Is the DA taking a step to the right?

If the aim of the Democratic Alliance in bringing back Helen Zille to the party was to unite its leadership and salvage the party; it had the exact opposite effect. The very next day, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba resigned, saying the party no longer represented a movement that can save the country, “unseat the ANC and deliver one South Africa for all.” He said it was not the DA that he signed up for, alluding earlier that the DA had been taken over by right wing elements. Zille hit back on Eyewitness News saying Mashaba could not have been referring to her when he mentioned right wing and said he “was making billions out of hair straighteners and things” while she was hiding Umkhonto we Sizwe operatives in her house and accused Mashaba of being more “to the right” than she was. The debate in the DA is, as Steven Friedman at the University of Johannesburg points out in an article in The Conversation, about the “clash between racial nationalism and democratic liberalism” which was hidden while the party was growing, but after the setback in the May election it has led to “deep internal divisions in the public eye… and race is the fault line.” Writer Hamilton Wende regards Zille’s move back into the DA as a blow for nation-building in South Africa at the very moment when we unite to celebrate the Springboks’ quarter-final victory over Japan in the Rugby World Cup. – Linda van Tilburg

By Hamilton Wende*

The crowds at sports events often tell you more about a society than the results of the game itself. That was certainly true of last weekend’s World Cup Rugby match between the Springboks and Japan. The capacity crowd of mostly Japanese people were, as always, brilliantly behaved. That, in itself is something remarkable and speaks volumes about the civilised nature of Japanese society that is such an example to the rest of the world, both inside the sports stadium and outside, across their country.

But it was the joy and the excitement of that crowd – so elegantly expressed – as the Japanese team ran onto the field that stood as a profound emotional metaphor for a moment when everybody present knew that the world had suddenly changed forever. The Brave Blossoms were the first Asian team to play in a World Cup quarter final – and play they certainly did! It was a moving and exciting spectacle for all of us watching it.

At the same time the Japanese team stands for a Japanese national identity itself that is beginning to embrace the unavoidable multicultural realities of this shifting 21st century. Only 11 of the 23-man historic squad were born to exclusively Japanese parents, while it is a source of some ironic pride here that 3 members of the side were born in this country. There are a number of other players who qualified to represent Japan because of the country’s relatively recent new, and more relaxed, permanent residency rules.

Japan has had a chequered, even fascist history, in terms of defining who may be regarded either legally, or by society itself, as truly Japanese, but no one hearing the enthusiastic roars of “Leitch, Leitch!!” booming across the stadium for New Zealand-born captain Michael Leitch (or, more correctly now in Japanese usage: Leitch, Michael, as he himself changed his name to) every time he touched the ball can doubt that many Japanese are shifting their notions of who stands for their identity as a nation.

Looking deeper into the crowd was also fascinating and encouraging. There were so many South Africans of all races, cheering the Boks on. One has to be slightly wary of being too easily optimistic at seeing these images of South Africans united in dancing and cheering. Firstly, they are carefully selected by the television directors guiding the coverage of the crowds, and the images can too easily fall into the now faded cliché of the Rainbow Nation.

However, identity and sport are bred into the psyche of our country. We have terrible shame to account for in our racist history and in how so many people of colour were denied the chance to play because of our apartheid laws and attitude. There was too much undemanding hope in the 1995 World Cup that the sport would unite our nation under Madiba’s leadership. In recent years, there has been much cynicism about what that all really meant, but certainly, after some bitter struggles over the need for real transformation, the team now is genuinely more representative of the country. Today, people of all colours celebrating a Springbok win is based much more on a real sense of shared identity, rather than a sentimental hope that one might miraculously exist, like a mythical unicorn, somewhere in the misty, uncertain psyche of a nation that had still not honestly confronted its torturous history.

It was a double blow of bad news then, when, at about the same time that Japan scored off their penalty kick, my wife read on her phone that Helen Zille had been elected Federal Council Chairperson of the DA. Unfortunately, despite a proud past in exposing the cruelty of apartheid, especially the conspiracy around the truth of Steve Biko’s brutal death in police custody in 1977, she has become a lightning rod around the pain of racial identity that our history has left us to deal with.

Her tweets and statements on colonialism and race over recent years have alienated so many black people and have wreaked havoc both on democratic debate and the ability of the DA to genuinely represent the interests of black people.

Sport, identity, politics, they are all deeply intertwined in the story of a nation. Let us hope that the good work being done by our Springboks in this World Cup will not be undone by Helen Zille. President Cyril Ramaphosa is the best leader we could hope to have at this time, but a healthy democracy needs a strong, meaningful opposition. We need more than singing ‘Shosholoza’ to build a real shared post-apartheid identity.

  • Hamilton Wende is a South African writer who has worked on a number of television projects and shows for National Geographic, CNN, BBC, ZDF & ARD and a number of other international broadcasters. He has written and published nine books: novels, non-fiction accounts of his travels as a war correspondent in Africa and the Middle East and two children’s books.

Liberalism in South Africa isn’t only for white people – or black people who want to be white

By Steven Friedman*

Liberalism is meant to be about freedom for all individuals, regardless of race. But linking liberalism to whiteness as is happening now is not new in South Africa. Most activists who fought for black freedom dismissed liberalism as a white ideology designed to tame black people, not to free them.

