Ivo Vegter on the DA – ‘Swart gevaar’: Smearing SA’s only hope

Media criticism of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) often devolves into baseless accusations of racism, hindering genuine progress. While the ANC flounders in corruption, the DA is positioned as South Africa’s beacon of hope. Yet, relentless attacks smear the DA as a vestige of apartheid, undermining its crucial role in steering the nation forward. It’s time to abandon divisive rhetoric and focus on substantive solutions for South Africa’s future.

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By Ivo Vegter*

One can criticise the Democratic Alliance (DA) over many things, but yelling ‘racism’ at every turn is both false and dangerously counter-productive.

You’d think that media commentators, well aware of the disastrous socio-economic trajectory South Africa was on, would be eager to see the back of the ruling ANC, rotten as it is with corruption and incompetence.

In opining about the acts and statements of the official opposition, then, one might expect that they would be firm, but fair.

What one wouldn’t expect is a constant stream of vindictive vitriol aimed at the DA, which really is the only practical hope of rescuing South Africa from its downward spiral under the ANC.

Yet many commentators gleefully persist in interpreting the statements of DA politicians in the worst possible light, and trying to smear them – falsely – as white supremacists who would like nothing better than a return to apartheid.

This does South Africa such an extraordinary disservice. These same commentators then wonder why the DA struggles to grow its voter base among black people, and why black people view the DA as a ‘white party’ that, ahem, would like nothing better than a return to apartheid.

This persistent smear on the DA needs to end. There is plenty to criticise the DA about, and I have often done so in the past (witness my reluctant 2019 pre-election endorsement of the DA, which at national level I withdrew three months later).

However, the claim that its public representatives are racist is at best extremely uncharitable, and in all the cases I can think of, false.

Swart gevaar

Nick Dall, a master of creative writing who exercises this skill infrequently in Daily Maverick, spoils an otherwise excellent history of the swart gevaar trope by claiming few present-day white voters can resist it, and the leader of the DA, John Steenhuisen, is guilty of using it.

(‘Swart gevaar’ is Afrikaans for ‘black threat’, and featured frequently in Afrikaner nationalist political rhetoric during apartheid.)

Dall is not alone, of course, nor is he particularly original. Zapiro called Steenhuisen tone-deaf. Both the Western Cape provincial premier candidate of Rise Mzansi, Axolile Notywala, and that party’s leader, Songezo Zibi, used the phrase to accuse Steenhuisen.

The reason is a speech Steenhuisen gave in which he attacked small parties – the Patriotic Alliance, Rise Mzansi, Good and the National Coloured Congress in particular – who campaign against the DA, which, if successful, could threaten the DA’s control of the Western Cape despite its clear record of good governance.

Mercenary parties

For the record, let me quote him in full (or watch the 1:55 clip here):

Unlike the rest of the country, the biggest enemy of progress and opportunity here in the Western Cape is not an ANC government desperately clinging to power like they’re doing in the other eight provinces. The biggest risk to continued progress, to continued opportunity and building a better future for all of us in this province, is complacency, and mercenary parties like the PA, like Rise Mzansi, like Good, and like the NCC.

Because they are not interested in taking on the ANC. Why aren’t they campaigning in Limpopo and the North West province? Why are they coming to the Western Cape? Why are they coming here to try and unseat the only government that created 300 000 jobs last year? Why are they coming here to the only government that arrested, through its LEAP programme, over 27 000 criminals in the last year? Why are they coming here, to an economy that’s working, with schools that work, that give opportunities for more people, with public transport systems that work? Why here? Why aren’t they focusing their attention on the real enemy of progress in South Africa, which is the ANC?

Read more: Gayton McKenzie olive branch to DA – Let’s take hands, focus on unseating ANC

And I’ve thought about this, and I’m going to tell you why. I’m going to tell you why. It’s because they know that there’s nothing left to loot in the other eight provinces. Alles is opgeëet. [Everything’s been eaten.] Daar’s net geld hier in die Wes-Kaap. [There’s money only here in the Western Cape.] The rest of the country is bankrupt.

That’s why they want to come to the Western Cape. Because they want to get their hands on the budget, and the money that’s been well looked after by our government here, under Alan Winde and his team in the Western Cape. And let me tell you, if they get that right, it’s going to be the biggest bank heist you’ve ever seen.

Now there’s a lot that can be said about this speech, and legitimate grounds for critique.

That it evokes the swart gevaar, however, is not among them.

