Mondli Makhanya: Let’s make the DA white again

2019-10-07 02:07

It was starkly evident as early as May that something was afoot in certain quarters of the DA.

Not that it wasn’t apparent before.

The signs of a regime change project and a reversal of change had been there for some time as some leaders started making noises about the need for the DA to go back to its former self.

But it was when former leader Helen Zille bemoaned her role in transforming and diversifying the party that it became clear there was nostalgia for the days when the party was whiter and therefore purer.

In a column shortly after the May elections, Zille strangely expressed regret that she had achieved considerable success in transforming the DA, widening its support and pushing for the elevation of black leaders.

This, however, did not stop the party’s detractors from labelling the DA a white party.

In fact, the DA’s expansion of its base had made its opponents more aggressive.

Most regretfully, she said, the diversification and expansion drive had drawn the DA into the politics of racial representivity.

Such representivity was obviously anathema to her.

She wrote that, while “it was absolutely essential” to diversify the party, she had been mistaken to think this “would enable the DA to rise above the politics of race and focus on ... policies that could help South Africa rise above the awful poverty and unemployment it faces”.

Table Talk with Premier of the Western Cape, Helen

“Instead, it got us further entrenched in the ANC’s narrative of getting total racial representivity before we could be accepted as a legitimate party. That was the tiger that I mounted ... I have only myself to blame,” she moaned.

That was the first clear signal that a project was under way by those who believed the party was theirs to reclaim.

Initially, there was clandestine manoeuvring to oust Mmusi Maimane on the basis of a poor election performance and the loss of some wards in municipal by-elections.

This kind of ferment is quite normal in post-election periods as parties conduct post-mortems and identify scapegoats.

And it is quite legitimate to blame a leader for a decline in fortunes.

In the UK and other mature democracies, leaders often voluntarily step down after disappointing results, and others get pushed out by their structures.

But in the case of the DA, the mutiny seems to be driven by racial and ideological imperatives.

Those who want Maimane (and presumably a large cohort of black leaders) out are arguing that the party needs to go back to its liberal roots and that it become a denialist of the country’s apartheid-induced inequality and historical social dysfunction.

Uncomfortable about the mass influx of black members to the ranks and how this is changing the character of the party, the self-proclaimed real liberals are using a return to traditional liberalism as a thin disguise for a return to the past.

mmusi maimane

That, however, was until Institute of Race Relations (IRR) analyst Herman Pretorius shed any pretence as to what the project was about.

The IRR has been closely linked to the stalled idea of forming a breakaway purist liberal party and has been critical of the direction the party has been taking.

It is associated with what may be regarded as the old guard of the DA and was Zille’s employer until Friday.

She now wants to get back into leadership structures.

In an opinion piece published in the IRR’s publication The Daily Friend, Pretorius motivated for Maimane’s removal and for the installation of Western Cape Premier Alan Winde as leader.

He cited Winde’s leadership and governance credentials before moving on to the real reason.

He said that “the seed of the DA’s recovery has been planted by a white man in the Western Cape”, and this man would do the same at national level.

“The white, steady, reliable, white-haired male premier of the Western Cape could, in these uncertain and desperate times, provide that jolt of clarity of purpose for a flailing party,” wrote Pretorius, with not a tinge of shame that he was uttering such despicable nonsense in the year 2019.

He added that Winde’s election to the leadership of the party would somehow kill “the evil of identity” and reintroduce to South African politics the notion that the colour of your skin is irrelevant to whether you can serve your country.

Alan Winde. Picture: Adrian de Kock

With the nation aghast, the DA condemning him and Winde embarrassingly distancing himself from the race-based nomination, it was Zille who stepped forward to defend the blatantly racist intervention by Pretorius.

In about a fortnight, this bruising battle will come to a head and there will be no winner.

If the mutineers win and make the DA white again, they will contribute to the acceleration of the racial polarisation that is gaining momentum in South Africa.

A whitened DA – rather than a diversified one – will be grist to the mill for those who want to play the populist politics of race in the governing party and elsewhere.

Never mind the damage to the DA itself, South Africa’s body politic and discourse will be poorer.

If Maimane and his crew win this battle, the war will not be over.

The mutineers will regroup in the hills, re-arm and launch strike after strike in the hope of eventually taking the city.

The party will be paralysed and permanently at war with itself.

With the ANC stuck in the same rut and expending so much energy on internal issues that it is unable to move the country forward, South Africa will have its two main parties mired in strife and distracted from governance conversations.

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May 31 2020