There has been an extraordinary outcry in the media around the rejection of race by the Democratic Alliance (DA) as a basis for policy. One after another, commentators have lined up to accuse the party of evading the central issue of the time, if not of callously denying the race politics that defined South Africa’s past.

These range from the mild (and generally informative) ‘DA policy conference: ditching race-based policies amid a racial storm’ (Greg Nicolson), through to ‘DA’s ideological purity collides with South Africa’s reality’ (Stephen Grootes), on to ‘False Construct? DA’s Trumpian turn on race issues’ (Marianne Merten), culminating in ‘DA now a party for some, not all, as new race policy entrenches denialism’ (Carol Paton) and ‘DA’s misreading of race and inequality take it back half a century’ (Imraan Buccus). Indeed, to have moved away from race as the organising principle for policy is a signifier of moral decrepitude and ideological extremism, according to some commentators.

Not only that, but adopting a race-free approach is a strategic mistake, they claim. It will lead to the decay of the party and the exit of its black members. ‘It’s only a question of time,’ writes Adriaan Basson, ‘before they take their votes elsewhere and a Steenhuisen-led DA reverts back to the old Democratic Party: a “true liberal” party for white voters with less than 10% of the national support.’

By all accounts, the DA has a raft of problems, and it is far from clear that this policy review will resolve them. Some of the DA’s critics in the media and academia despised the party before its policy shift and would always apply the worst possible interpretation to its actions. But whether this policy stance is indeed so far outside South Africa’s political framework as to make it toxic to the electorate should not be taken as a given.

Race remains a large issue

It is true enough that the construct of race remains a large issue in South Africa’s politics (and the DA does not in my view appear to deny this). And it is also, of course, true that the genesis of the country’s problems is to be found in a history in which race played a dominant and determining policy role.

There are many South Africans who are receptive to explicitly racial nationalist narratives. This is, after all, central to the identity of the Economic Freedom Fighters, and it makes more than a passing appearance in the African National Congress. That is a constituency that would reject anything other than race-based politics as a matter of principle. Explicitly race-based worldviews are also well represented among commentators and intellectuals (Marianne Merten’s acknowledgement of the influence of ‘critical race theory’ on her understanding of the country’s dynamics was very revealing). The DA’s position is unlikely ever to be palatable to them.

The question is whether there exists an alternative constituency to which non-racialism would appeal. Does undoing the consequences of past race policies (and failed post-apartheid ones) necessarily demand an explicit focus on race? Or is there a significant part of the population for whom explicit appeals to race do not hold much attraction, or are at least overshadowed by other concerns?

Not nearly as race-obsessed

Opinion polling would suggest that there is. Our own polling (latest round in 2018) suggests that most South Africans are not nearly as race-obsessed as is often assumed. Around nine out of ten believe that ‘different races need each other for progress, there should be full opportunities for all’.

There was acceptance – by a clear majority across the races – of merit as the basis for appointment to jobs (qualified, again by majorities across the board, by a need to provide support to the disadvantaged), and for the selection of sports teams and the appointment of teachers.

In terms of government policy priorities for improving people’s lives, the top issues identified were creating jobs (26%), fighting corruption (14%), improving education (11%) fighting crime (10%), and building more RDP housing (10%). By contrast, fighting racism (2%), speeding up land reform (2%) and speeding up affirmative action (1%) were far less popular. The impression is that of a society whose focus is on pragmatic measures to improve its material circumstances and enhance its future prospects. Employment, in particular, has been shown to be the foremost concern for the country’s people in a number of surveys over the years.

