Last week it was reported that the price of Sasol shares had ‘soared’ after the heads of several top executives had ‘rolled’ following an independent review of the disasters at the company’s Lake Charles project in the American state of Louisiana.
No doubt South Africa’s share price – the exchange rates of the rand – would also soar if the heads of large numbers of the inhabitants of our public sector were to ‘roll’.
Yet when the Democratic Alliance (DA) carries out a purge of some of its top executives, many members of our print and online commentariat go into a frenzy that makes Greta Thunberg appear as calm and collected as Queen Elizabeth II.
The DA, we are told, has reached rock bottom after a disastrous and devastating week. It is a soap opera which has imploded, not to mention a party in tatters stumbling back into the past. Turmoil, chaos, and unprecedented limbo herald the beginning of the party’s disappearance. This last point gives the game away: the party’s disappearance is exactly what many of these commentators desire.
Nor is it hard to discern why. We are told that the party is an abattoir for black leaders which has been captured by right-wing zealots, race denialists, liberal purists, and a verkrampte old guard which is anti-poor and anti-diversity and wants to whitewash apartheid.
The purge needs to go further, however. The report of the three-man panel which led to the downfall of the man who appointed it, Mmusi Maimane, noted the damage done by the party’s handling of the Schweizer-Reneke ‘controversy’ in January this year.
It was bad enough that the DA’s federal youth leader, Luyolo Mphithi, indulged in a spot of race baiting worthy of Panyaza Lesufi, education executive in the Gauteng provincial government run by the African National Congress. Had the DA sacked him it might not have lost so heavily to the Freedom Front Plus in the general election a few months later.
Instead, Mr Maimane not only sprang to his defence, but Mr Mphithi was high on the party’s election list. And only now, more than nine months later, has the DA decided to investigate its handling of this incident. People who behave like Mr Mphithi do not belong in a liberal party.
Mr Maimane, according to one commentator, was ‘used and then dumped’. This is true, although he was a willing accomplice to the DA’s abortive attempt to harvest black votes on the assumption that only a black leader would be able to bring them in. Just as racial preferencing has helped ruin the public sector, it has been very damaging to the DA (whose slideaway from colour-blind policies predated the election of Mr Maimane to the leadership).
It is time for the party to purge itself, once and for all, of the fraudulent notion that race continues to be a ‘proxy’ for disadvantage. This needs to be done unequivocally, unashamedly, unreservedly, and unapologetically. The 29 000 politicians and public servants whom the finance minister said last week earned more than R1 million a year are just the most recent example of how misleading it is to equate race and disadvantage. Policies to deal with poor public schooling and healthcare, poverty, and unemployment should be colour blind. Using race is unfair, offensive, illiberal, and unnecessary.
Race was always the principal dividing line between nationalism and liberalism in South Africa. The main reason the United Party (UP) came to an ignominious end was that it tried to straddle that line. The DA earned the label ‘ANC-lite’ because it was trying to do the same.
Earlier this year when the DA’s head of policy, Gwen Ngwenya, resigned in frustration, there was talk of a breakaway of liberal MPs to form a new party. That was never an option, because they would have all immediately lost their seats – whereas a different electoral system allowed Helen Suzman and her colleagues to keep their seats when they crossed the floor from the old UP 60 years ago to form the Progressive Party, forebear of the DA.
That was a defining moment in the development of a liberal alternative in Parliament to racial nationalism. The liberals in today’s DA are in a stronger position than Suzman and Co ever were. They do not have to start a new party, because, chastened as they deserve to be, they have reasserted control of the established one.
The three-man report bewailed the ‘general incoherence’ of the DA’s ‘philosophical approach to the issue of race’. The new leadership would do well to remember what St Paul wrote to the Corinthians: ‘If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself for the battle?’