Tolstoy, observing a tree, reminds us that “the leaves enchant us more than the roots”. In the gale of commentary that gusted after the DA’s recent policy reset, the party appears to have caught some high winds of disapproval.
This is surprising for at least two obvious reasons. Neither of these were articulated in the many negative public comments that followed the party’s decision to explicitly endorse nonracialism and embrace redress policies premised on “the rejection of race as a way to categorise and treat people, particularly in legislation”.
First, the bedrock principles or roots of modern democratic SA are enshrined in the 1996 constitution. Of its four founding values, one explicitly commits the country and its policymakers to practise and preach “nonracialism and non-sexism”.
At its most rudimentary there is clear constitutional cover — even an imperative — for the DA to have taken the decision, arguably a collective undertaking made by the entire country in 1996, to provide redress policies absent of hard racial categorising.
The second headline critique of the party policy is that it is a vote loser and will interdict the party’s enduring, but mostly unsuccessful, quest to obtain significant black support.
While the departing words of a defecting politician should be treated with the utmost caution, exiting Gauteng DA leader John Moodey gave voice to this view, echoing many leading commentators on the subject. He declared that “denying the centrality of race to the lived experiences of the overwhelming majority of South Africans points to a political rout and retreat of epic proportions likely to keep the ANC in power for decades”.
This is both highly arguable and an entirely evidence-free proposition. With reference to Moodey himself, he led the charge in 2019 for the DA to wrest control of Gauteng from the ANC, enjoying the nickname “The General”. He publicly committed that under his baton the party would bring the ANC below 50% in the province. In the event the ANC kept its majority, and Moodey’s DA recorded just 27.45% and lost three of its previously held seats.
As a matter of fact, the DA performed better provincially and nationally in 2014, led by Helen Zille, than it did in 2019, led by Mmusi Maimane. Aside from the change at the top between these elections, there was also a step-change in the policy direction of the party.
In 2019, it offered the electorate a specific commitment to the race-based policies it has more recently jettisoned. In 2019 it did not, as per Moodey’s new critique, “deny the centrality of race”.
On the contrary, under the headline “A New Plan to Realise Economic Justice for All South Africans”, the manifesto offered voters this view: “The reason that the DA supports a programme of race-based redress is, simply put, because it is an important part of our country’s reconciliation project and vital for justice … This means that a programme of redress does need a sunset clause. As a party that believes in liberal values and principles, we would seek to ensure that we move to a non-racial position as soon as a successful redress programme has been implemented …”
Nothing convinces, as the saying goes, as much as conviction. But the have-cake-will-eat-it baked into the formula for race-based redress, coupled with a promise of nonracial liberalism at some indeterminate point in future, seemed to me at the time a spectacular example of doublethink, equivocation and appealing-to-everyone-and-pleasing-no-one. The voters appeared to agree when they delivered the party its first dose of vote-shedding in 20 years.
The ideological cul-de-sac that caused the party to drive into the ditch last time round will not simply be reversed by a policy reset. But the evidence that clarifying the means for addressing disadvantage with more liberal and less racial ends is a vote loser does not stack up.
It was instructive that on the eve of the 2019 election eNCA highlighted a series of national polls conducted for it by Markdata. One key finding: a large majority of voters believed the government “doesn’t care” about issues of cardinal importance to them, from job creation to reducing poverty.
Since much of what passes for debate in the cacophony and angry discourse of public commentary in SA is based on the apparent immutability of ANC and Africanist ideology, the facts (or data) from the ground suggested hunger for change, not attachment to race dogma.
RW Johnson, who analysed the polling for the station, noted: “Large majorities of black voters were quite happy to jettison affirmative action, BEE and expropriation without compensation if the result would bring more investment and thus jobs. This straightforward disavowal of so many African nationalist articles of faith suggests that no amount of ideology is proof against 25 years of rising unemployment and five years of steadily falling incomes.”
There might be many other obstacles in the DA’s path to electoral fortune, but other than the virtue-signalling inherent in much of the public commentary there is no plausible evidence that the party’s reformulation of policy is one of them.
Of all the maladies that affect political parties and their performance, a lack of self-confidence is key. Ambivalence, lack of clarity and loss of faith in core convictions, and haunting by the past, are some of the symptoms of what usually, over time, is a terminal political disease.
Beyond tactics, polls and strategies there is both precedent and principle in offering nonracialism as an option. On the precedent side of the ledger, Charles Simkins, head of research of the Helen Suzman Foundation, cautions that lowering the salience of race will be slow at best, but it has impeccable current government policy and practice on its side.
He cited the fact that social grants use nonracial categories — age, health, status, income — as the basis for allocation and then noted: “Grants are disproportionately allocated to black people — but blackness is not the criterion for assistance”. Precisely the same applies to those funding the grants, the taxpayer. “Taxation is based on income, consumption and profit: the incidence of taxation falls disproportionately on white people, but whiteness is not the criterion for the obligation.”
The question for the critics of nonracial politics to answer is how the inarguably successful redress policy of social grants has been practised without reference to race.
On principle, one the best modern distillations on the issue was offered by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity. He reminds us that our normal assumptions on racial identity are often the detritus of 19th-century science. The fault of “essentialism about identities”, as Appiah terms it, is to assume that there is an “inner something” common to all members of an identity group. This is demonstrably untrue, as he illustrates with crystalline clarity.
For the official opposition in race-obsessed SA to set its face against such “essentialism” is no bad thing. Better still, it might even win the party some new votes, from all communities, next time round.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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