Even the notion that race-based policies are a popular means of overcoming societal divisions is questionable. The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s 2019 SA Reconciliation Barometer found that just under 73% of its respondents believed that ‘reconciliation is impossible as long as we continue using race categories to measure transformation’. This is a sizeable majority, and is roughly equal to the proportion who believe that ‘reconciliation is impossible as long as people who were disadvantaged under apartheid continue to be poor’ (73%), and ‘as long as gender-based violence continues in our society’ (72%). It is larger than the proportion who say reconciliation is impossible ‘as long as we do not address racism in our society’ (66%), though a little smaller than those who see reconciliation as being compromised by corruption (84%) and the exploitation of social divisions by political parties (74%)

May be a significant asset

This is not to suggest that a majority of voters will be clamouring to put the DA in office. This will depend on far more than policy. It is simply to state that the rejection of race as a policy determinant is not necessarily a bar to the party’s appeal. Indeed, if it can demonstrate that there may be a trade-off between general upliftment (through economic growth and employment generation) and elite-oriented race-conscious programmes (empowerment and affirmative action), it may be a significant asset. 

Perhaps the prime question – one that has received far too little attention – is whether such a case can be made. We at the IRR have argued steadily for years that race-based empowerment policy has offered little to encourage the growth that is desperately needed, to promote entrepreneurship and to get ordinary South Africans into jobs. This finds support, for example, in work on small business by SBP which found deep frustration with the empowerment framework (compliance burdens for little reward – including for black small businesspeople). Evidence gathered on European firms operating in the country indicates that BEE ownership requirements constitute the most important hindrance to investment in South Africa. In recent contributions, Moeletsi Mbeki has attacked the policy, calling instead for support to entrepreneurs, while entrepreneur Andile Ntingi stated bluntly that BEE would make a post-Covid recovery impossible.

And bear in mind that probably the most critical state contribution to poverty alleviation (whatever its weaknesses) has been the provision of social grants. This is a measure based on the circumstances of each applicant, not on an ascriptive identity.

Decade-long retardation

Given the state of the economy now and the decade-long decline that has brought it to this point, it seems only good sense that the policies ordering it should be interrogated. Maybe even to concede that they have been misplaced and counterproductive.

And this is perhaps the most significant implication of the DA’s policy choice. It was a bold step to make a policy offering that falls outside what might be called a ‘consensus’ among most of the country’s senior journalists and political analysts.

However the DA fares, it will have done the country a service if it helps to expand the terms of public debate, and broadens the perspective on South Africa’s possible futures. The chorus of condemnation with little examination represents a missed opportunity.

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Image by truthseeker08 from Pixabay

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Terence Corrigan
Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.


  1. Agree. However, this article still seems stuck on the notion that the DA’s new policy framework should be “received on its own terms”. I have seen very little reporting that have not acknowledged that the DA provides a clear alternative. If this should be received positively or negatively – seems to be veering into opinion and analysis.

    So yes – most in the media had a negative assessment of the prospects of DA style nonracialism. Their analysis might be wrong, but surely that is their right?

    Or do we want a situation where the media say accept SACP / EFF / race nationalism on its own terms and write opinion pieces agreeing how it can work and its merits – on its own terms?

  2. I paused at “ true that the genesis of the country’s problems is to be found in a history in which race played a dominant and determining policy role.”
    No, it did not. It was (and still is) culture as delineated by language and skin color plus a population explosion without adjusting the culture to the new reality.
    And until all parties face this reality, there will be no solution to be had, other than the partitioning of the Western Cape in which the majority of the non-white skinned European language based culture join with the whites to resist the rest. And this is what the former are telling me in private conversations. They’re fed-up with the BS.
    Yes, Apartheid was a bad idea, but you cannot lay all that is wrong with SA at its feet.
    No one talks about the population growing by 50%+ since 1994, let alone how it grew from ~7M in 1900.
    Did the black leadership adjust to this emerging reality by moving away from the subsistence culture accordingly? Why was it white missionaries that built schools and hospitals in the homelands and not the homeland rulers? And 26 years later ~17M people still live under their ancient based rule.
    Black Africa still needs its “Magna Carta” moment, but there is no one to step up to the plate and lead.
    The whites can’t do it for them. We can only watch and despair.

    • Agree 100% I also paused on this piece of (W.T.F!?) rethoric and looking for commentating buttons to click on. Listening to the inner voice which told me to forget to confront this B.S. coz you are the only calling voice in the dessert. After reading James Groenewald’s comment i realise there are other peeps on the same page as me. Thanx James you are still someone who go for truth above all and not for popularity in a madhouse full of humming morons.

