After a protracted, “expensive and bruising” effort to win black votes, Paton wrote, the DA had conceded failure. “In the process of seeking out black votes, which included affirming black leaders, edging towards race-based redress policies and occasionally mounting the racial bandwagon, it lost white votes.” Paton suggested that by abandoning this identity-focused project the DA had doomed both “non-racialism” as well as the party’s chances of ever winning over black voters.
The outlook both for the DA electorally, and for the ideal of non-racialism, may well be bleak, but not for the reasons Paton proffers. If a (liberal) non-racial alternative is to succeed in South Africa there are realities that need to be understood, and hard lessons that need to be learnt.
The naïve view of change was that South Africa would stabilise, and non-racial liberal democracy would consolidate, through a growing state-sponsored black African middle class. This would blur the previously stark contrast between a largely middle class white population and a largely working class black population which was interpreted as being at the core of the racial conflict in the country.
This is based on the common Western assumption that conflict is generally inter-class. Historically however many of the most vicious conflicts, particularly in national democracies emerging from the retreat or collapse of empire, have been between an emerging (but insecure) and an established (but ethnically distinct) middle class. (Much of the race and labour legislation in South Africa post-1910 and 1948 meanwhile was aimed at settling intra-working class competition in favour of enfranchised white workers.)
For example, in Poland in the 1930s the Jews made up about 10% of the population, but for historical reasons (dating from the feudal era) made up much of the middle class: According to one 1938 report they constituted “half of the commercial enterprises, 47% of the artisans, nearly 50% of the lawyers and a large percentage of the doctors. More than half the textile industry in Lodz is Jewish; and some estimate that at least half the real property of Warsaw and other cities is in similar hands.”
According to contemporary observers the Jews and the peasants rubbed along pretty well “because they have a mutual good natured contempt. The Jews despise the peasants for their hard and dirty work on the land, and the peasants despise the Jews for confining themselves to trade and money making.”
But while Polish “peasants were latent and potential factors in anti-Semitism” the Polish bourgeoisie and intelligentsia were “patently anti-Semitic”. It was this class that believed they could improve their economic status at the expense of the Jew and pressed for the “Polonization of commerce, industry and the professions. By this they mean the reduction of Jewish participation in these activities.”
Such intra-middle-class conflicts – over positions, state tenders, property, and so on – may be manageable while the economy is growing faster than the population, and is able to absorb graduates from the universities. But in periods of protracted low growth, recession or depression (as in 1930s), and where race-based policy becomes legitimated, they can become existential.
In South Africa there is a striking contrast between the generally relaxed race relations that exist on ground level, where there is a high level of inter-racial cooperation and dependence running across class lines, and the often virulent anti-minority sentiment at the elite level in politics, the state, the universities, the judiciary, media, talk radio, and so on.
Though it is usually framed differently this is a reflection of acute intra-class tension and competition. One of South Africa’s major ideological fault-lines then cuts straight through the middle class. On the one side are the transformationists, who centre their policy around race, and have sought to use direct measures to enforce equality of outcomes, in all spheres and all levels, something which they brand ‘non-racialism’.
25 years into transformationist rule the results of their programme are there for everyone to see. On the other side are the liberals, with their historic abhorrence of all forms of racial discrimination (which is their understanding of ‘non-racialism’), and their proffered alternative of steadily expanding equality of opportunity through clean and effective government (showcased in the Western Cape), proper education for the poor, and rapid economic growth.
For reasons described in a previous article both this conflict and this divide were imported into the DA during the Jacob Zuma-era. While suppressed during the Zupta-era, they acquired a new salience with Jacob Zuma’s defenestration, both electorally and within the DA itself. Mmusi Maimane himself came from the transformationist tradition (his political hero is Thabo Mbeki) and he tried to nudge the party in this direction once he had secured the leadership.
The Democratic Party made its initial breakthrough into the Afrikaner electorate in 1998 essentially by defying Thabo Mbeki’s efforts to impose a ‘national consensus’ on the country, standing by its historic commitment to liberal non-racialism, and opposing the ANC’s racial nationalist ‘transformation’ project. The ANC, which was then at the height of its moral and political authority, responded with vicious and often completely unhinged propaganda. The DP was accused inter alia of being a “racist”, “white supremacist”, “neo-Nazi” organisation, practising apartheid-style “biological warfare” against black people (the latter for wanting to provide ARVs).
In 2005 one ANC MP stated in parliament that in 1976 then DA leader Tony Leon “when the students were revolting against this brain damaging colonial education system, was in a helicopter up there, monitoring, shooting and maiming our people”.
In September 2007 Paul Boughey, Chief of Staff for the recently elected DA leader Helen Zille, and later DA CEO, told American diplomats that party officials believed Zille offered the DA “a clean slate which they never had with Tony Leon. Boughey described Zille’s background as an investigative journalist (she famously exposed the truth behind Steve Biko’s death) and member of Black Sash almost with relief when compared to what he called ‘Leon’s baggage.’ Boughey said that South Africans have an image of Leon in their head ‘shooting children in a township out of a helicopter, even though that never happened’.”
Zille in turn sought to further dispel the taint left by this earlier propaganda by promoting young black graduates within the party (such as Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane), who had become more open to joining the DA after Jacob Zuma took over the ANC. Yet the racial abuse unleashed against Zille was just as bad as that previously directed against Leon, and the abuse against black DA leaders and liberal intellectuals even more so. With the spread of social media anyone can join in and this has become unrestrained and unrelenting.