Looting

Steenhuisen’s thrust is clear: if the small parties that are not part of the Multi-Party Charter campaign against the DA in the Western Cape, there is a risk that the province will fall to an ANC-led government, which would condemn the only well-run province in the country to the same looting the other eight provinces have suffered.

He doesn’t suggest that other parties are not entitled to campaign in the Western Cape. He merely wishes they wouldn’t.

He doesn’t say anything about the race of members of those parties (which is mixed, in any case). He would have said the same about white-led parties under the same circumstances.

His claim that the small parties in question seek to ‘get their hands on the budget’ is, perhaps, unfair.

It’s likely true of some of them, but especially in the case of Rise Mzansi, they might be pursuing their legitimate belief that the future of the province should lie with an alternative to the ANC that is not the DA.

That said, believing that they could raise anywhere near the support they would need to achieve this non-DA, non-ANC alternative government, is ludicrous.

Still, until they actually agree to a coalition with the ANC, the parties – especially those with no track record in government – cannot fairly be accused of wishing to loot for their own pockets.

That eating away at DA support could subject the province to an ANC-led coalition that would loot the coffers, however, is not an unreasonable claim to make.

So Steenhuisen raises a valid electioneering concern, and states a valid campaign message, albeit rather brashly.

Umbrage

Dall wrote: ‘The leaders of these smaller parties took umbrage at being labelled terrorists for wanting to exercise democracy.’

But they weren’t being labelled ‘terrorists’. So why would Dall say that they were, if he was not vindictively putting words into Steenhuisen’s mouth? Weren’t his actual words enough to convict him, perhaps?

He quotes Zibi: ‘This is the worst kind of swart gevaar! It is illiberal, it is divisive, and it’s further proof that the DA under Zille and Steenhuisen will never reach the black voters it needs if it is to govern South Africa.’

This might be justified as giving as good as he gets, but it also is not true. It isn’t swart gevaar, let alone ‘the worst kind of swart gevaar’.

Pattern

There’s a pattern of this kind of nonsense. Back in 2020, when the DA had rehired Gwen Ngwenya as head of policy, and had produced a coherent policy document that was non-racial and classically liberal in its approach, many in the media also had a conniption.

Because the new policy embraced non-racialism, for example, they said it ‘denies the historical role of race and racism’, even though the document explicitly affirmed historical racial injustice, and explicitly recognised the need for redress.

comprehensively answered these dishonest criticisms at the time.

That pattern can also be seen in other reactions that wilfully misinterpreted various claims over the years.

‘Refugees’

Pointing out that people are fleeing the Eastern Cape for the Western Cape to seek a better education, or better economic conditions in general, and describing them as ‘refugees’, for example – as Helen Zille did a few years ago − is not at all racist. It is a simple observation of fact.

While the word ‘refugee’ is often associated with people who flee across borders, which makes it possible to interpret Zille’s words as ‘othering’ South Africans who live outside the Western Cape, that isn’t the only possible interpretation.

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‘Refugee’ can also simply mean ‘one who flees to a shelter, or place of safety’. I was a refugee once, albeit for only one night, when I was evacuated from my home during the Knysna fires of 2017.

The question then becomes what the speaker (Zille, in this case) likely intended to say. Asserting that she intended to insult South Africans who do not live in the Western Cape, or intended to use the word ‘refugee’ as a code-word for ‘black’, is simply malicious, and false.

The far more likely interpretation is that she simply intended to point out the relative merits of living under an ANC and DA provincial government, and explain why the DA government in the Western Cape experienced strain as a result of an influx of semigrants.

Colonialism

A similar case can be made for Zille’s comments about colonialism. It is a simple fact that colonialism, in many colonies, left behind institutions, infrastructure and industries upon which a liberated people could build a new society. Saying so does not imply that colonialism was desirable, or that colonial oppression and dispossession were a just price to pay for these legacies, or that their negative effects do not outweigh the positive effects.

It simply means that given post-colonial conditions, rejecting these legacy institutions, infrastructure and industries, instead of building upon them, might not be the wisest course of action.

It takes a vindictive mind to twist such an argument – which has been made by several post-colonial leaders and anti-colonial thinkers (including Chinua Achebe) – into a racist defence of colonialism in toto.

The DA is, of course, not entirely innocent in these affairs. They should have had a better communications system in place, that would catch potentially controversial talking points before they’re blurted out on social media.

