OPINION | The DA’s policy deceit
The Democratic Alliance (DA) concluded its policy conference this past weekend amidst some self-generated and media-elevated fanfare.
Much has thus been said about the party’s adopted policies, more so what it perceives as its redress policy. What the DA has put forward in this regard effectively denies the historical role of race and racism in the allocation of resources and the consequent downward mobility of black South Africans even as their white compatriots upwardly ascended.
We are told that: “Each individual is unique and not a racial or gender envoy; thus, diversity is not demographic representivity.” This obfuscation is intended to lay the basis of what follows next: “The DA therefore opposes race, gender or other quotas.”
With the foregoing, the DA frames a problem statement to which it manufactures an answer that does not, and will never, reflect the lived experience of South Africans.
No one denies the uniqueness of individuals. But the individual is not an island, but is shaped, from one generation to the next, by a complex of interrelated and contradictory sociological and political factors. Neither is the individual a mythical creature from outer space who exercises their agency in a vacuum. As an 18th-century philosopher posited: “[People] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
To pretend, as the DA does, that our country was not shaped by the triple social constructs of race, gender and class since 1652 is downright deceitful. But more deceitful is the attempt to dress the absurd nonsense in the respectable clothes of “non-racialism.”
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Sadly, some in the media have fallen into the DA’s ploy by regurgitating, without question, its false framing of its position as “non-racialism.” The DA’s “non-racialism” is, in truth, nothing more than a linguistic sleight of hand of Shakespearean proportions – “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
How do you achieve non-racialism by denying the existence of race and racism in a country that has had race and racism as its defining logic for as long as South Africa has been?
The DA’s articulations are not without a dose of contradictions and schizophrenia. This is what the party says about ‘economic justice’: “Where it is necessary to identify specific beneficiaries, they should be identified through means testing to ensure that interventions reach those who are truly in need.
“We should adopt means-tested empowerment that actually works to redress the past by breaking down the walls of exclusion that continue to trap 30 million citizens in poverty — 99.8% of whom are black. Means testing includes non-exhaustive indicators such as income status, geographic location, school quintile, net assets, number of dependents, and access to basic services.”
After attempting to take flight from the reality of race-based poverty (and by implication, access to wealth) the party discovers that numbers, after all, do not lie.
After attempting to take flight from the reality of race-based poverty (and by implication, access to wealth) the party discovers that numbers, after all, do not lie. The overwhelming majority of poor people in need of empowerment and redress policy measures are black.
That meandering and obfuscation from the individual as a unique object to race and gender, which ends up excoriating demographic representivity, amounts to an academic exercise of no practical significance since the beneficiaries of redress and empowerment will invariably end up being black.
The DA also makes this admission: “A great deal of harm was caused, and continues to be caused, on the basis of false beliefs in racial difference.”
To whom was the harm visited? How does this harm manifest itself today and what should be done to remedy it?
Honest answers to these questions will inevitably lead them back to what they do not want to admit: that blacks should be the beneficiaries of redress. Or does the DA want to abandon all diplomatic niceties and categorically state that its true belief that the victims do not deserve justice?
But what about means testing? Imperfect as it might be, current indigent, empowerment and redress policies contain means-testing measures. Children of the affluent are not exempted from paying school fees in public schools, as they should not. The rich do not in any case use public health facilities, nor will they receive RDP housing - unless they benefit corruptly, in which case the law must take its cause.
There are always justifiable grounds to improve public policy, but it is incorrect to present the matter as if means tests do not exist.
What then explains the DA’s policy posture? One way of looking at it is that an honest acknowledgment of South Africa’s race question begs a comprehensive overhaul of our society.
Undoubtedly, a key performance area in such an endeavour is the replacement of white minority privilege with a non-racial democracy which does not only mean the right to vote once every five years, but a democracy that is infused with a social content that distributes economic opportunities and cultural power equitably to all South Africans.
Such a democracy threatens the very existence of a DA, which has modelled itself as South Africa’s post-apartheid National Party (NP) - including by way of regular appeals to subtle and not-so-subtle forms of swart gevaar, while at the same time packaging the illiberal positions falsely as “non-racialism”.
This explains the party’s deep apprehension to its mere 2% electoral loss to the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) in the 2019 national general elections - for which the party’s former leader Mmusi Maimane had to take the fall.
The DA has long determined that its existence and future are best served and secured by absorbing and representing the NP’s social base than by being a truly non-racial party, which the NP was not in as much as the FF+ does not pretend to be.
Denying the historical and continuing place of race and racism in the organisation of South African society also cheapens social and political discourse. The state of the nation today is viewed mechanically as separate from and unrelated to what happened yesterday. An honest and holistic social and political discussion is perceived as undesirable since it would shine the spotlight where the historical beneficiaries of racial privilege do not wish it to beam.
An honest and holistic social and political discussion is perceived as undesirable since it would shine the spotlight where the historical beneficiaries of racial privilege do not wish it to beam.
The DA can deny this as much as it can, but its posture smacks of white historical guilt. The irony is that an enduring remission of the guilt lies in building a truly non-racial society - not the “fight back” offensive in which the DA has been invested since the advent of democracy.
The DA’s posture seems destined to racial laagering, which will return the party to its white-only Progressive and Democratic Party days. Proof of this is the slow but steady racial cleansing of black leaders that is evidently underway in the party.
Is this perhaps the real intention of the faction that is currently in control of the party? One poses this question because it is difficult to imagine the DA’s policy perspectives gaining traction significantly beyond the white population, who are the historical beneficiaries of colonialism and apartheid and understandably feel threatened by redress measures.
It is equally evident that abandonment of the non-racial project by a significant political player such as the DA, which commands the support of equally significant sections of the South Africa’s economic players, has profound implications that bear on the country’s economic development prospects, race relations and political stability more generally.
It therefore runs the risk of slowing down or failing the national effort to deracialise colonial and apartheid social relations. Once sufficient social appreciation of the failure is felt by a substantial part of society, so the country’s politics would undoubtedly change qualitatively.
One of the obvious effects of the breakdown of the social contract is the rise of populism in the political sphere and wider society. Other societies elsewhere in the world have experienced this phenomenon - is South Africa necessarily immune?
Public discourse ought to start investing in our collective capacity to understand this aspect of the consequence of political decision-making more than the theatrics that attach to political posturing.
• Xola Pakati is executive mayor of the Buffalo City metropolitan municipality and chairperson of the South African Cities Network Council.