🔒 WORLDVIEW: Methinks the DA doth protest too much

Reading the impassioned piece penned by the Institute for Race Relations’ Frans Cronjé – which is worth reading, by the way – it’s clear that Cronjé and the IRR are not impressed by the media coverage of the DA leadership changes.

Some of the points he raises are fair enough. Others are, I think, a little disingenuous. For example, Cronjé argues that there has been no exodus of black leaders from the DA because, “In total, five DA leaders resigned from the party, of whom two were black.”

To me, his argument – essentially, that the DA has no black exodus because 60% of the leaders who left were white – just serves to highlight the lack of black leadership at the top levels of the DA, which is the point most commentators are making when they talk about the black exodus.
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Indeed, with the announcement that John Steenhuisen will be the new party leader, the top three leadership positions in the DA – party leader, chief whip (Natasha Mazzone), and fedco chair (Helen Zille) – are all occupied by white people.

Now, the DA argues that the race of its leaders is irrelevant and that SA should have moved beyond racial considerations. Cronjé, for example, says that the DA’s history indicates that black South Africans are happy to vote for a white leader because they did in 2009.

To me, his argument is shaky. Yes, the DA made its biggest gains then, when Zille was the head of the party. But it was also when Zuma was the man in charge of the ANC. Cronjé apparently concludes that the DA’s growth was because of Zille’s appeal, but it’s equally likely that it was because Zuma was such an out-and-out train wreck.

Similarly, Cronjé points out that the DA’s popularity slumped in 2019 when Maimane was the head of the party. But it was also the election where Cyril Ramaphosa took charge of the ANC – it may be that everyone hated Maimane or, equally likely, that ANC voters who jumped ship in 2009 and 2014 went back to the ANC when Zuma left. In other words, it’s possible that Zuma’s terribleness was enough to overcome the negative appeal of Zille’s whiteness, rather than that Zille was particularly appealing.

At any rate, whether or not SA “should” have achieved a state where race no longer matters, it clearly has not actually done so. While a state of racial indifference would, presumably, be a state of true enlightenment from the DA perspective, it is not the prevailing state of reality.

Race matters in South Africa. This is clear from every data point we have. Unemployment levels, income, wealth, land ownership, and even longevity are all unequally distributed across racial lines, such that black South Africans do worse than their white peers.

Note that this is not to say that there are no wealthy black people and no poor white people. Obviously, there are both. But if you put on a blindfold and picked up a bunch of random people in SA, the black ones would be worse off than the white ones. This is what is meant by statistical averages.

The ANC has undeniably made many mistakes and the corruption that was allowed to flourish under its watch is inexcusable. It has paid the price at the polls, losing vote share for a decade. But the DA should at least be willing to consider the possibility that it is losing vote share not because Mmusi Maimane was terrible but because its policies – and its reluctance to acknowledge South African reality – are simply not appealing to more than 20% of the people in the country.

For example, the DA – and many people who are not DA members – believe that inequality can be solved by faster economic growth. This is a bit mystifying to me because there is no particular relationship between growth and inequality.

The US, for example, has delivered consistent economic growth every year for the last decade. At the same time, it has also delivered persistently widening income and wealth inequality. This is not a bizarre mystery – it’s just because all the benefits of the economic growth are going to the top 20% of people who are wealthy and have high incomes, with nothing much left over for the bottom 80%, who have not seen their inflation-adjusted incomes rise for about 15 years.

There’s no a priori reason why growth in SA would reduce the gap between SA’s haves and have-nots – reducing inequality requires policies targeting inequality. There’s not even any a priori reason why growth in SA would benefit the bottom 80% at all. After all, by many measures, it hasn’t in America. As a policy, then, growth alone is hardly a solution to SA’s problems.

South African voters are not idiots. They have lived in South Africa long enough to be perfectly well aware of how racialised networks of privilege work, even if the DA’s leaders seem not to be. If the DA wants to be a majority party, it needs to face certain hard realities about South Africa. Pretending that there are no racial issues at all is a poor starting point, even if it is a comforting fiction for many DA members.

Which brings us to the unexpected conclusion of Cronjé’s piece. After his critique of the coverage of the DA leadership upheaval, he concludes by noting that he is not sure if the DA can be turned around and remade into a sustainable party. Thus, he seems to be agreeing with the point that most commentators have made – yours truly included – that the DA seems to be opting to become a small, special interest party rather than a majority party.

There’s nothing wrong with that, the DA can do whatever it likes. But its refusal to find centre-ground means that South Africans will have fewer real political choices in the elections to come. This is perhaps why the IRR has, according to Cronjé, “increasingly written the DA off as a serious political contender, thought it perhaps beyond the point of no return, and [told] clients that a new political party might be needed to save South Africa.”

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