SUNDAY TIMES - Family values often antithesis of liberalism
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Sunday Times Opinion & Analysis By Wilmot James, 2015-05-17 00:00:00.0

Family values often antithesis of liberalism

When the DA's federal congress accepted the values charter this year as a preamble to its constitution, it took a turn towards the socially conservative right.

While it accepted the values of freedom, fairness and opportunity that are fundamental to the liberal democratic tradition, it took a right turn by locating these values in the context of the family.

Let me explain what troubles me about this significant move. As a party, the DA holds the South African constitution to be fundamental to our democratic order. The Bill of Rights, which protects the freedoms for which we fought against apartheid, may not be subject to limitation unless, as John Locke had it, "an ironclad case for doing so" is put.

We could, for example, limit freedom of expression by passing a law of general application against hate speech. The Bill of Rights does not allow for a law that limits the right to a fair trial (just imagine), the freedom women have over their reproductive rights (pro-choice prevails, as it should) or the right to life (the death penalty is a constitutional impossibility).

The unit that is protected by the Bill of Rights is the individual. And it is from the constitutional protection of the individual's rights that the fight against oppression and the arbitrary use of state (and social) power is legally fought.

Consider for a moment the rights of women in some traditional communities in the remotest parts of South Africa. They are subject to the whims of men and chiefs. They are not allowed to own assets, when there are assets to be had (often the assets are held communally). Family norms make a misery of their existence, turning women into servants of men.

What the DA should be doing is fighting for the constitutional rights of women in such male-hardened family environments. The ANC is not leading the fight, because it would undermine one of its critical voting constituencies - and this despite its having a women's league. The ANC is shameless in trading votes for principles.

But instead of driving women's rights as a weapon into the heart of oppressive family arrangements, the DA's values charter makes the claim that "strong people and strong social structures such as families, in all their different manifestations, flourish in strong communities". It underwrites all family structures, oppressive ones included.

It is a terrifying passage. The "survival of the fittest" language reminds me of the worst excesses of social Darwinism. What is a strong individual? Do the strong define what is strength? And what about the thousands of people who had to deal with HIV/Aids without much support from their families, communities or, during Thabo Mbeki's time, the state? Are they not strong?

"Resilience" is a less arrogant, less presumptuous and more measurable term. But never mind the term, we should reject the claim itself. We know of many successful individuals who come from dysfunctional families. Bill Clinton and Charlize Theron are good examples. I also know of apathetic individuals who come from functional families and communities. In the vast literature of social psychology there is slim evidence to support the link between family resilience and individual success.

An alternative formulation was offered to, but rejected by, the DA congress. It reads: "Individuals and resilient social structures flourish in co-operative communities."

It is a terrifying passage. The language reminds me of the excesses of social Darwinism

More difficult to accept were two further formulations that are utterly false, which I recommended be scrapped in their entirety. They are:

1. Family helps build successful individuals and provides them with the tools [with] which to make sense of the world and to realise their full potential as individuals; and

2. A successful nation must have strong family structures, no matter how they are constituted, because no government can replace the role of family.

The first claim is simply a truism. All people except isolated orphans have some kind of family. Behind the truism is the presumption, suggested by the polling data collected from the 20% of black respondents sympathetic to the DA, that the family form most suited to success is the nuclear family.

The second claim is equally false. One of the most successful nations by any measure is the US. Scan the literature on the North American family (I once taught a graduate course on the subject) and you will find that with the high divorce, family dissolution, family reconstitution and single-parent household patterns, there is no factual connection between family dynamics and national success.

The family has not, therefore, always functioned as a force for good. Far from it: it is part of a stifling traditionalism (specifically the embedded sexism) that the expansion of freedom brought by the enlightenment and modernity pushed back, freeing vast populations from onerous restrictions.

Individual choice, a central principle of liberty that defines our party's identity and purpose - as enshrined in the Bill of Rights - is more often than not at odds with the practices, habits and norms of the family in many parts of our country, especially those where traditionalism, male patriarchal arrangements and communal ownership prevail.

Historically, the rise of individual rights meant the erosion of the traditional family.

The idea of freedom rests on the concept that individuals have the moral autonomy to make choices. This is of enormous relevance today. South Africans are seeking ways to find themselves - as against the sometimes extremely harsh expectations set by their communities and families, which prescribe who and what they are meant to be.

There is evidence that strong families reinforce inequality, because it tends to be among the upper socioeconomic classes that families are at their most resilient, and they are used to exclude the rest through tight networks and intermarriage. Weak family ties can harm society. But strong family ties can also harm society.

Political parties and the state in a democratic society should have everything to say about freedom, the protection of rights, the rule of law and constitutional governance. They must speak out and not condone family practices that stand in the way of freedom. By condoning suffocating family practices, they turn their backs on freedom.

It has, of course, been an article of Republican Party faith for the past generation that strong families are the backbone of the US, that a strong commitment to family guarantees the health of the nation. The DA's values charter brings us closer to this political tradition, which deviates in worrying respects from our liberal democratic origins.

James, an MP, is DA constituency head representing Athlone