The DA, party defections and race narratives - Politicsweb

15 August 2022 - Well, it happened again, and I can’t imagine that anyone is surprised it happened. A resignation from the Democratic Alliance was followed by a spate of comment about the dire portents of this for the party. The departee being black, Gauteng MPL Makashule Gana, it wasn’t hard to work out where this was heading. Helen Zille slapped back, pointing to hundreds of party representatives and leaders who remained in the party. A ‘black list’ as her critics put it (not without wit, it must be said).

Terence Corrigan 

Well, it happened again, and I can’t imagine that anyone is surprised it happened. A resignation from the Democratic Alliance was followed by a spate of comment about the dire portents of this for the party. The departee being black, Gauteng MPL Makashule Gana, it wasn’t hard to work out where this was heading. Helen Zille slapped back, pointing to hundreds of party representatives and leaders who remained in the party. A ‘black list’ as her critics put it (not without wit, it must be said).

Cue another round of outrage.

Zille maintained that this was a non-story. People come and go in politics, and it was all motivated by anti-DA animus. For her detractors this showed just how fraught with racism and white supremacy the DA was, and how Zille was emblematic of that.

Following an interview with Gana, talk show host Clement Manyathela was exuberant that his guest had ‘found his courage’, and hoped that others would do so. To a caller he was firm: ‘We are never going to stop talking about race.’

Is there truth to any of this?

To understand this conversation, understand the concept of narrative. This describes how facts, events and experiences form a coherent whole when seen in relation to one another and a guiding theme. Think of this as a story with its characters and plot.

Understanding narrative is important to both perspectives on this issue, but particularly to Zille’s and the DA’s detractors: for them, the departure of a black member of the party must be understood in the context of a veritable exodus of black talent from the DA. ‘There’s so many black leaders in the DA on the way out,’ Manyathela said.

From that, the pathological culture of the party could be inferred.

Central here is the idea that the DA (and Zille) is too prejudiced, or too bigoted, or simply too clueless to handle the complexities of South African society. At best, this was a case of tone-deafness.

Few would deny that race plays an outsized role in our politics. Given our history, that is understandable. But it is possible to take different views of what history means, and of the lessons to be learned from it.

Those holding to the ‘narrative’ that this is an expression of a distinctly ‘racial’ issue would think it imperative to foreground questions of race in analysis, and in solutions. Thus, should a black leader resign from the DA – a ‘white’ party – this is axiomatically interpreted as evidence of a conflict that is inherently about race. The obvious corresponding solution is to pledge firmer commitments to race-conscious policy and action. To ‘do better’ in colloquial parlance.

But one might equally draw from our history the lesson that race-based politics is a dangerous game, and that analyses that take racial divisions as a given, or more importantly that see race as a necessary explanation for phenomena (to the exclusion, partial or total, of any others), are destructive and misleading. The same would apply to any solutions proposed. And perhaps there is a heightened danger of this in a country with the scale of challenges that South Africa has – we have a great deal at stake in getting things right, because at the moment, failure threatens in many areas.

Seen from this perspective, one could argue that Zille has actually been more attuned to the lessons of South African history than her detractors.

That being said, there is a legitimate criticism of the manner in which Zille responded to the initial criticisms. Listing black leaders in the DA moved her argument into the terms set by her detractors. To my mind, this played into their narrative. I would have cautioned strongly against so doing.

But since this is the manner in which her critics frame their criticisms, it is disingenuous and hypocritical for them to object to her response on those grounds.


South African politics has a strong current of moralism to it. Many of us are perpetually ‘outraged’ about something. And Zille is a prominent politician. Her opponents can be expected to use any opportunity to have a go at her – the DA is not shy about doing likewise to those it opposes. That’s the nature of a free society with rambunctious politics. So, again, nothing unexpected there.

Is the ‘outrage’ justified? Well, it is understandable in the sense that it contributes to narrative building. Those who understand South Africa’s politics in predominantly racial terms – or who find it useful to do so – will seek to leverage this.