    • I agree 100%. We cannot pretend someone is competent and then employ him/ her . Proportionalism (Affirmative action) is a dead duck and will never work. It will only guarantee the politician a seat in parliament. Africa has to pull itself out of the mud .

  3. I agree. Mmusi Maimane was a bad mistake. A classic example about what happens if you appoint a person of one race just to appease the majority of voters. It tore the DA apart and created confusion among voters, the backlash of which will last for years. Having said that – I applaud the approach to non-racialism. We have had our share of that nonsense – from both sides. America is showing what can happen if you let the racial genie out of the box. And no – allowing free speech is not the same thing.

  4. This is a brilliant idea and am amazed at the opposition to this raceless society. Surely that’s how it should be. No one above the other.An equal society. But no the racists in our society don’t want this! Why? Because they are out and out racists themselves and you wonder what they are fighting for? Clearly they don’t know themselves, as how can they possibly argue against a raceless society? Utter madness.

    • THEY are fighting to stay in POWER – by ANY means……..THEY are ALL RACISTS and are fighting for the SOCIALIST STATE which now exists in CHINA and CUBA only!!!
      R1 860.00 p/m month pays for one VOTE, but when the fund (for Social Grants) run out THEY will be buried??

  5. Although I agree with what the author as well as James Groenewald have stated, I think that the DA’s biggest motivation for moving away from race-related criteria for their latest resolve is to try to stem the huge number of disillusioned DA voters that has shown in some recent surveys that they are looking for an area where they can have the following: 1] Safety for their family as well as for their children in the future; 2] An equal opportunity when applying for a job and/or contract that is available; 3] To have a say in their immediate environment where they stay as well as where they work, rather than having a political party that is the current government making decisions on their behalf that is not beneficial to them but more punishing to them or excluding them; 4] Decent schooling for their kids in a safe environment; 5] Properly run hospitals where the focus is on healing the sick and not just trying to “steal money or equipment” for their own personal benefit; 6] Properly run transport between home and work; 7] A proper police force that are well equipped and trained in maintaining law and order; 8] Proper infrastructure be it roads, railway line (and trains) as well as other public transport systems that are run efficiently and maintained meticulously; 8] Procedures and processes whereby a specific community can hold their political representative(s) responsible for “service delivery” and get monthly feedback as to what has been achieved in the past month regarding issues that were raised the previous month as well as the right to replace the chosen political representative with another at short notice if the majority of the area agrees and to appoint another representative; 9] Opportunities whereby community members can form think tanks regarding specific issues that could be resolved due to more potions tabled than what 1 representative can think about to resolve an issue or eradicate it.
    In short the above means that the DA is trying to still pacify the majority of the RSA population but at the same time must curtail or halt the number of their current voters that have indicated that they will tend to vote for another party that supports an idea of secession for the Western Cape. Just look at the latest referendum by the Cape Independence Advocacy Group who are talking to the DA to try them to promote just this but since they will not due to the fact that their office bearers would rather serve (and earn more) in a position within a so-called official opposition party rather than just be the official party for the Western Cape where they will have less and will have to share more with others. I just wish that the 10 different organisations within the RSA that are all supporting the main idea of secession for the Western Cape would sit around a table and re-define their different demarcated areas into the smallest most common denominated area of the Western Cape and get organised to force a referendum to be called by the DA, before the end of this year, upon whether the Western Cape should secede or not. If the majority decides that the Western Cape Should secede, then the different groups can sit around a table and show what they have achieved so far to this specific objective and efforts can be concentrated on addressing the most immediate issue to be addressed so that at the 2021 elections, a single entity (Political Party, e.g. Cape Party in conjunction with the other newly formed political parties) can contest those elections. If these last personal wishes could be achieved, the Western Cape will be well on its way to achieve secession from the rest of the RSA and after a number of years of proving how successful the “Western Cape in secession” are in comparison to the rest of the RSA, numerous people form the RSA will want to relocate and start additional businesses in the Western Cape.
    I can just say that I hope that this can be achieved but alas, we have a history of NOT standing together for a single objective even though it is so obvious from the old South African credo of “eendrag maak mag”.
    Nuff said.

