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.
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.