John Steenhuisen. Picture: VELI NHLAPO
John Steenhuisen. Picture: VELI NHLAPO

With the governing party corroded by corruption and eating itself from within, it is dispiriting that an imminent election to lead the official opposition party generates so little excitement. This is remarkable as the winner will, in theory, be the face of our alternative government.

The absence of enthusiasm for the DA election is partly because it is seen as a shoe-in for interim leader John Steenhuisen to assume the role permanently. But, more importantly, and unhappily for SA, the idea of the DA representing an alternative government in any foreseeable future remains just that — an idea.

After losses in the 2019 general election the party has grown inward-looking. The DA’s recent policy resolution to avoid the word “black” for measures of redress, aligns with another change: the way the party is administered. Steenhuisen’s only leadership rival, Mbali Ntuli, protested that “Much of the most recent analysis paints a picture of a purging of senior black members. Most who leave speak of disunity and a toxic atmosphere that has become intolerable; internal squabbles fuelled by egos; personality clashes becoming commonplace, often in public.” A top-down management “ruling by fear” is to blame, she says, resulting in, “cult-like behaviour associated with big personalities”.

One of the DA’s regular mantras is “fit for purpose”, apposite when applied to inept ministers or corrupt cadres. But what about the DA administration? Last year Helen Zille made a comeback as the federal council chair. Yet for a party that likes to sound businesslike, with her record of “succession planning” would she have survived so long in business?

First there was the debacle when she was party leader of Zille parachuting in Mamphela Ramphele as the DA’s presidential candidate. That lasted five days. Then two successive young black leaders bowed out — Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane, both of whom she had fostered, making clear that they felt they had not been allowed to emerge from under her shadow. Were Zille to have been, say, CEO of Absa, would the chairperson or board have simply overlooked such dismal “succession” bungles, and then actually have recalled her from semiretirement to take over the most powerful organisational job?

Abuse is no substitute for argument and a thesaurus of invective is a poor way for the DA to make the best use of newspaper columns

This is apart from Zille’s record of vote-shedding tweets about colonialism or her crass and untrue tweet in June that, “there are more racist laws than under apartheid”. Whatever her past successes, tactically and in terms of good governance, is the party’s top administrative official really “fit for purpose”? It is not just black leaders who have voiced concerns. Athol Trollip, former DA parliamentary leader, resigned in October 2019 as federal chairperson with the observation that Zille suffered from “excessive hubris”.

Trollip also remarked that the DA faced “a racial trust deficit”. The party’s recent decision to expunge reference to race as a proxy for poverty or disadvantage prompted Business Day’s Carol Paton to suggest that denying race will not make SA a better country. This produced an irate rebuttal from Steenhuisen, accusing her of “poor analysis, wild assumptions and political bias”. (“DA is an alternative to the ANC, not an alternative ANC”, September 9).

Not satisfied with a personal verbal mugging, Steenhuisen broadened his attack: “But it seems many of the journalists and editors who have given us tens of thousands of words on state capture by the ANC in recent years have themselves been captured by the ANC.”

Abuse is no substitute for argument and a thesaurus of invective is a poor way for the DA to make the best use of newspaper columns. If that’s the DA public face of responding to criticism, it lends credibility to Ntuli’s accusations against party leaders of a “cult-like” intolerance of internal criticism. “A strange phenomenon,” she said, “in a party that prides itself in being liberal and open to contestation of ideas and debate.”

There are other essential debates to be had. Harvard professor Michael Sandel, in his recent book,The Tyranny of Merit, maintains that even a meritocracy has a demoralising side. With the highly educated (the “credentialled”) an increasingly entrenched elite, he says the “implication is that those who do not rise will have no-one to blame but themselves”.

Sandel partly ascribes the precipitous rise of populism in the West to a working-class fear of being permanently left behind; of “the fabled level playing field” remaining a mirage. In the West, those insurgent “non-credentialled” are mostly white. In SA, faced with truly dire economic prospects and possibly unsustainable levels of unemployment, what is the likely colour of any future phalanx of enraged “non-credentialled”? The DA, mostly still a party of the “credentialled”, has precluded itself from identifying such a crisis by race and therefore of addressing any serious social unrest in a way that would be credible to the “non-credentialled” (overwhelmingly black). In a country still obsessed with race and simmering with tensions, it seems the DA has abandoned the field to thoroughly unscrupulous racial populists.

White coterie

Instead, mentioning “black” regarding redress, a major U-turn from attempting to promote black leaders is to be abjured as a liberal heresy. This will prove a challenge when seeking votes in townships. Perhaps it will be like those parlour games with penalties for uttering a specific word: that is, discuss for five minutes the biggest beast in the bush without saying “elephant”. This linguistic quibble seems prissy and self-righteous.

Racism, said the late African-American writer James Baldwin, is a “moral plague”. SA has been suffering from this moral epidemic for 368 years. To have a mostly white coterie of politicians who benefited from systemised racial injustice lecture black South Africans that it is a liberal profanation to refer to race seems provocative.

Zille knew, once upon a time, that what the DA needed to progress was a charismatic black leader. It didn’t work out, so instead we are presented — often in hectoring tones — with ideological justifications and semantic contortions. If race really isn’t a factor, the DA should start by educating their own, more retrograde, white supporters who are not shy, when they think they are in safe company, of expressing views on those whose pigment may no longer be cited in polite circles.

What current DA leaders fail to grasp is that not all critics are ANC fellow travellers. Some are merely appalled that the official opposition, by not facing race head-on, lacks the ambition to present itself as a viable alternative government: neither now, nor next year, but for the day the ANC finally self-destructs. Instead, imitating Groucho Marx, the DA has thrown down a challenge: “Who are you going to believe — me or your own eyes?”

• Rostron is a journalist and author.

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