Liberalism offers the DA the winning formula it needs - Daily Maverick

8 July 2019 - The fastest route to DA growth is precisely through appealing to classically liberal values, especially non-racialism.

Gabriel Crouse

Analyst Sinethemba Zonke has argued that the DA’s attempt to be a classically liberal ‘standard-bearer’ while at the same time growing its support, particularly among black citizens, through appeals to race solidarity, results in the party pulling in two directions. He’s wrong. The fastest route to DA growth is precisely through appealing to classically liberal values, especially non-racialism.
“DA tiptoes through minefield of identity politics while trying to remain the liberal standard-bearer” is the headline above Sinethemba Zonke’s analysis of the DA’s election woes. Zonke says the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has “thrown fuel onto the fire of the DA’s internal struggle…exerting considerable pressure from an intellectual perspective”. This is a compliment worth taking – though it’s necessary to add that the IRR exerts pressure on the ANC, business, organised labour, media elites and the public, too.

Zonke notes that the IRR exerts this pressure from a privileged position. As a think tank founded on non-racialism 90 years ago, the IRR does not need millions of votes and so can remain true to values even if they are unpopular. The DA, on the other hand, needs millions of votes to achieve change. So, Zonke writes: “For the DA to abide by the kind of liberalism the SAIRR embraces would keep the party as a small interest group, merely putting out policy points, but not making any inroads into winning political ground in the electoral space.”

If it were true that most South Africans were race nationalists fixated on melanin then the DA truly would face a dilemma. It would have to choose between being a popular party and being a classically liberal one, as, so Zonke says, it could not be both. This dilemma has a clear precedent.

In the early days of apartheid, non-racialism was very unpopular among white citizens, which meant the ruling (white) National Party enjoyed a dominant position, winning 103 of the 160 seats in the 1961 election, for example. The (white) United Party came in second, with 53 seats, by touting apartheid-lite as the best alternative. Only one party stood for non-racialism, the Progressive Party, and it won only one seat in 1961. From 1961 to 1974, Helen Suzman was the only MP who flew the flag of classical liberalism in Parliament, the lone “cricket in the thorn-tree”.

If the DA were in a similar position today, the IRR’s response would be much the same as it was back then, to back the lone cricket chirping truth to power. Better that than to make as the United Party did and promise to “improve” or “soften” race nationalist policy. Race nationalist governments must be fundamentally opposed, nothing less, even if this is not popular.

Zonke thinks the DA is in this position today, needing to choose between values of individual dignity or popularity. But it is not. Surveys by the IRR indicate the overwhelming majority of South Africans are opposed to race nationalist policies today. For example, 80% of those surveyed in a nationally representative sample prefer job appointments to be made according to merit rather than race. The number climbs to 83% when it comes to sports teams and 84% said they don’t care what their children’s teachers’ race is as long as the teachers are good. These are some reasons to think that the DA is not facing an electorate as racist as the one Suzman faced half a century ago. By espousing non-racialism, the DA would be aligning itself, rather than fighting against, the values of millions of South Africans.

Then, again, there is daylight between people’s personal values and what they think the state should do. Perhaps Zonke thinks the DA needs to grow its popularity through social identity politics rather than the politics of individual liberty because when it comes to government rather than their own lives that is how most people think. Again, this would be a mistake.

When asked to choose from a list of 12 what the “top priority of the government” should be, 70% chose creating jobs, fighting corruption, improving education, fighting crime or fighting drug abuse. Only 5% chose, cumulatively, fighting racism, speeding up land reform or speeding up affirmative action. If you break these numbers down by race, white respondents were twice as likely to choose “speeding up land reform” as a priority than black people, though both numbers are tiny, at 4% and 2% respectively.

In other words, people’s personal values and their ideas about government are aligned. Moreover, millions believe there is a connection between bad governance and race fixation. It is not, as Twitter would lead one to expect, that bad government is a result of not being fixated enough on race, just the opposite. Sixty-four percent of respondents agree with the proposition that “talk of racism/colonialism is from politicians seeking excuses for their own failures”.

