No matter what the DA does or says, you can be sure a chorus of journalists will declare it to be racist, to seek a return to Apartheid, or to live in the dark ages. None of it is justified, but the bias is deeply ingrained.

The return of Gwen Ngwenya to the official opposition as head of policy appears to be bearing fruit. During her first stint at the Democratic Alliance (DA), under then-leader Mmusi Maimane, her policy advice was ignored.

The party lurched from emotive pillar to politically correct post and was widely accused of having sacrificed its liberal principles in favour of appearing to be nothing more than a competent version of the African National Congress (ANC). Voters punished the party in the 2019 elections.

Since then, former party leader, Helen Zille, made a surprise return to the party as federal council chairperson, and Mmusi Maimane promptly resigned, leaving John Steenhuisen as interim leader.

Ngwenya, an alumnus of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) who firmly upholds classical liberal principles, was reappointed to her former position in November 2019. Her influence was on show when the party emerged from its online-only policy conference last week with a set of values and principles that interim party leader John Steenhuisen described as ‘powerful and enduring’.

These principles included non-racialism and a redress policy that is based on actual disadvantage, instead of using race as a proxy for disadvantage.

This sparked a furious outcry in the media, in which journalists vied with each other to slander the DA and signal the depth of their moral outrage.

Lashing out

‘DA now a party for some, not all, as new race policy entrenches denialism,’ wrote Carol Paton from behind her paywall in Business Day.

‘DA’s misreading of race and inequality take it back a half century,’ declared Imraan Buccus, from behind a paywall of his own on News24.

‘The DA’s policy deceit,’ was the headline of Xola Pakati’s article in the Sunday Times, in which he bemoaned that the new policy ‘effectively denies the historical role of race and racism in the allocation of resources and the consequent downward mobility of black South Africans even as their white compatriots upwardly ascended’.

‘False Construct? DA’s Trumpian turn on race issues,’ announced Marianne Merten rather cryptically in Daily Maverick.

Buccus labours under the misapprehension that liberalism is inherently racist. I argued against this view here, to which Buccus responded by alleging that I had insulted him, to which I replied that he had made no case at all. There’s not much point arguing with someone who doesn’t even understand what liberalism is.

Pakati’s view is, prima facie, nonsense. If he thinks the DA denies the historical role of race and racism, he hasn’t even read its values and principles document, which says: ‘[R]acialism and racism do exist and have a profound and damaging impact on the lives of individuals and society. They are abhorrent and detestable. A great deal of harm was caused, and continues to be caused, on the basis of false beliefs in racial difference.”

As DA parliamentarian, Ghaleb Cachalia, wrote in the same paper: ‘How he arrives at this is frankly mind-boggling and is accompanied by a hoary slew of slurs that merit no particular rebuttal save to say that they are as unfounded as they are fanciful.’

Paton – and the media in general – was taken to task in rip-roaring fashion by liberal political analyst Gareth van Onselen, behind the same paywall that shields her inanities from the great unwashed. If you can find a full copy online, I can heartily recommend it.

What is ‘Trumpian’?

That leaves Merten, who thinks the DA has turned ‘Trumpian’, whatever that means. Her claim that there is some common ground between the DA and the US president appears to rest on the fact that both agree that black lives matter, but disapprove of the Black Lives Matter movement.

To describe a turn towards (or rather, a return to) classical liberalism as ‘Trumpian’ is nonsensical, however. Trump doesn’t have a liberal bone in his body. (And by liberal I mean to refer to classical liberalism, not the label applied to socially-liberal left-wingers in the US.)

It is hard to pin a coherent ideology on Trump, since he has a tendency to say what he thinks his supporters want to hear (much like Maimane did). However, between his religious conservatism, his xenophobia, and his economic protectionism (traits which, curiously, Maimane also shared), it is hard to espy any liberalism at all. I guess Trump’s hostility to regulatory agencies might be described as liberal in effect, although it is hard to see how they are motivated by liberal principles.

Merten also does not describe the DA’s principles accurately, which may explain her confusion. For example, she says that the DA stands for ‘limited state involvement, if at all, in a free market society’.

That contradicts the DA’s own statement of principles, which speak of a ‘social market economy’, in which ‘governments have an important role to play’. The party is liberal, but far from libertarian.

Trump derangement syndrome’ is a term used to describe criticism or negative reactions to the US president that is irrational, divorced from his actual statements or policy positions, and rooted only in visceral hatred of the man. Journalists use it to caution against over-reacting to measured reporting on Donald Trump’s actions, or allowing dislike for the president to distort one’s views of his policies.

The term did not originate with Trump’s presidency. It was applied to Barack Obama before him, and George W. Bush before Obama.

It would seem quite a few journalists suffer from DA derangement syndrome. They’re so wedded to their left-wing beliefs, so committed in their support for some idealised, non-corrupt, efficient ANC, and so resolute in their dislike for the DA, that it clouds their ability to make fairly and rationally evaluate the DA’s policy positions on their own merits.

Self-contradiction

When Merten gets to the meat of her argument, she manages to contradict herself in two paragraphs flat.

First, she concedes the DA’s argument that race is a false construct, saying that only the Ku Klux Klan or the British National Front would disagree.

Then, she says that dismissing race ‘stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing approach in academe and public discourse where critical race theory places race as central to socioeconomic power relations in society’.

If race is indeed a false construct, that undermines the very foundation of a theory that ‘places race as central to socioeconomic power relations in society’. Both cannot be true.

This suggests that the ‘prevailing approach in academe and public discourse’ is founded on something other than fact.