These sorts of statements shouldn’t be twisted for vindictive ends, but that they would be should have been predictable.

DA ancestry

There is now a popular misconception – largely created by the media – that DA leaders are racist and want to ‘take us back to apartheid’.

But that doesn’t even make sense. The DA can trace its roots to a long line of liberal, anti-apartheid parties, and even all the way back to the non-racial Cape Qualified Franchise of the 19th century.

(Yes, the Cape Colony used to have a non-racial voters’ roll, and its £25 property qualification was very low and extended to communal land tenure. The Cape also had laws against racial discrimination. These non-racial freedoms started to be whittled away in the late 19th century, but survived in some form or another to as late as 1953.)

The DA’s direct ancestry began with the Progressive Party in 1959, founded by members of the United Party who thought the latter was not sufficiently anti-apartheid. (This party is not to be confused with the Progressive Party of the Cape Colony, led by Cecil John Rhodes and Gordon Sprigg, which around the turn of the century sought to restrict black voting rights.)

Helen Suzman (also an alum of the Institute of Race Relations) was the Progressive Party’s most famous – and for 13 years its sole – representative in Parliament. During that time, hers was the only voice in Parliament speaking out against apartheid oppression, and she suffered much abuse over it.

Through mergers, the Progressive Party would become the Progressive Reform Party, then Progressive Federal Party, and finally, in 1989, the Democratic Party. Throughout this time, the party espoused liberal values and vehemently opposed apartheid in particular, and both nationalists and conservatives in general.

The Democratic Alliance was formed in 2003 through a proposed merger with the New National Party (NNP) and Louis Luyt’s Federal Party (FP), but although the new name survived, both those mergers failed. The NNP ended up merging with the ANC, and the FP with the Freedom Front Plus.

That leaves the DA’s legacy as entirely, thoroughly and consistently non-racial and anti-apartheid. The claim that it now, or ever, was racist, or wanted to revive racial segregation, is a vicious smear.

Propaganda

It is understandable that the ANC and other left-wing parties opposed to the DA would seek to paint the DA as a party for apartheid-loving white people. It would be false, but hey, politicians lie. And to be fair, a lot of racist white people do vote for the DA, for lack of a more appropriate political home.

What is incomprehensible to me is that much of the media simply goes along with this slander. Instead of challenging these claims, they parrot every word of anti-DA propaganda they hear, and pile on the DA’s leaders, however unfairly, at every opportunity.

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Perhaps they think that unbiased journalism requires them to be equally critical, equally often, of the DA as they are of the ANC or the EFF. Which is nonsense, of course.

It seems to me that the media quite liked the DA in the period when it tried to go left-liberal, adopting positions not on principle, but on whether they polled well.

That aimless DA (which I critiqued in 2019) pitched itself as an ANC-lite, an ANC-done-better. It made largely the same promises as the ANC, except without the incompetence and corruption.

‘Good ANC’

Now that the DA has firmed up its ideological position and has come out – albeit with some glaring flaws and omissions – strongly in favour of free enterprise and opposed to an interventionist state, its non-racial, liberal values appear to grate on many left-wing journalists.

They are likely disillusioned by the hope they had invested in the ANC way back when it still wore its liberation halo and had some actual achievements of which it could be proud.

They don’t seem to want a classically liberal opposition to the ANC. They want the ‘good ANC’ back. They want to bury the rotten ANC, but they don’t want to bury its socialist ideology with it.

They struggle to cope with the notion that the socialist torch-bearer of liberation from apartheid has become fatally tainted, and that this leaves the liberal opposition to apartheid as the only alternative.

Conflict-mongers

Yet their vindictive nastiness towards the DA, and trying to paint the DA as racist at every turn, causes significant harm to South Africa. The DA is the only pragmatic chance South Africa has to rid itself of ANC misrule. There is no question that DA governance is a significant improvement upon that of the ANC.

Instead, many people labour under a false perception that the DA is a racist white party, and that misperception has been strongly reinforced by the media. These constant attacks have severely restricted the DA’s potential voter base, and its ability to hold the ANC to account at the polls for the parlous state of the country.

One can have differences with the DA, as I do, and write about them, as I do, but a constant barrage of petty race-baiting is not only unjust, but is dangerously counter-productive.

I hope these racial conflict-mongers sleep well knowing that they share responsibility for South Africa’s continued slide towards an impoverished, failed state.

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Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker

*This article was originally published on Daily Friend and has been republished with permission