Monday, 20 May 2013

The DA’s Janus Face

The Democratic Alliance’s recent Know Your DA campaign is simply the end-point of a series of attempts to reconcile tensions within that political party that are preventing it from maximising the number of votes it can win. The primary tension is straightforward: the evidence suggests that the bulk of the DA voter base since the 1999 elections has been of people who previously voted for the NP in 1996 along with descendants of these individuals. Since this group is a small minority of the population, not more than 20%, the DA will not have a hope in hell of winning an election if it confines itself to this pond. The challenge then is to win part of ‘the black vote’. (The ‘Coloured vote’ in the Western Cape is essentially in the bag thanks primarily to the ANC’s self-induced provincial collapse). The DA’s first step toward this has been to parachute, or launch, young black members into top posts. That is immediately incongruous because the massive rump of the party is entirely unchanged, leading to occasional rumblings of discontent from within. In this regard, in a similarly critical article on the DA campaign Eusebius McKaiser recently warned that “Zille should be careful. White men still wield huge economic and social power”. While agreeing with most of that piece, I think that McKaiser underestimates the extent of the DA’s Janus face.

The fact that discontented rumblings – against Mmusi Maimane for instance - have not been more like full-on earthquakes might be cited by the DA’s leaders as evidence against major tensions, but they are unlikely to admit the reasons for that. The point is that verkramptes in the DA want political power as much as anyone else; they want the power to make sure that their personal and economic interests are advanced or protected. And, frankly, if they need black figureheads to do that, then so be it. This attitude extends beyond the DA. The enthusiasm for Mamphela Ramphele in the racist cesspit that is the News24 comments section is testament to that. Ramphele herself may have done nothing to actively draw such support but her position is clearly seen as being in the interests of those who, well, have interests to protect and historical legacies to deny. The DA leaders, in trying to push the party to being a genuine threat in national elections, will be quietly selling that product to individuals of a similar ilk – in fact, probably the same ilk - in their own party.

There is just one problem: that is not a two-way compromise. The potential black supporters the DA is trying to draw-in through its new campaign privy are not privy to this implicit backroom deal. Do they know that the DA’s policy positions are a hodge-podge based on the irreconcilable conservative views and interests of their privileged-by-apartheid white supporter base and the need to attract black voters? The much-publicised attack by National Union of Mineworkers leader Irvin Jim on the National Development Plan as a ‘DA document’ was silly primarily because over the years the DA has quietly pilfered many of its policy ideas from the ANC, its alliance partners or the government led by ANC members. Remember the Basic Income Grant? Cosatu took that up first. (The DA now calls it the ‘Income Support and Unemployment Grant’). The youth wage subsidy? From the government. Indeed given Jim's statements I am surprised that no journalists have asked for the release dates of the DA policy documents that reportedly look so much like the NDP, a first draft of which – remember – was released long before the final version. History suggests that the DA is more likely to have appropriated those ideas than vice versa.

The above-mentioned tensions are why the DA has continually prevaricated on affirmative action. On the one hand some members have claimed that the party supports it while other are viscerally opposed. Policy documents attempt to reconcile these claims with talk about targeting ‘individuals’ not ‘groups’, but conveniently ignore research by academics arguing that in practice the former can be less efficient than the latter. And ironically, for all the DA’s criticism of BEE-associated fronting in the economic sphere, in their desperation to present a ‘black face’ to voters the DA could be argued to be engaged in race-based fronting in the political sphere. (I should note - before receiving baseless or hysterical attacks that characterise the modern DA no less than the current ANC - that you can be very competent and still be involved in fronting; the issue is primarily about representation not competence).

Some of these points appear to be lost even on those close to the party. In a recent article arguing that the principle of ubuntu contradicts the party’s liberal values, the former DA “director of special projects” Gareth van Onselen demands that if the party wishes to embrace nationalist-type principles, which is how he characterises ubuntu, then it “must discard any pretense it is liberal and be open and upfront about its intentions”. This is amusing because one might argue that the whole point of the DA’s current orientation is that is absolutely not going to be upfront about its intentions. If it was it would not get many ‘black votes’. To add to the irony, in the same article van Onselen approvingly quotes a piece by former DA strategist Ryan Coetzee;  Coetzee appears more than anyone else to have been responsible for the party’s ‘win votes at all costs’ strategy. Indeed, he is reported to be busy peddling the same ‘say whatever will get votes and damn principles’ approach to the Liberal Democrats in the UK. I suspect UK voters are not stupid enough to fall for this and that the LibDems will still get a bloody nose at the next elections. The only hope for Coetzee’s strategy is that the Lib Dems will drop its core principles and essentially replace the Conservatives, which of course is exactly what the DA did in the 1990s, merging with the NP and then taking its voters. Clearly it’s a product that sells well to politicians. Since the DA is now trying to win broader support perhaps it is betting on its ability to fool black South African voters? More irony there, since we may recall DA leaders implying that the ANC preferred uneducated voters because they are easier to hoodwink.

After a while the DA’s contortions become so absurd that it is hard to follow. The past weeks have provided ample examples, with Mmusi Maimane paying tribute to Chris Hani while other young DA leaders toast the greatness of Margaret Thatcher who would happily have stuck Hani in a cell and thrown away the key (being a ‘terrorist’ and all). To be specific, contrast Maimane’s statement that “Hani was an inspirational figure...[who] lived and died for his principles”, with a tweet related to Thatcher by the Helen Suzman Foundation intern and member of the DA’s federal council and its ‘bratpack’ of future leaders, Kameel Premhid: “As if Commies supported anti-Apartheid for moral reasons”. I guess that would be ‘commies’ like Chris Hani, Joe Slovo and Braam Fischer, to name a few. Who should we believe represents the DA’s ‘real’ position? I suggest that Premhid’s is the position that wields real power in the DA, including with party funders, but Maimane’s represents the carefully-worded lure for black voters.

It is in this light that we should consider the Know Your DA campaign emphasising Helen Suzman’s anti-apartheid position and claiming that the DA ‘fought apartheid for 36 years’. It would have us believe that the DA of the present is simply a continuation of the Progressive Party as if the DA had not merged with the larger NP and picked-up all those pro-apartheid voters in the 1990s. As if it had not positioned itself to pick-up as many voters to the right of the ANC as possible. The broader Progressive Party’s role was also not unproblematic: what should one say about polite opposition to a brutal system? Better than nothing perhaps but not exactly the stuff of heroism. Finally, in selling this rather pallid struggle history, the vociferous arguments in the past by the DA against the relevance of struggle credentials appear to have been forgotten or quietly put to one side. And so on and so forth.

As an opposition party of course the DA has the luxury of telling different stories to different people because it does not actually have to deliver on any of these claims or promises anytime soon. When DA policies don’t look like they have been lifted from government or Tripartite Alliance documents, they look like political Christmas lists peppered with empty ‘open society’ jargon. Perhaps enough voters will get suckered into believing in a political Father Christmas to marginally increase the DA’s votes in the next election, but a party that behaves like this is certainly not going to be an improvement on the present: the heady combination of privilege, righteousness and duplicity is a very dangerous one indeed.

[Note: I sent this piece to a South African online publication about a month ago and despite previous positive engagements with them this particular comment received no reply. I did get the impression that it was circulated to some individuals in the DA, however, and said publication has subsequently published a number of complimentary pieces about the DA. I guess that's South African media objectivity for you.]