was “manufactured outrage”. It seemed that the irony of inverting Chomsky’s “Manufacturing Consent”, for the purposes of persecuting young black student activists, was lost on her. The Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) distanced itself from her comments, and she seemed unaware (or not to care) that they were directly involved and active in the #FeesMustFall protests that captured the South African public imagination towards the end of last year.

Many people who had voted DA got onto twitter to state that they felt tricked, and were now ashamed that they had chosen to vote for the DA. Yet Helen Zille was undeterred. A few days later, in a speech at a Women's Day breakfast at the District Six museum in Cape Town, she proposed that free education be provided only to female matriculants (i.e. high school graduates) who had not claimed child welfare, stating that it would probably not be considered constitutional only because it prejudiced men.

The great irony of denying young mothers and their children an education they desperately need and desire, and placing the weight of that burden on poor families who in all likelihood would not be able to bear it, was entirely lost on her.  She viewed her policy proposal as an incentive, while in reality it was a punitive policy that punished young mothers for falling pregnant, denying them equal rights in the process. That the proposal would be vigorously contested by civil society purely because it discriminated against women, escaped her sensibilities entirely.

It was a twitter circus show that puzzled many a journalist, observer and spectator (journalist Nikolaus Bauer tweeted whether she only felt relevant on twitter these days). It appeared that she was drawing a great deal of attention to herself precisely in the critical moment that the new black leader, who had so successfully rallied support in the local elections, should be enjoying public and media attention and should be seen as firmly at the helm of the party. Instead, her twitter circus sent two messages; (1) that she still needed to hog the limelight despite the fact that there was a new leader, and/or (2) that she remained the real backseat driver behind the machinations of the DA.

What was most strange about these outbursts, however, was not how bad the timing was, or how poorly it reflected on the DA’s own transformation plan. Transformation efforts in South Africa have often failed dismally due to tokenism and fronting; a practise where a likeable black person is recruited by predominantly white companies purely to serve as digestible black faces and mouthpieces for companies that in reality are run from behind the scenes by whites. It seemed strange, that having spent so much time in politics, Helen Zille would not be aware of how her comments would be interpreted by the electorate (i.e. both those who had voted DA and those whom the DA still needs to attract). But Zille's retort was simply that it was only the "critical race theorists" who took issue with her and that they were, in any event, "the polar opposite of DA supporters".

There is one other possible explanation for her behaviour, however, and it is that Helen Zille is in fact deeply uncomfortable with the drift of the DA towards the centre, and its adoption of social democratic rhetoric. Perhaps she no longer has as much say over the direction that the DA has taken as she had before, and has decided to do something about it. From the outside, it appears that with her twitter followers numbering almost a million, that she is appealing to the sentiments of the conservative core of the DA, in effect raising her very own “tea party” caucus within the DA. This caucus, should they become loud enough, could theoretically act as an echo-chamber for her policy positions, exerting pressure on the current DA leadership to move back to the right of centre.

The danger in this strategy, of course, is evident in the collapse of the Republican party in the US, where what began as a tea-party caucus has evolved into a venue for the expression of the most racist and intolerant isolationist and separatist rhetoric, yielding Donald Trump as its deranged and outrageous candidate as the frontrunner and presidential nominee. That is, for the DA, raising such a caucus would result in a serious identity crisis, and it is not entirely clear that the party would survive it.

There are many changes that Mmusi Maimane still needs to introduce to the DA’s most conservative white core, to which they need to be gently introduced and convinced. They will not take lightly to a DA that promotes affirmative action and supports redress. They may feel uncomfortable with the DA leadership and membership undergoing the dramatic racial transformation that it needs to in order to be taken seriously by black voters. They may not support a welfare-economics based approach towards poverty eradication and alleviation. Indeed, they may come to feel that they are losing their last bastion of resistance to the imperatives of black politics in South Africa.

