Indications from the just concluded federal congress of the Democratic Alliance (DA) are that it will take some time yet, if ever it should succeed, for South Africa’s main opposition party to make a determined break with the toxic legacy of racial liberalism.
While it seems that the party is engaged in an intensified battle of ideas about race and gender, attempts to decisively confront these related inequalities both outside and inside the party have again been defeated.
While this battle of ideas is at first sight about race and gender, and therefore whiteness and patriarchy, for DA it must be about its driving ideology, liberalism. After former leader Helen Zille tweeted about the positive aspects of colonialism, I wrote an analysis on liberalism’s historical collusion with the colonial destruction of black people’s humanity and asked whether she was standing in the way of the emergence of an African liberalism.
This question is not simply about Zille, but about the white liberal establishment that remains in control of the DA, as suggested by the outcomes of this past weekend’s federal party congress.
The rising black leadership in the DA, previously personified by Lindiwe Mazibuko and nowadays by Mmusi Maimane, approaches race and gender in a significantly different way to the party establishment, as I have argued elsewhere. Maimane’s statement at the time of his election as party leader in 2015 that “if you don’t see I’m black, you don’t see me” was a recognition of the impact of race not heard before at the top of the party. Indeed, it was a denunciation of the dominant DA position on race of “colour-blindness” which, among others, underpins its historical rejection of employment equity.
The emerging black leadership corps is tackling head-on what the Jamaican thinker and foremost political philosopher Charles W Mills in his most recent book calls “racial liberalism”. According to Mills, this version of liberalism has been central to Western political thinking and has been the most prominent form of this ideology over the past few hundred years.
He criticises the double standard that has characterised racial liberalism, in particular, that the principles of the rule of law, the equality of all human beings, equal protection by the state of everybody’s interests, and so forth, have been practised selectively in ways that have entrenched white and male privilege.
This was horrifically demonstrated at the time of the establishment of South Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, as detailed by Adv. Tembeka Ngcukaitobi in his new book, The Land is Ours: Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism in South Africa.
The numerous appeals by black liberals to the British imperial government for political and economic inclusion were brushed aside with impunity, despite the Empire trumpeting liberalism as its founding ideology. To add insult to injury, black people and particularly black women were instead subjected to intensified dispossession, exploitation and violation of basic rights.
Mills argues for a liberalism that is colour-conscious. Extending this idea to other differences such as gender, this would mean a liberalism that actively acknowledges historical racial, gender and other injustices, and advances the correction of such injustices. Such an agenda must be driven from the vantage points of those who have been wronged, that is, black people and women.
On the African continent, given the atrocious history of liberalism as an ideology in collusion with colonialism, a purposeful process of rethinking must happen. An expansion of liberalism is necessary that eschews meritocratic individualism and the fantasy of free “rational” individuals calculating their equal opportunities on level playing fields.
If an African liberalism is to be forged, it needs to speak to the lived realities of people, and it must actively redress the historical legacies of injustice that perpetuate racial, gender and other inequalities in the present day.
Such ideological renewal is meeting strong headwinds in the DA, judging by the contradictory public statements, decisions about the party constitution and leadership choices at the weekend’s congress. It comes as no surprise, however, given the DA’s historically fraught relationship with race.
When the Nationalist Party regime banned racially integrated parties, the DA’s predecessor the Progressive Party decided to become white rather than disband, unlike its counterpart the Liberal Party. It believed that “merit” – property ownership, educational qualifications – would be sufficient to overcome the disadvantages wrought by racism and other discriminations.
In a break with this history of denial, the DA’s parliamentary caucus, led by Mazibuko, supported the Employment Equity Amendment Bill in 2013, causing outrage among the white liberal party establishment and leading to her sidelining – a travesty still uncorrected. The conflict between the new and the old leadership was in main about corrective action in addressing injustices inherited from the past, and it is still continuing.
Maimane outlined in his address as party leader at the congress what an African liberalism could be, with specific reference to fighting racism, inequality, and poverty. But then he seemingly backtracked on his previous statement about “if you don’t see I’m black, you don’t see me”.
His comments on also being a father, a husband, and so forth, seem facetious in the light of what was being conveyed by his original statement. To recognise the effects of race, both as a source of oppression and of resistance is not to deny the multiplicity of identity.
It seems Maimane was placating some of his fellow leaders. This impression was strengthened when Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip reportedly welcomed his re-election as DA federal chairperson by suggesting that it is therefore not “all about race”. This is in an apparent reference to the contender for the post having been Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga.
Implicitly his comment, therefore, suggests that if Msimanga were elected, it would have been “all about race”. This exemplifies a typical conflation of race with blackness, which is then connected with negative associations to make something questionable. In contrast, if a white person is elected, it is presented as not about race but about something else, a positive value. One assumes in this case the automatic deservedness that whiteness confers.
Maimane emphasised in his address that “all of us here celebrate and champion diversity. That is why no other party is as diverse as ours.” Still, the attempt to constitutionally enshrine mechanisms to ensure that this diversity is reflected at all levels of the DA was defeated.
In an extension of the problematisation of positive correction of the historical exclusion of black people and women, an explicit phrase has been added to the DA constitution to reject “formulae or quotas”, alongside vague wording of “action” to ensure diversity.Again, the DA confirms that it is resolutely opposed to recognising and addressing the structural impediments in the way of black people and women, also within its own ranks. Maimane in his address was proud of the party fighting injustice “without defining people according to the colour of their skin”.
So let’s see how naturally occurring justice is working out for the DA. Only one woman managed to be elected to the party’s top seven. DA women do not want to be “tokens”, according to the official explanation provided on their behalf by a man (Trollip). Conjuring the spectre of tokenism is a tried and tested way to undermine women leaders or those who dare to show leadership ambitions.
In all, 60% of the DA’s top party posts are occupied by white men. Following the dominant meritocratic logic of the DA, such disproportional representation can only mean one of two things: that white men are, generally speaking, naturally superior to all other human beings. Or, that the DA has a knack for rewarding white men with senior posts.
On a more serious note: The DA’s white liberal establishment has to face the facts. They can continue capturing the party with parochial denialism about white and masculine privilege but they must realise: they are simultaneously throttling the potential for an African liberalism, and therefore limiting the party itself, and its growth will necessarily remain curtailed.