Add to this the presence of social media, especially Twitter, in public debate. It is almost tailor made for polarisation and ‘outrage’. It enables people to engage on abusive terms with one another, to hurl insults rather than make reasoned arguments.

In fact, as Jonathan Haidt has argued, the form it takes makes reasoned argument difficult if not impossible. It is even inimical to democratic citizenship. But it is taken seriously when you have positions in media organisations whose job is to monitor and report on these platforms. And you end up with headlines telling us that Twitter is ‘outraged’.

Justified or not, it’s predictable.

The ‘Exodus’

The departure of black leaders from the DA is a substantive issue, and one that the public is right to have an interest in, irrespective of particular views on the party.

Political parties exist to represent their constituencies and to contest for power. The state of the parties in a political system is of great importance to a democracy. South Africa’s current malaise owes a great deal to the conduct of the African National Congress since it came to power, not only in government, but within its own structures.

The DA has certainly experienced some turbulent times lately. It is an entirely legitimate question to ask why high-profile leaders have quit. And it’s not entirely true to say that no one is interested in departures from parties other than the DA: when Bantu Holomisa and Mosiuoa Lekota left the ANC, this attracted a lot of attention.

But the idea of an ‘exodus of black leaders from the DA is questionable. Not all of the leaders who have departed from the DA’s orbit have been black. Think of Athol Trollip or Michael Beaumont. Incidentally, Herman Mashaba referred to Trollip as a ‘son of the soil’ – yet over Trollip’s career the same race narrative was invoked against him from time to time. One piece in a Sunday paper called him a ‘dinosaur’, on the basis it seems that he was white, male and middle-aged. It appears that he has now been rehabilitated....

A larger problem is that the reflexive resort to race as an explanation (and to ‘outrage’) does a disservice to thoughtful analysis and understanding.

This is certainly the case in respect of the resignations from the DA. Narrative again... for observers simply to assume that developments signify something ‘racial’, without adequate evidence (and without testing other possibilities) is to fail to show necessary intellectual curiosity.

This is unfortunate. Makashule Gana’s resignation letter, for example, made no mention of race or racism, but did talk at length about the failings of existing parties, their inability to connect with ordinary people and his admiration for Songezo Zibi. He added that he had ‘no regrets’ about his career. (A personal reading here, but his letter hardly conveys the impression of someone who was angry or wounded).

Phumzile Van Damme, another person whose departure from the DA provoked a great deal of comment, said explicitly that her decision was not propelled by the DA being a ‘so-called “racist party”’, but because of a ‘clique of individuals’.

Examining these things would be a richer analytical experience, probably more accurate and also more respectful to those whose decisions are under examination. This is not to say that race may not be a factor, but to be open to alternative explanations.

The assumption that race underlies these dynamics also risks missing what might be evidence of a deeply significant movement in South Africa’s politics: the move towards a more competitive system. Note that these departures are not going off to the ANC, as they might have done a decade or more back, during the notorious floor-crossing windows. Rather, they are looking at non-ANC alternatives, and presenting themselves in terms of reinventing politics. There is an undercurrent of hopefulness in what some of the departees have said, as though pull rather than push factors feature in their minds. It’s surprising that more has not been said about that.

Be aware that interrogating these dynamics might be more uncomfortable for the DA than simply assuming it’s all about race.

So, how are political parties meeting South Africa’s challenges?

If it’s assumed that the loss of these figures represents a crisis for the DA, what should it be doing to extend its appeal? Indeed, what should all parties be doing differently?

The reality is that representing or reflecting the country as a whole is not something to which all parties aspire – again, something quite understandable in view of South Africa’s history. A party like the Economic Freedom Fighters identifies its constituency and mobilises in largely racial terms. The Freedom Front Plus does so in cultural and ethnic terms. It’s not really in the nature of such parties to be inclusive.

The ANC is nominally non-racial, but ambivalently so; there is little evidence that it is interested in winning support or approval among white voters. Some of its appeals have been made in more or less explicitly racial terms – ‘our people’, for instance. Practically, given the demographics of the country, this approach has served it adequately.