While many journalists, publications and institutions – like amaBhungane – have done heroic work to expose and criticise state corruption, the emphasis on the race-baiting connection is often overlooked. That is why I often cite Jacques Pauw, who wrote the most earth-shattering book on the topic and made the connection explicit. He argued that the “first row” of the president’s “keepers” were those who used race nationalist language to shield corruption. He is right. And most people know it. Again, truth and popularity align here.

Meanwhile, the DA has shown itself unable to combat corruption when race-baiting comes into play. When Patricia de Lille accused the DA of being racist it dropped the charges against her rather than allow proceedings to conclude transparently, a dismal end to a series of blunders. Since tackling corruption is such a priority, who can credibly say that Mmusi Maimane has the courage to do that job even if it means being accused of racism by keepers who are much more powerful?

Zonke presumably knows about the IRR’s surveys. If they are accurate, then they indicate the DA does not face Helen Suzman’s dilemma. Instead, it can reap the fruit of what she sowed generations ago. Its best chance to grow is by being unambiguously and passionately classically liberal because that is now where most of the country is at in heart and mind. The scientific surveys further indicate that if the DA does not take the liberal approach, some other party, either one that already exists or a new one, might take the chance, thereby eating into their voter base by the millions come 2024. I cannot tell you why Zonke does not believe the surveys, because he does not address them.

There are some who worry about the IRR’s survey methodology – for example, the last survey provided a list of priorities rather than pose an open question about what government should do. But the IRR has been doing this for many years and on other occasions used open questions that found much the same result. Others doubt the use of telephonic surveys. But Markdata does in-person interviews and finds much the same – for example, in mass opposition to Radical (racialist) Economic Transformation, as you can see in RW Johnson’s analysis here and here. As Johnson also points out in his post-election DA analysis, the ANC has been shrinking in the Western Cape despite demographic shifts (an influx of black people) that would have Zonke apparently expecting the opposite outcome.

And if surveys are no good without anecdotal back-up, here is one from my travels through rural SA last year. Besides the common refrain I heard in rural KZN – black boss, white boss, whatever, the job is the thing – I spoke to a senior induna who had the following to say (under promise of anonymity).

“I don’t want a Zuma to rule here, he takes (from others) to make his own Nkandla too big. I don’t want a Malema, he just wants to make fire, but here it is dry, even in our hearts and everything will burn to ash. I don’t want a Maimane, he just wants to make friends. He loses his own self to others. I want a Zille. Bring me a Helen Zille. She wants to make” – he suddenly crouched and struck the raw earth with two open palms – “a solid future. For me. For you. For my people. She knows who she is, I do too. Bring me a Helen Zille!”

This might not impress you much, but it impressed me like a hot cattle-iron burning a new pattern on to my skin. It made me rethink all the cocktail parties, 702-listening sessions and Twitter-wars that tricked me into “knowing” what life was like in the heartland of this country. The ground that induna struck was a battlefield where he saw some of his family killed during the transition to democracy.

Dr Anthea Jeffery’s history, People’s War, is another indicator of why black South Africans might be subconsciously intimidated against making non-racial views public (unless they have safety in numbers); 20,000 people died during the transition to democracy, with her evidence suggesting that many were as a result of ANC efforts to harass opponents into silence. Since this is almost never acknowledged or repented, some fear might still lurk. Fear made manifest when Tony Yengeni taunts the self-made capitalist Herman Mashaba with necklacing, is just one example.

This country is not as racially fixated as it seems from the purchase. I had a similarly surprising experience at the EFF’s major rally for the 2019 election where I was hugged and held and danced with by people who said, “We are not against whites, we are just sick of corruption, and hungry”.

My colleague Sihle Ngobese picked up several further internal contradictions at the EFF manifesto launch, which you can watch here (and you can read my piece here). Both experiences suggest that even vast numbers of EFF supporters could jump ship to the DA if only it inspired hope through conviction rather than try to “make friends”, as the induna said, “by being a sheep to the sheep and a jackal to the jackals”.

Zonke is right to say the IRR would propose this formula even if it meant losing in the short-term: treat others as equals; judge others by the content of their character. But now this is a winning formula to boot. If the DA doesn’t commit itself to this, another party will and many DA MPs might find themselves desperately hoping they can go the way of Patricia de Lille. 

Gabriel Crouse is the George FD Palmer Financial Journalist Trust Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).