This was hardly surprising, since many white liberals spoke and acted as if liberalism was exactly that: the political philosopher Richard Turner wrote in the early 1970s that white liberals believed that

although blacks are not biologically inferior, they are culturally inferior. They may be educable, but they need whites to educate them.

All of this implied that liberalism was not for black people who were proud to be black.

This background is essential if we want to understand the current conflict in South Africa’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and how it might have to end if liberalism is to survive and grow in the country’s democratic era.

History of the Democratic Alliance

The DA was originally a party for white, English-speaking, liberal suburbanites – it traces its ancestry back to the Progressive Party, formed in 1959 to contest elections at a time when only whites could vote.

After the 1999 general election, when it ran a campaign urging voters to “Fight Back” against the governing African National Congress (ANC), it picked up support from Afrikaans-speaking whites and those members of racial minorities (“Coloured” and Indian people) who feared the ANC.

Some years later, it began a campaign to recruit black African membership which was reasonably successful, although the party has never attracted many black African votes. According to a sympathetic estimate, it attracts 5% of the vote among the racial majority. This culminated in the election of its current black leader, Mmusi Maimane, in 2015.

Few if any of its white leaders bargained for the likelihood that black members would, because of their differing experiences, see the DA’s role through different eyes. And so, they were shocked when black DA parliamentarians supported forms of race-based affirmative action which white liberals tend to oppose on the grounds that it violates the principle that jobs should be allocated by “merit”.

These tensions were hidden by the fact that the party was growing – until this year when it suffered setbacks in May’s general election which saw it lose five seats in parliament. This was followed by severe losses in municipal by-elections to its right and left. This has brought deep internal divisions into the public eye.

DA, Zapiro, Helen Zille
DA Jurassic World. More of Zapiro’s magic available at

Race is the fault line. Prominent black DA figures label attempts to remove Maimane – plus the return of key white figures to important roles in the party – as an attempt by whites to force black members into a subordinate position.

This impression has been greatly enhanced by the fact that researchers at the South African Institute of Race Relations, a research organisation which has long been a fixture in the white liberal firmament, are campaigning for Maimane’s replacement by a white leader on the grounds that this will show that the DA elects people on merit rather than race.

The claim that “merit” means choosing whites and that black incumbents always lack merit is a deeply rooted prejudice among many white South Africans.

Liberalism debate

Liberalism plays a core role in the dispute. This is because (mostly white) opponents of the party’s direction under Maimane claim it is now too close in worldview to the ANC and insist that the DA has strayed from its liberal roots and must rediscover them. The view was best summed up by former leader Helen Zille, who has emerged from retirement to contest a powerful position in the party. In her view, the single and most important internal issue in the DA

is the clash between racial nationalism and democratic liberalism.

It is not hard to see why that view appears to black DA supporters (and critics) as an expression of prejudice. Everyone knows that all the “racial nationalists” are black and that just about all the “democratic liberals” are white and so Zille’s understanding of liberalism seems to match Turner’s diagnosis.

“Racial nationalism” is wanting measures which will actively redress decades of legalised racial domination – “democratic liberalism” is expressing the view of the suburbs that black people should rely on hard work and the market, a convenient view from people who did so well out of legalised racial deprivation that they could afford to denounce it as someone else’s doing.

But aren’t Zille and her DA allies right to assume that liberalism is a (mainly) white view of the world? No.

South Africa has had, and still has, many black liberals; the problem for the white DA leadership is not that they are nationalists but that their liberalism is influenced by their experience as black South Africans.

Black liberalism

Black liberalism has deep roots in South Africa. During the 1950s, the short-lived Liberal Party boasted among its leadership black liberals such as Selby Msimang and Jordan Ngubane, both of whom began political life in the ANC. Under their influence, its branches in Natal province rallied to the cause of black farmers who were forced off their land by apartheid.

This was a liberal issue – the denial of property rights on racial grounds. But it was also a burning issue for many black people in Natal because of its campaign, the party attracted a substantial black membership in the province.

The Liberal Party was divided – its Cape branch harboured many of the prejudices which Turner criticised. But its Natal and Transvaal branches’ support for votes for all adults (the Cape group wanted educational and property qualifications which would have denied most black people the vote) and its support for civil disobedience (and in some cases armed insurrection) to defeat apartheid showed that a liberalism which spoke to the black experience was possible in South Africa.

Strains of liberal thought could also be found within the historic liberation movements, the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress.

Today, a liberalism led by black people who do not wish to become white may be even more possible. The black professional and business class has grown substantially over the last quarter of a century. Many of its members don’t feel at home in any of the political parties. While many may find liberalism unappealing, a substantial number might endorse it enthusiastically as long as it does not confuse whiteness with liberalism.

Opportunity amid travail

The DA’s current travails may be an opportunity for South African liberalism. For some time, political gossip has had it that parts of its white rump want to break away and form a “liberal” party in which white suburbanites can feel at home. But a far more credible breakaway may be one led by its black members who could seek to link up to other liberal currents in black South Africa to form a party whose liberalism would reflect the black experience.

Whether that happens or not, black liberalism in South Africa is not a contradiction in terms. A party which expresses it could become an important fixture in the country’s politics.The Conversation

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