    • Both you and James Groenewald have summed up the situation perfectly, together with the needs of those of us who seek a sane solution to mess the anc has made of SA, much of which is race-based.
      The DA’s latest expression of courage will either make it or break it.
      Imho, if the DA breaks, then SA will finally be beyond repair: kaput.
      In the meantime, those like-minded of us need to promote CapeXit as actively as possible, regardless of where in SA we might presently live and regardless of the pathetic naysayers and MSM sniping from the sidelines.

  6. The problem is that the DA wants to be a party for all, without considering that SA is made up of large groupings of diverse cultures, each with its own priorities and expectations. So, one shoe wont fit all. To deny race is just dam bang foolish, it is more of an issue now than under apartheid. Just listen to our friend Julius if there is any doubt. Was it not recently said that “the only white man you can trust is a dead white man”. A no race policy will not make sense in this or any other universe.

    • Unfortunately you missing point. That is what they are trying to say, You are welcome here irrelevant of your color… You are not welcome to EFF unless you are black and hate hate everybody else for example. So if EFF have right to openly promote pure black party, DA have right to openly promote multicultural…….. way of doing. Don’t forget that WC have even more diversity comparing to some another provinces, but they still win elections in WC.

  7. Only solution is to give the its mandate so the minorities can get on with their lives and leave the majority to their own devices.

  8. Great article Terence! It is quite clear from the examples of the media outcry against the DA’s very pragmatic and bold new policy direction that the commentators display outrageous intellectual dishonesty. Why? Have they no shame? Do they not understand that their very purpose in life is to uphold the principles of fair and unbiassed reportingand constructive comment?
    I think there is an agenda and they are pushing propaganda in favour of the ANC and against rational, civilized and honest governance. Are they insane? How can anyone think the ANC, which by admission considers only itself, is or ever will take the country on a path of growth, employment and a better life for all?
    The DA is an excellent, capable alternative that has proved beyond doubt they have the interest of South Africa at heart
    The whole world is facing a socialist/communist onslaught in which dominant media is complicit. The command governance model inevitably and without exception is the path to misery and loss of personal freedom.
    Clearly they are willing to sacrifice principle for short term expedience in the form of funding from Globalist sources like Soros. Alternatively they are psychopathic and willing to play a major role in perpetuating poverty, ignorance and misery
    I think their despicable propaganda business deserves nothing less than failure and obscurity

  9. Why is the focus of race still aimed at the DA when its party members are much more representative of all races than any of the other political parties. Try and find a brown and white face amongst the racist ANC or any of its other racist alliances.
    This applies to sport as well. The racists scream about quotas and force most of our national teams to include black people, whether they are competent or not, but the racist Bafana football team is nearly always completely black.
    One day when there are no white people in any of the teams, the racists will take aim at the brown people and force them out too. Not black enough !

  10. It doesn’t suit the ANC and EFF to ignore race. It’s the only thing they can use to get votes. They have no other qualities, no other advantages, except for the patronage of their fellow thieves and vagabonds.

  11. Secession of the Western Cape sounds wonderful, but if it happens you will just get hundreds of thousands flocking over
    it’s borders to the “new” land of milk and honey!
    How will you keep them out, build a “Trump” wall around it?
    Not a workable solution, educate the young so that they can influence their elders and make informed decisions, that will
    make the whole country workable and make politicians accountable!

    • You can’t just flock over the border into another country. If a wall needs to be build to prevent flocking over the border then a wall it is. Education does not change ones cultures and not all cultures are compatible or tolerant of of other cultures. When secession happen you will see how quickly Goodwill will jump on the bandwagon.
      Let the games begin.