A search of the names of Mmusi Maimane, Sihle Ngobese, Herman Mashaba and Gwen Ngwenya on Twitter throws up a deluge of racial slurs: “house negro”, “porch negro”, “house nigger”, “puppet”, “tea girl” (if female), “garden boy” (if male), “sell-out”, “impimpi”, “coon”, “black hater”, “white apologist”, “white wanna be”, “coconut”, “uncle Tom”, “kaffir”; and combinations of the aforementioned such as “self-hating house kaffir” and “black hating white apologist.”
Furthermore, this kind of abuse is clearly condoned by Twitter (it could easily stop much of it), the SA Human Rights Commission (which could act against it), and much of the mainstream media, with senior journalists and commentators rarely calling it out and often themselves parroting the same themes. It is a sign of how acceptable this kind of language is that those using it don’t even have to hide behind anonymity.
Thus, the vilification of the out group (“racist”, “anti-black”, “white supremacist” etc.) is combined with the punishment of members of the in-group who break ranks. Similar language (kaffir-boetie, verraier, hensopper), as well as the threat of social ostracism, was also once used very successfully to police conformity in the Afrikaner community through the first three decades of apartheid.
As has long been observed, it is difficult for most people – and especially those with gregarious personalities – to resist this kind of pressure for long. John Stuart Mill for one noted that the majority is capable of practising a social tyranny more formidable than many types of political oppression, “since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”
It would be very hard for anyone to not let this kind of abuse get to them eventually, and it takes great character and ideological conviction to resist it. Ernst Roets and Kallie Kriel of AfriForum are subjected to similar levels of abuse, and more so in the media, but the difference is that they know that for as long as they stand their ground their own community has their back. They are less vulnerable then to that overwhelming sense of moral loneliness and isolation that such propaganda tries to engender in its victims.
In a seminal December 2016 Facebook post Andile Mngxitama described how the process worked. “How do we deal with non-whites in a manner that does not surrender them to whiteness?” he asked rhetorically. Well, he answered, the “sell outs and house niggers” must be “given the option of coming back to the black zone but they need to repent and confess their sins. On our part; we must always be ready to engage those who have fallen into the white sin.” In return for forgiveness and protection, then, these traitors to their race must proactively repent.
The breakdown of trust within the DA leadership under Mmusi Maimane, and between the party and its supporters, is a complex story that has yet to be fully told. But many of the most bizarre and self-destructive decisions that the party took under his leadership seemed directed at desperately trying to prove such propaganda wrong (e.g. that he was no ‘puppet’). These included the bizarre decisions to cashier Dianne Kohler Barnard and ‘discipline’ Helen Zille, both for minor social media infractions; as well as the rushed and electorally disastrous decision by the party to get in on the action at the height of the Schweizer-Reneke hysteria. Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba too flipped from his earlier commitment to non-racialism, and started turning on and racially abusing his own DA councillors, voters, and fellow party members.
Both Maimane and Mashaba’s departure from the DA have followed the script laid out by Mngxitama. In his resignation statement Mashaba stated that “The election of Helen Zille as the Chairperson of Federal Council represents a victory for people in the DA who stand diametrically opposed to my beliefs and value system, and I believe those of most South Africans of all backgrounds. I cannot reconcile myself with a group of people who believe that race is irrelevant in the discussion of inequality and poverty in South Africa in 2019.” In his, Maimane said that “in the end we have come to the conclusion that despite my best efforts, the DA is not the vehicle best suited to take forward the vision of building One South Africa for All.”
In return for such repentance both Maimane and Mashaba have been welcomed back into the fold, their sins tearfully forgiven, and protection once again extended to them, with Zille screamingly denounced as a wicked white witch, and the malevolent architect of their political demise.
There are many lessons for the DA to learn – or relearn – from this whole debacle.
Firstly, there is a huge ideological gulf between liberals and transformationists which cannot be bridged through clever word games, such as over the meaning of the word ‘diversity’. While both sides may claim ‘non-racialism’ as their guiding ideal they mean completely incompatible things by the word: The one side equality of opportunity, which proscribes the use of race, the other (enforced) equality of outcomes, which requires it.
Secondly, for many middle class black South Africans the ideological pull of transformationism – and its recent radical offshoots in the form of the EFF and Fallism – remains hugely powerful, and even if they may not buy into it, the penalties for openly dissenting from it are vicious and severe. Inter-racial trust is also fragile and when black DA leaders turn on their own minority members or supporters – in an effort to placate online mobs – easily broken.
Thirdly, transformationism is (ultimately) repellent to minority voters, and has no appeal to majority voters when peddled inauthentically by the DA.
Where does this leave the project of building a party that both articulates and embodies (liberal) non-racialism? As well as the longer-term project of forming a new electoral majority?
The beginning of the answer lies in providing a clear ideological alternative to transformationism: This requires providing a coherent explanation for South Africa’s current predicament, compellingly describing the future society that is to be created, and persuasively setting out the means by which these ends will be achieved. This is necessary most of all for the DA’s own internal coherence, sense of common purpose (across racial lines), and esprit de corps.
This may not, initially, be what many non-DA voters want to hear. And it will require standing up to the race-ultras in the media and online. But politicians are ultimately judged not just by what they say, but by whether they have the courage of their convictions, and are willing to take an unpopular but necessary stand and stick to it regardless of the personal cost.
Once this alternative is on the table doubtful voters will be persuaded (if they ever can be) not by words, or clever messaging and positioning, but by the sheer force of reality and lived experience. The power of this should not to be underestimated. In a 1949 essay F.A. Hayek noted that it is “It is an extraordinary fact, though one which many visitors have experienced, that in speaking to German students about the principles of a liberal society one finds a more responsive and even enthusiastic audience than one can hope to find in any of the Western democracies.”
This article was first published on Politicsweb. It is republished here with permission.