Ivor Sarakinsky and Ebrahim Fakir

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci presciently noted that when societies undergo transition, the interregnum produces a range of “morbid symptoms”. The “Rainbow Nation” as a founding myth of post-political apartheid South Africa has served its purpose and is now for all intents and purposes dead.

What will replace it? What can replace it? Does it need to be replaced at all?

Our view is that this is unnecessary. There is no need for a new mythology. There is only need for setting down the roots of an open, free, critical and thoughtful political culture that facilitates democracy as a social practice in society and democratic government as a type of public governance, resource management and state administration.

After twenty three years of democracy, we have moved away from the symbolic founding myths and the future now appears hazy. In this fog, political parties and special interests attempt to use the uncertain present to mould the future. This is a period of experimentation, caprice and of high stakes serendipity.

From “radical economic transformation” to “decolonisation”, there is little in between animating public discussion, besides “state capture”, this is the current discursive mainstream political reality. All the mainstream political parties are actors in this tragicomedy, all the while economic opportunities are lost and citizen wellbeing is in decline. Simultaneously, others make a fortune. In observing each of these trends, the veneer of discrete political engagement has broken open like a carbuncle. We are witnessing our politics in the raw, unmediated by the public relations agencies, marketing managers and image & style consultants – and it is not a pretty sight.

The Gupta email leaks, containing as they do disclosures of patronage and the abuse of public power, provide the gory detail of an all-too-familiar story. The internal machinations of the ruling ANC are being fought in the open, while those of the smaller opposition parties remain under wraps.

It is hard for the ANC to keep secrets. It is a large, diverse, and sometimes unwieldly political organisation, and there will be winners and losers at all levels in its political and policy contests. The losers and those who are threatened by loss of positions, have recourse to using the strategic media leak as a mode of offense and defense. This is what simultaneously makes for both the transparency, but also the perceptible organisational instability, of the ANC and its alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

Opposition parties, on the other hand, fueled by the zeal of optimism, use their relatively smaller size to keep order and control within. Besides the occasional gossip, we know little about their internal fault lines, “smallanyana skeletons”, personality clashes and the riven competition over party identity, policy and the contests for positions that resides deep within their dimly lit, smoke-filled, meeting rooms.

This is now changing. As the DA grows in size —  a product of modestly increasing public support — the prospect of future proliferation of public office looms tangibly, and with it an increase in the inner rumblings and internal divisions becoming more evident and increasingly becoming more public.

The contest for public office and the largesse they enable, mean that secrets become harder to keep. This rupture of the rosy, opinion-survey, PR-managed appearance of the DA that used to mask and obscure the real political, policy and personality contests within, is a positive development. It provides an insight into the evolution, nature and character of political and policy debates within the party and enables voters to make better evaluations of the party, and informed choice and selection at the ballot box. It may even lead to the leaking of information about suspicions of alleged undue influence or policy capture for example, of property developers on town planning decisions in the Western Cape and in some DA-controlled cities, or more egregiously – the awarding of contracts and conducting government procurement irregularly, where the DA is in government.

The Helen Zille – Mmusi Maimane spat is therefore a symptom of the growth of the DA. It is not a once-off abnormality.

With the ANC in decline, it is partly a fight over possibly being the first woman or opposition leader becoming State President after the 2019 election. Zille’s use of Singapore to illustrate her belief that colonialism wasn’t all bad is ridiculous. Logically, any under-graduate will know that you cannot infer the whole from a part – it’s called the fallacy of composition. Perhaps her warped view might be different had she read about German colonialism in Namibia and the Herero and Nama genocide. Maybe some reading about King Leopold of Belgium and his adventures in the Congo might lead to some introspection. Instead, Zille provides a pile of post hoc justification that makes a bad situation, worse.

But Zille’s tweets and post hoc elaborations and justifications are not about logic, cogency of argument, discourse or fact. They are about a deeply held set of beliefs, almost religious, displaying a patronising disdain and bigotry for the victims of colonialism. Factually incorrect and discursively inappropriate as they are, these views are more widespread than is imagined, and the liberal South African Constitution makes the space for these odd and unpalatable views.

Of course, there are two further considerations for the DA here, apart from the Constitutional free speech aspect of it. The first is obviously whether Zille’s view can be accommodated within the DA and its changing discourse on race and identity, or whether it is simply too jarring, diametrically opposed to the emerging new sensitivity to race and identity politics within the DA.

Can Zille remain, and does she belong in this ‘new DA?’

The second, contingent on the first – is that even if her view can be accommodated within the DA, at what cost does it come to the DA in expanding its electoral support, and in reaching out to other political parties, on co-operation or coalition pacts ? This outreach is necessary if the DA wishes to advance its support of black Africans in townships. Its performance in the 2016 municipal elections demonstrates that the DA has been unable, to any significant degree, capture support in wards in traditional African townships, in spite of its sustained, but modest increases in the face of the ANC’s factional disunity.

Political parties frequently need to tread the fine line between principle and expediency – often having to sacrifice an absolute commitment to principle in the interests of accommodating and expanding its support base, but rarely has the choice been as stark as it now is for the DA – at the level of ideology and identity, politics and policy as well as internal processes and procedures and it is here that a third, more fundamental fissure is introduced by Zille, her tweets and the concomitant subsequent disciplinary process it has unleashed.

It has opened up within the DA — apart from a debate on Zille’s personal and political idiosyncracies on social media platforms, and on issues of race, identity and agency — a faultline and fissure around its commitment and faithfulness to its internal rules, policies and processes. The application of these rules, it is claimed, are ineptly, inconsistently or contradictorily applied. In fact, Zille claims that the rules and internal processes are capriciously applied in a pre-judged and unfair way that seeks to victimise her.

The DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, prematurely announced Zille’s suspension without following the full due process of its own internal rules and procedures. This is a serious blight on a party leader and its governing structures. Curiously, it was left to Zille, who in her defense, showed up the capricious and inconsistent application of the rules, and force some kind of compliance with the DA’s internal procedures. Clearly, Maimane ought to have read his own party’s constitution more carefully. His repeated calls for President Jacob Zuma to step down from office for being in breach of South Africa’s Constitution assume a greater significance in his own demonstrated inability to internalise the contents of, and compliance to, his own party’s.

Will he now follow his own exhortations and advice to Zuma, and resign his position in the DA? Of course not. Instead of principled politics, we are now in the era of Machiavelli’s “The Prince”.

A second contradiction is that the DA musters public support and approaches the Constitutional Court in pursuit of a secret ballot in the forthcoming vote of no confidence in President Zuma. This, it is thought, will allow ANC MPs to break ranks and “vote with their conscience” without limiting their political careers by exposing their vote to party and public scrutiny. Ironically, the DA in Mogale City vociferously objected to a secret ballot, in a vote of no confidence in its erstwhile mayor, Michael Hollenstein. Subsequently, he was ejected from mayoral office – someone in the DA caucus, it seems, broke ranks.

Ambrose Bierce defined politics as “[a] strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles”. The morbid symptoms within the DA are beginning to come into fuller public glare in South Africa’s ongoing political drama.

Political parties have to adapt, change and appeal to new constituencies if they are to survive and succeed. This is their normal and core business. Recognising and redressing Black South Africans’ brutal experience of discrimination has to be a part of this realignment. All of these changes ought to be premised on principle. Opportunism and populism may lead to short-term gains with longer term costs. As the torchbearer of political liberalism in South Africa, albeit a “liberalism of a special type”, this is where the greatest cost may lie. While economic liberals are a dime-a-dozen in South Africa, there are few political liberals left after the demise of the Liberal Party, and the demise of the personalities behind it.

Political liberalism has always had a tenuous hold in South African politics and the doyen of DA liberalism, Helen Suzman, was rather a late convert to universal franchise and equal rights. The current antics within the DA are not unequivocal and clear about its political and principled commitments either.

In the case of Zille, it acted against free speech through an initially un-procedural public announcement, and this irregularity was seemingly justified on the basis of “needing to manage perceptions” so as to be more electable in the future, appealing to a broader constituency of, primarily black, voters and not alienating South Africans who were offended by Zille’s colonialism tweets.  Political expediency trumped principle – but should we expect politicians to do anything different? Or do we expect our politicians to balance a fidelity to principle, with the appeal to a greater mass of voters.

South Africa is at a delicate stage, where getting this balance wrong can have seriously deleterious consequences for a future political culture in which political actors remain faithful to at least the core principles of their own political offerings.

The implication of the Helen Zille “colonialism” saga – is that it brings a triumvirate of challenges that the DA has to navigate.

The first and most obvious, is that it needs to correct the application of its internal disciplinary rules. The second is that it has to limit the damage on any potential future support and voter base, in forthcoming elections and in cooperation and coalition deals with other parties. The most fundamental however, is that any sanction and punishment of Zille must cautiously balanc, limiting the damage to a future support base without capitulating to the increasingly shrill calls for her head. The clamour for Zille’s head over unpopular, and even offensive views, seeks to impose an orthodoxy of views that expects everyone to be on its right, politically correct side leading to uniformity of views and opinions which are anathema to a free and open society. An inappropriate sanction may also provide an illusory victory which will come at the cost of limiting the space, and narrowing the terms on which healthy public debate can be conducted in the future.

So, where to now for the DA? Zille appears to be doomed, Maimane still sits on the throne, but is somewhat tarnished. Ambitious electability seems to inform all the party’s actions. Does this mark a shift in the DA away from liberal democracy to a right-of-centre Christian Democratic populism?

Maimane’s religious beliefs are well known and the clash between those and basic liberal freedoms, such as the right to any form of sexuality, is less well known. Some years ago Zille herself, in a fit of illiberal pique ventured curious views on HIV, effectively arguing for the criminalisation of HIV and requiring mandatory HIV testing, suggesting that men that have unprotected sex with multiple partners and who infect someone else, ought to be charged with murder.

There have also been heated debates within the DA about black economic empowerment, affirmative action and a raft of other national empowerment laws and policies and in each of these debates Zille and Maimane fall on different sides of the divide.

Maimane supports the DA’s shift to the recognition of race as a criteria for re-distributionary policies and empowerment, while Zille opposes them. In addition, the DA has over the last few years, been engaged in appropriating the icons and iconography of the ANC, and the struggle against apartheid, extending occasionally to even adopting some its policy stances. Its 2014 national and 2016 municipal election campaigns have foregrounded some its members supposed “struggle credentials”, invoked the imagery of Mandela, and Maimane openly identified with and extolled the virtues of Thabo Mbeki and his policy trajectory. In fact, Mmusi Maimane has suggested that if the DA came to power, they would double social grants.

Evidently then, the DA is at the crucible at which it is going to need to provide clear indications on where it stands politically and ideologically, but also unequivocally communicate what it is willing to sacrifice in terms of procedural neutrality and negative liberty – the liberal individual freedoms explained by Isiah Berlin, as conditions of justice in its pursuit of, and will to, power.

Machiavelli was wrong to think that there are no consequences when actualizing a just goal through devious means. The core liberal values and techniques for managing a free society so as to realise fairness and equality are under threat from within. Liberalism, in this case, is far too important to be left to the self-proclaimed political liberals.


Main Photograph: The Democratic Alliance’s Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane have been dancing to different illiberal tunes as fractures within the party have emerged over the former’s racist tweets – Courtesy of the DA

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