It’s perhaps a measure of the cruelty of fate that, having lost the leadership of Democratic Alliance (DA), even when he has interesting and important things to say, Mmusi Maimane is now sounding like a voice from the wilderness.
This is almost certainly true of what he clearly intended as a heartfelt engagement on South Africa’s destiny; his open letter, Dear white South Africans.
The first of several ironies that clamour for attention in his open letter is the thought that had he tackled some of these ideas when he was leader of the DA – that, for instance, ‘(the) beneficiaries of … race divisions are the extremist politicians and extremist movements (who) … gain traction and funding from fanning the flames’ of race – he might have been in a much better position to consolidate his leadership and grow his support around the notion of a shared rather than a riven sense of nationhood.
But that’s all in the past; today, he is merely the ‘chief activist’ – as he calls himself in his letter – of a movement of indeterminate scale and effect, One South Africa.
Even so, this is not a good reason to dismiss his arguments and ideas, or mistake their significance.
At the very least, they will strike a chord with many South Africans who wonder, because of how they are defined racially, whether they belong.
Maimane offers a poignant glimpse of his intimacy with this question.
The letter, he says, ‘stems out of a time I recently spent with my wife, a white South African woman, who expressed her genuine fears as to what her role is in today’s South Africa. In particular, how our interracial marriage informs this’.
‘You see, our union is an offence to black and white nationalists for different reasons. And each side will tell her a different narrative. On the left, she’s told she is the enemy, yet on the right she’s told she is being targeted and persecuted for simply having a white skin.
‘Both are of course untrue, yet this is a dilemma many white South Africans face today.’
He raises important questions – but it’s interesting that he chooses to discuss them in a letter addressed to white people.
Few things are guaranteed to get attention for all the wrong reasons than the racially exclusive salutation, Dear white South Africans, not least the jarringly ironic implication, nurtured by apartheid ideologues (and sustained by white supremacists, still), that there is such a thing as a distinctive ‘white’ interest.
But the most important irony – which Maimane fails to address – is that the political agency of racial minorities, and even of class minorities, is insignificant precisely because of the single greatest asset of the democratic era, universal franchise.
Inviting ‘white’ South Africans to ‘a conversation about a new way of bringing about change in this country we call our home’ risks, at least implicitly, suggesting that whiteness is a superior quotient in the democratic equation.
If Maimane is quite right to argue that all of us, in the myriad engagements of our daily lives, have a role in making a better society and actively advertising our belief in it, the challenge of fashioning a fairer, ‘inclusive’, prospering South Africa lies squarely in the realm of policy-making.
This much is plain to most of the people he addresses when he begins, ‘I write this open letter to those of you, the overwhelming majority, who want this country to work’.
Somewhere in all this is the unspoken notion that, when all’s said and done, the haves really do bear the lion’s share of the blame, or at least must shoulder most of the burden of making better lives for all.
Thus, he writes, ‘(we) cannot skip ahead to a non-racial South Africa without doing the hard work required to undo the injustices of apartheid. We have done some of that work but the job is incomplete. Our present goal should be to create a society that is racially cohesive, where there is empathy for injustices of the past, tolerance for difference and a deliberate pursuit of redress for those left behind.’
‘Quality of life’
He sketches a picture of a still largely untransformed South Africa (as the Daily Friend has done on umpteen occasions this year alone) with what he describes as ‘uncomfortable’ facts: ‘Income distribution among black and white is at a six to one ratio. This means income for white South Africans is six times that of black South Africans. When we reflect on economic inclusion, unemployment among white South Africans is at 6% while it is 40% for black South Africans. Quality of life is equivalent to that of First World countries for most white South Africans, and not because you are white but because of income.’
Unless one tries to argue that those who have an income are to blame for those who don’t, there cannot be a meaningful conversation about change for the better without examining the devastating effects of policy-making on school outcomes, empowerment outcomes, jobs, economic growth, investment, and governance of critical services such as electricity generation and healthcare.
The failures of the democratic era reflect not a failure of racial minorities, or even of the instrument of democracy itself, but of how democracy has been used.
Which is why I wonder what letter Maimane might have written had he had in his mind’s eye a populace he could address simply as ‘Dear South Africans’?
Such a letter would have had to acknowledge our democratic reality, and the sentiments and choices of the majority who are the primary agents of the change he wishes for, and which he senses – I am sure, correctly – that the ‘overwhelming majority’ of those he does address wish for, too.
Such a letter would have helped to shatter the illusion of the power of race.
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