DA leader Mmusi Maimane at the party's federal congress held inTshwane at the weekend. Picture: MASI LOSI
DA leader Mmusi Maimane at the party's federal congress held inTshwane at the weekend. Picture: MASI LOSI

The DA congress in Tshwane at the weekend attempted to strike a compromise on the issue of diversity, a kind of code for SA’s most acute issue of political debate, race.

The stakes were extremely high. The issue has two important dimensions for the party because its growth depends on becoming more of a home to black voters, which would probably be more likely if it explicitly supported an ANC-like quota system. On the other hand, adopting that kind of approach would wrench the party away from its own declared principles and also the principles of classical liberalism.

What the party came up with constitutes a compromise between the two poles. The party constitution was amended twice, once to insert the phrase: "The party will continue to take active steps to promote and advance diversity in its own ranks."

Later in the constitution, it added to its existing commitment to reject "unfair discrimination on any grounds and the redress of past discrimination", but "without recourse to rigid formulae or quotas". It was a neat solution to an escalating problem, but in some ways it will disappoint both sides.

For the DA, the problems of the future probably require an adaptation of classical liberalism, which would not necessarily be a deviation from conceptual liberalism — which has itself mutated over time.

In essence, it takes the DA no further than its existing policy on "diversity" established two years ago, although the policy is now enshrined in its constitution.

In a letter to delegates before the congress, MPs Gavin Davis and Michael Cardo rejected diversity on the basis of race and gender, arguing instead for a diversity of thought. Their position is reflective of classical liberalism and its central pillars: individualism, liberty and equality.

The origins of liberalism lie in its opposition to tyrannical rule in all its different formulations. Yet with the advent of democracy in SA and the enshrinement of civic rights, these are in some ways the problems of the past.

For the DA, the problems of the future probably require an adaptation of classical liberalism, which would not necessarily be a deviation from conceptual liberalism — which has itself mutated over time.

Liberalism is now the world’s dominant philosophy; at least half of the countries on earth are liberal democracies. But in some guises, "liberal" governments support an extensive social safety net. That safety net implicitly takes liberalism beyond the conception of the original founders, who were suspicious of state power because it could easily replicate the tyranny of rule by kings and queens against which they were diametrically opposed.

Davis and Cardo were seeking clear water between the DA’s position and the ANC’s position. What they got was a bit of a messy compromise.

Looking at the problem from the opposite point of view, the problem with declaring yourself in favour of an idea without specific targets or quotas is that change never actually happens. In some ways, the DA’s history contradicts this fear. The party seldom gets credit for the fact that it is by far the most racially diverse in the country. That happened without quotas, so the fear that it may stall now could be unfounded.

Yet, the crucial question for the DA is not only, or not essentially, what its existing supporters think, but what voters who might potentially vote for the party think. What this group wants, in addition to the DA’s other platforms like effective government and sensible economics, is a party in which they feel comfortable and at home.

The DA has made great strides in this area but it remains a slightly alien place for this group. In this sense, by offering a compromise on diversity, the DA has missed the opportunity to send a strong message to these potential voters.

From the point of view of the country, SA needs an opposition that operates effectively and solves the immediate issues of the day like unemployment and education. The DA’s compromise on diversity is probably the best it could achieve realistically at this moment, but it suggests there is still work to be done.