Perhaps what makes the DA somewhat different here is that it expressly presents itself as catering for all and wishing to extend its reach across racial lines. It’s been imperfectly successful in this, to say the least, but the task is an extraordinarily difficult one; in countries with deep divisions, broad-based politics is a struggle. And what the DA has achieved is probably rather more than other parties in the country’s political system.

The DA (and Zille) has taken some criticism for supposedly having given up on building a majority. ‘The DA is now focusing on its narrow white base – solely appealing to white liberals,’ opined Dr Ntsikelelo Breakfast in the aftermath of the resignation of KwaZulu-Natal MPL and former DA youth leader Mbali Ntuli.

It’s interesting how he conflates race (‘white’) and ideology (‘liberals’). Other analysts have done likewise. But these are not coterminous.

And it may be true that the DA’s current leadership has chosen a more ideologically directed line than its predecessors. This may implicitly (and probably does) limit its potential appeal. But is building an electoral majority in the pattern of the ANC in the 1990s a feasible option? A more uncompromising ideological approach may also imply a more resolute and operationally effective party. And perhaps that would position the party well to participate in the coalition future that many are envisaging.

The point of setting out this scenario is not to endorse it (either as an analytical or normative proposition), but to suggest a possible rationale, and in so doing to challenge the assumption underlying the racial narrative.

The central issue

Yet concerns around politicised divisions in the country should appropriately be directed less at the state of individual political parties than at the wider question of political culture. South Africa’s political system has not incentivised cooperation among parties, although a future of coalitions might alter this. Institutions intended to mediate societal stresses have been abused, and fail to function as they should. A liberation movement has been in office for decades and views itself as an organisation that is entitled by history to rule – with a correspondingly dim view of its opponents.

Race speaks to deep trauma in our history; it is a real issue in our society. But for that reason it remains a handy instrument to fuel political division. The import of American-style ‘critical theory’ has given this an erudition that has done great damage to the idea of non-racism – to the extent that there are loud voices condemning non-racism as an inadequate response to racism, if not a form of racism itself.

Social media has exacerbated all of this.

So, what is to be done?

If the issue is the political culture, resolving it will demand more than just action from political parties. Society as a whole needs to recommit to democracy, and the inevitable, messy tensions it creates. Contestation of interests is its objective, not a pathology. Too often, this is ignored.

Along with democracy, South African society and its thought leaders could do worse than to reaffirm the importance of non-racism. To do so is not to ignore the country’s painful history, or the continuing political importance of race. Nor is it to assume that building that society will be easy or without pain. But it is to see it as a worthy goal. Note that both racism and anti-racism (in the ‘critical race theory’ sense) are inevitably divisive and conflictual.

South Africa needs to learn reasoned debate. It needs a lot more in the way of respectful conversations around tricky issues – going beyond the tropes about ‘having the difficult conversations’ before defaulting to hectoring and recrimination – that do not fixate on ‘positionality’ or the presumed malign motives of opponents. Needless to say, social media is more of a hindrance than a help here.

And the country needs to improve its analysis. It should be clear from this that narratives are crucial to politics – but they do not always reflect truth. Journalists, analysts and ordinary citizens need to realise that just because something seems intuitively correct, it may not necessarily be. More careful examination of evidence and an openness to alternatives will be critical to South Africa’s democratic future.

Indeed, Clement Manyathela memorably warned of a ‘lazy way’ of thinking. Be nuanced and thoughtful. ‘Don’t be simplistic’. He was answering critics who claimed that the ANC has failed comprehensively. He was correct to argue that the reality is more complex. Just so; South Africa needs more of that from a lot more of its public debate. Sometimes it’s a good idea for commentators to take their own advice.

And Gana gets the last word. In a discussion with Tshidi Madia, he cautioned against venting on social media: ‘There are instances where you must scroll past, the sky is not going to fall when you scroll past. Scroll past certain things. Don't always take the bait.’

Wiser words are seldom spoken.

Terence Corrigan is Project Manager at the Institute of Race Relations. This article is based on a request for commentary by a journalist. Readers are invited to support the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).