Two out of three ain’t bad
South Africans are continuously singing the same tune to the DA, to borrow from the artist Meatloaf “I want you, I need you, but there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you”. But unlike South Africans Meatloaf goes on to say, “but two out of three ain’t bad”.
We talk so much about race because everyone can weigh in on race, it is an intellectually forgiving topic. But not everyone (including many “public intellectuals”) can talk intelligibly on the economy. But we should not mistake the issues we are able to vocalise as being the most important. Public discontent (in the form of working-class protest) in South Africa has been the manifestation of economic discontent not racial discontent. The heart and soul of the DA should remain 1) a firm message on jobs and creating an environment of opportunity, 2) service delivery and 3) clean/corruption-free governance. Spin those three value propositions whichever way you choose but they are the lifeblood of the DA’s brand.
Election poker: don’t play a dead hand
It is not a mutually exclusive discussion, but race tends to overshadow the more substantive policy offering of the DA, as it has done. You especially don’t want it sapping the conversational space in an election year, as this is not an issue the DA can win.
In poker, a dead hand is an event that renders the rest of the hand unplayable. Race is that event for the DA. If they give it prominence not much else will be heard, which suits other parties just fine of course. The proposition that race/racism is an unwinnable issue is supported by the often expressed view that black people cannot be racist. With over 90% of white South Africans voting DA, that ipso facto leaves the DA as the only party where race can feasibly be a problem.
It is no secret that the ANC has only one card to play in the forthcoming elections, their trump card is race. The ANC is going to have a very easy time if the DA plays to their area of strength. The last thing we all should be doing is backing the country into a conversational corner where a party is essentially congratulated for being black. They were a predominantly black party 20 years ago, they still are. The DA is demographically not the party it was 20 years ago. This “should” be an issue the DA can win, but let’s not kid ourselves about the chances of a fair assessment here
Whose party is it anyway?
It is incredibly easy to become a card-carrying member of a political party. The term itself should be a give-away as to what party membership means, it means that one literally carries a card. All that separates a lunatic from DA member status is a marginal fee and a form to fill their contact details. It is wilful ignorance to try and understand the culture of a party by reference to individuals that hold no positions of influence, especially when the barriers to entry are so low as to be non-existent. A party should be understood by the leadership it elects, the policies it espouses and how, when in government, they execute and give meaningful expression to those policies.
The township capitalist
The voices of individuals such as Herman Mashaba are important because they remind us of the visceral entrepreneurial spirit in this country. The ubiquitous feature of township life is the man providing telephone and internet services from a corrugated iron container, the women running salons from their homes and selling food. Umlazi is where I grew up as a child so it holds some childhood nostalgia, but one of the memories is being able to be at anyone’s home and ask to buy isiqeda (a flavoured ice cube) or ubamfoqo (chilli chips) and they will point me to a house nearby. Townships because of the way they came about could never be purely residential areas where people just reside. But because they were far from urban centres they had to be themselves marketplaces. The millions of the urban poor in this country grew up with capitalism as a matter of life and death. This is an important point to make in a country that gives a white face to the economy and entrepreneurship and a black face to social grants. It is not an achievement that we have grown the numbers of South Africans on social grants, a sign of success will be encouraging small businesses and the ability to report fewer numbers of people who need direct aid from government.
There is an opportunity to change the colour of ideas in South Africa. To talk jobs, the economy and the financial state of this country is not to abandon what matters to the black majority, it is to reaffirm it. I know no hungrier competitor in the economy than the township capitalist. Now how do we create an environment of opportunity for them, where they can formalise their businesses and scale up?
Those in the DA who believe Mmusi Maimane and the party at large should focus as a priority on the economy and the DA’s governance track record need to hold their nerve, because ultimately they are right. As compared to race these may be sterile issues but they are far more likely to change the material conditions of the majority of South Africans. These issues will also be overshadowed by the race debate. As a potential voter I don’t much care about the internal relationships in a party, there is often no love lost between members of a political party, old and new. A mature political organisation will learn to hold it together on principles and execution even if there is little affection/collegiality. DA members, like South Africans need also accept that when those are the options, then “two out of three ain’t bad”.