DA leader Mmusi Maimane during a sitting of parliament on February 2018. PICTURE: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
DA leader Mmusi Maimane during a sitting of parliament on February 2018. PICTURE: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
Image: Esa Alexander

SA doesn’t exactly have a shortage when it comes to bizarre and ridiculous stories, especially around issues of identity, specifically race. But very few beat the story that broke on Sunday that a DA member seeking inclusion in the party’s election list was asked to prove her race.

South Africans of a certain age will have some memories of the arbitrary cruelty that characterised the worst of the apartheid years, from the notorious pencil test to stories of family members being separated because a difference in skin complexion saw them being designated as separate “races”, and were therefore required in terms of the Group Areas Act to reside in different areas based on their presumed ethnic background.

So when that news report emerged, it would have come as a shock to those people. For that generation, one of the liberating things about the not-so-new SA is that their children are not subjected to the humiliation of carrying identity documents that assign them to a particular race. So how one can “prove” their race is unclear.

That’s not to say, race is not a complicated issue in this country. It can only be thus, with the still unresolved issue of how to undo the legacy and injustice of apartheid, while at the same time trying to forge a common identity. 

The DA’s dilemma is one that faces every citizen, business and political party in this country.   

This could lead to another storm, but two months ahead of the general elections, the party has to put its head down and act against those who arbitrarily damage its image.

For the party, the episode immediately raised the need for it to get some policy discipline and act against members whose utterances stand contrary to the very foundations it’s built on, at least its liberal wing.

News that Hannah Winckler, a constituency officer who applied to stand for election as an MP, complained to KwaZulu-Natal leader Zwakele Mncwango that another leader had asked her to prove she is coloured, rightly led to an outcry from within the party.

The DA has come a long way in touting itself as a party for all South Africans.

To demand proof of a member’s race therefore goes against what it is supposed to stand for. The list processes in itself is tough enough for the party, which has to balance its commitment to nonracism with leader Mmusi Maimane’s pledge that it would submit diverse lists to the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC). 

This could lead to another storm, but two months ahead of the general elections, the party has to put its head down and act against those who arbitrarily damage its image. It has high ambitions for the May 8 polls, hoping to install premiers in Gauteng, the Northern Cape and grow its support in the Western Cape.

A poll released on Wednesday by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), however, shows that this is not going to be so easy, predicting that there will be no outright winner in Gauteng, with the ANC sitting on 41.6% and the DA on 32.4%. But the DA is also going to have to work extra hard in its stronghold the Western Cape, which it took in 2014 with an outright majority, getting 59.4%. The IRR’s current poll show it at 50.1%.

While it needs to invigorate its supporters in the run up to the polls, contradictory behaviour by party members could stymie this.

James Selfe, the party’s federal executive chair, in a letter sent out to DA structures ahead of its national manifesto launch, called on party members to remain focused and disciplined.

The orders he gave were clear. He said the electorate expected the DA to do the work and not engage in internal wrangling, which was a reference to the fall-outs on social media in which some party members had been embroiled in over the past year.

It is very clear that the party leaders know the stakes are high as SA heads to the polls. Now it just has to deal with those who continue to tarnish its brand.