  12. “Those who were seen dancing, were thought to be insane, by those who couldn’t hear the music.”
    Friedrich Nietzsche
    A few voices that criticize Qwen Ngwenya also consider that she may in future be seen as thought leader. The first person to apply critical thinking to the issue of non-racialist policy. At least the current DA leadership seem to be listening. When we look back from 2040 we will mark this moment as the watershed that took us away from a relativist world of politics to an analytical, evidence-based world. As the nationalist party copied its colonial masters so the ANC alliance has emulated the nationalist party government insofar as race-based policies are concerned. No new thinking in sight. So much for ANC non-racialism. A well-known industrialist once said, in all revolutions there is damage, in the South African revolution the damage has been to the quality of thinking. We seem to have sunk into a morass of relativist thinking where critical thinking is almost entirely lacking. Main-stream journalists seem to be in an echo chamber where they pass ignorance around as analysis and insight.
    IMHO Gwen Ngwenya’s non-racial policy offers us the first glimpse of principle-based policy where what may be called radical non-racialism is central. As the A rch reminds us there is no African version of principles and values. This may be confusing to many. Certainly unrecognised by mainstream media as thought leadership, for now. So what’s new? Galileo, Darwin, Martin Luther King Junior, van Zyl-Slabbert and Smuts. These visionaries had to endure emotional criticism from “those who could not hear the music.”

  13. Best thing they could do it. Tell to everybody, we don’t care about your origin or what you are. Join us and let us work together for better future of our children. Experiment with quotas under MM failed badly. Before they had door open for everybody. Under MM they did try to compete with FF, EFF and ANC. Members of those parties are hard core …we no what. And DA was not about quotas before MM. Go back to your original idea, and party will grow. If nothing else WC province is getting richer every day, business is moving toward CT. ANC and many more are trying to create dipper racial division in CT, even TANY sold her self for position of minister, but DA still going to run best performing province in country. AND YOU CAN KISS WESTERN CAPE RAINBOW NATION, you know where.

  14. DA needs to prove its renewed policy resolution. Until then, and to keep it honest, I’ll be voting FF+ nationally and Cape Party locally.

  15. The DA’s rejection of race may yet be recognized as a monumental milestone in South African history.

    It is a political game changer despite any and all popularity issues the DA may face. In one fell swoop it negates all political arguments that depend on race to sustain the narrative and rubbishes the ANC’s claim to hold the political moral high ground in South Africa.

    This is exactly why it will be attacked from across the political spectrum. While the threat to political bodies is clear and to be expected, the DA will receive no support from mainstream media who are beholden to corporate
    consent nor from prominent individuals who have staked their positions, reputations and political access on vilifying anything white (minority) while sustaining the race/inequality/privileged narrative.

    Pres Ramaphosa must be envious, his thunder has been stolen. The DA has put into practice that which the Freedom Charter and the South African constitution demands. While his efforts to regain good governance appear to be genuine – which contributed to the ANC election success and attracted a number of minority votes in the past election – after three decades of ANC government excuses for continued (majority) racial discrimination is wearing thin both nationally and internationally and it’s probably only the increasing competition for resources resultant from ANC corruption and incompetence that to many justifies the status quo.

    In the face of relentless ANC racial discrimination and economic penalties and exclusion that cadres often remind us will last at least 400 years an unintended consequence of the DA’s position is that it may have identified the recipe for self-determination i.e. statehood for those whose value system rejects race and consequently recognizes the rights and responsibilities of the individual, merit and equal economic opportunity.

  16. Excellent article. Thank you for the courage displayed. We certainly NEED these fresh viewpoints and be bold to implement changes to save our country

  17. Affirmative action does not work . That is why apartheid failed Why is it that people fail to learn from history? Working together we can make South Africa great. This will not happen if the politicians cling to race .

  18. Insightful decision to deracialise which is a radical (revolutionary?) about turn in the current S A political thought landscape

  19. It is courageous to swim against a current of dominant feelings and beliefs.
    Children do not notice race, unless they are taught the language to do so.
    A truly new South Africa will follow the children in this aspect, and the DA is, as it seems, trying to cut back some brambles to begin that long walk.


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