Many older DA supporters, like Helen Zille, are products of the Thatcher-Reagan era and are entirely unaware that the 2008 financial collapse spelt the end of that ideology as a global project. In their unchanging close-knit worlds and private realms, well enclosed from broader South Africa, everything appears the same, and global events, and changes in discourse (i.e. whether economic, political or social) just don’t register. For them, all this talk about black lives matter, privilege, neoliberalism and so forth are just the rantings of a youth who don’t understand “how things really work”. They fail to see a global wave of change that is set to sweep the modalities of the late 20th Century away. They live parochial existences, and maintaining the status quo lies at the heart of their intentions.

Yet South Africa is a young democracy that is set to undergo many more changes before it stabilises as a political project. More of the same, is likely to entrench existing inequalities and deepen poverty and social problems. More of the same is clearly not an option. That is clearly why the voters have opted to send a message of no confidence to the once much-loved and respected ANC. A move back towards right of centre would likely prove disastrous for the DA.

Yet here’s the rub. The ANC may not be executing its vision and mandate, but South African voters know what the ANC stands for and should be doing. That is why 3.3 million voters decided to abstain instead of voting for the opposition, and why the black “protest vote” mainly goes to the EFF (who espouse the politics of the old ANC). When it comes to the DA, however, while its rhetoric is warm and fuzzy, and simulates the “rainbow nation” euphoria of the mid 1990s, there is a distinct unease when it comes to knowing exactly what it stands for.

Black voters may not express their dissatisfaction in these words, but their levels of suspicion towards the DA speaks volumes. It is in this context that the danger that Helen Zille’s ill-advised actions should be understood; it gives the impression of a divided DA, a DA that speaks with a forked tongue. And while the DA leadership has not come to her defence, they have not yet strongly decried her comments and distanced themselves from them (with the exception of DASO). In this, they are mirroring the unconscionable support the ANC shows for its president Jacob Zuma. Helen Zille’s antics have not gone un-noticed, and should she continue along her current route (which she seems set to), it may spell trouble for the DA in the next national election. In politics, a few years is a long time.

Yet it is not just Helen Zille who thoughtlessly espouses neoconservative Thatcherite rhetoric while claiming to be liberal. Herman Mashaba – the DA mayoral candidate for Johannesburg – is a self-confessed avid capitalist, businessman (he founded the “Black Like Me” range) and unabashed Donald Trump supporter. His political knowledge is scant, and his political message incoherent and appears to amount to a few rehearsed lines that the DA’s PR machine has whipped up for him (much like Trump). Like Zille, he wandered considerably off message during the election campaign and a special team had to be flown up to reign him in.

In exchange for the EFF’s votes for mayoral candidate, the EFF requested that the DA request that Mashaba retract his nomination for Mayor of Johannesburg but it is unclear whether Mashaba intends to fall on his sword for the sake of local government in Johannesburg, the most important metro in the country by far.  And as has proved typical of both Zille and Mashaba, he stated in an interview with Jeremy Maggs on ENCA last night that he didn’t understand why the ultra-radical left EFF had a problem with him. “We want the same things,” he said, citing the need to deny the ANC its patronage networks in Johannesburg, alleviate poverty and so forth. What is telling, is that he did not seem to understand that the EFF differed fundamentally on how to go about realising those aspirations. That is, he didn’t actually understand the politics that he stood for, nor did he understand theirs. In comparison to the well-informed, erudite, progressive and articulate Parks Tau, the ANC mayor of Johannesburg, he is without doubt an absolute buffoon.

And so the time has come for the DA to clear up the confusion. In the run-up to the national elections in 2019 the DA needs to put forward a clear political vision and make its stand, not just on issues of interest, but for the political project it believes in and will commit to. It is the only major political party in the South African political spectrum that still does not have a clear, distinctive political vision. The danger in that is self-evident; you cannot be all things to all people, you have to take a position in politics and voters need to understand clearly what that position is. At the extreme end of comparison, it is worth remembering that both the colonialists and the Nazi’s were good administrators. Their enduring legacy, however, is a result of their politics. And so it is with this pressing desire for clarity that the South African public needs to ask;

“Will the real DA please stand up?”

***Note: First published on 18 August 2016; thereafter lightly edited.

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