That she has bought into the critical race theory approach is evident in phrases like ‘lived experience’, which in the eyes of critical race theorists trump empirical evidence or logical reasoning.

Critical theory dismisses the empirical, scientific basis of knowledge entirely, viewing reason as a tool of systematic oppression in the hands of white men, and elevating instead subjective feelings, intuition, superstition, anecdotes, and personal experience.

Merten correctly identifies that the DA hewed to a ‘more social liberalism’ since 2013, in which race was seen as a proxy for disadvantage, and that this view has been undone by last week’s policy conference. But undoing this, on the face of it, makes eminent sense.

Not only was this ‘more social liberalism’ an electoral disaster for the DA, but in an era of empowerment billionaires, wealthy tenderpreneurs, civil servants on million-rand salaries, and capture of the vast wealth of the state by crony capitalists, it is simply no longer tenable to claim race is a proxy for disadvantage.

Merten claims that the DA also ditched ‘underscoring the need for redress’, but that, too, flatly contradicts its published policies. The section describing non-racialism is followed immediately by a section on redress.

Let me quote it in full, to demonstrate just how false Merten’s attack on the DA is:

Redress refers to the need to remedy or correct an unfair or unjust situation.

Our past is littered with myriad injustices, arising from past conflicts and the racial segregation policy of apartheid. These include: forced removals, job reservation, detention without trial, disparities in education and concentration camps. The consequences of these injustices remain, compounded by poor governance, and are reflected in high rates of poverty, unemployment, and general inequality of opportunity.

Redress must couple a firm commitment to reconciliation with a commitment to ensuring that inequality of opportunity, which has been the hallmark of our past, is not a feature of the present or the future.

Policies which tackle inequality of opportunity – including interventions in education, healthcare, the economy, and safety and security will always be central pillars of our programme of action.

So profound is this commitment to equality of opportunity that it is reflected in our vision of an open, opportunity society for all.

The DA will strive to overcome our past and create a just and equitable future.

Does that sound like a policy platform that fails to underscore the need for redress?

Or let me quote party leader, Steenhuisen: ‘Importantly, it prioritises those who still suffer – and suffer most – the consequences of past discrimination and exclusion: the over 30 million South Africans living below the poverty line, excluded from the economy. In so doing, the DA committed to the economic inclusion of all who live in South Africa.’

That does not sound like a party that is in denial about the racial injustices of the past, or proposes to do nothing about their present-day consequences.

Conspiracy theory

Merten’s mind then turns conspiratorial. Because the IRR espouses classical liberal principles, because its work has influenced thinking within the DA, and because Ngwenya once worked for the IRR (as did Zille, very briefly), she declares this a ‘rearguard take-over’ of the DA by the IRR.

Imputing that there is any relationship of control between individuals of like mind is, perhaps, a natural conclusion for someone of an authoritarian, collectivist mindset, as Merten seems to be. But that doesn’t make it true.

I would be considerably more worried about a party unmoored from an intellectual basis for its values and policies, which is where the DA found itself before this policy conference.

Would she also describe the adoption by the ANC of what it called a ‘smart lockdown’ strategy as a takeover by the IRR, given that the IRR proposed the idea in the first place? Did the DA take over the ANC, because it, too, proposed a smart lockdown strategy?

Correctly identifying the influence of a think tank is one thing. Claiming that this amounts to a ‘take-over’ is simply a nutty conspiracy theory.

Non-racial tradition

Non-racialism, as Cachalia wrote in the Sunday Times, has a long and proud tradition in South Africa. The South African Communist Party (SACP) championed non-racialism since its foundation in 1921. The Liberal Party was non-racial from its establishment in 1953 and was destroyed by the government’s ban on non-racial parties. Its anti-apartheid successors, including the Progressive Federal Party and the Democratic Party both espoused non-racialism.

Non-racial ideas underpin the Freedom Charter, adopted in 1955, though they were controversial enough to spark the creation of the black nationalist Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). The ANC was initially a racial organisation, and then became multi-racial, but finally adopted non-racialism as a policy in 1985.

The ANC has since departed from its non-racial principles, in favour of African nationalism and an explicitly race-based empowerment policy – so much so that the SACP recently called upon it to return to its non-racial roots.

The South African Constitution explicitly names non-racialism among the country’s founding values.

There ought to be nothing controversial about non-racialism as a political principle.

Legitimate debate

There is a legitimate debate to be had about whether non-racialism is an appropriate principle through which to address the explicitly racist injustices of South Africa’s past, or whether, as the IRR and DA both now maintain, a focus on redress for presently disadvantaged individuals and recommitment to true non-racialism are better suited to establish reconciliation, social justice, and widespread prosperity.

Ultimately, as left-wing activist Jeff Rudin correctly explains in Daily Maverick, that comes down to whether your world view is individualist or collectivist, capitalist or socialist. The DA has chosen an explicitly individualist and capitalist basis from which to challenge the collectivist, socialist policies of the ruling party.

That is both consistent with classical liberal principles, and worthy of celebration. It is an explicit rejection of the view that the DA is some sort of ANC-lite. It establishes the DA as an opposition party not only in name, but in values, principle, and policy.

One only wishes journalists, instead of overtly supporting socialist collectivism could evaluate the political positions of the official opposition objectively, on their own merits.

Hurling insults, abuse and baseless accusations of racism or antediluvianism at the DA over its adoption of respectable non-racial principles shows not only partisan bias and puerile tribalism, but an intellectual shallowness that should be unwelcome in any newspaper.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

 If you like what you have just read, subscribe to the Daily Friend

Image: Wikimedia Commons