Gwen Ngwenya
Gwen Ngwenya

The battle for the heart and soul of the DA

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.

David Harrison (M&G)

David Harrison (M&G)

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”.

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    • Pierre Burger

      Another on-point article. Gwen is fast becoming my favourite local columnist.

    • SpiritOfNehanda

      Ok, another tough article to read or maybe I don’t get it: In the beginning there, this article is making a suggestion as to how best the DA can campaign for a better result by talking more about the economy rather than race because race is their weakness and talking about the economy is for the intellectually intelligible few. How do you win a national election is S.A like that? On race, it seems you suggest that whether they are really racist or imagined to be, what matters here is that they make it to power, that’s all. How does a POLITICAL PARTY in S.A talk about the economy in great detail without raising issues around race? Funny how somewhere in this article while talking about the economy we find statements statements like: “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”…

    • Manu

      Politics is about serving interests.
      In a deeply racially unequal society it stands to reason that race and racial inequality will be a big issue of interest for the majority.
      To say that you are creating jobs, improving service delivery and providing clean government rings hollow if you don’t frame it in the context of racial inequality.
      I say this because it’s simplistic to think that the majority just want more jobs and better service. unless those jobs and services raise the dignity of their lives then what’s the point?

      At the moment the DA’s message seems to be “We will improve your life, full stop”.
      What people want to hear is “We will improve your life so that it’s as good as that of everyone”. This shows commitment to an equal society.

      Finally, it’s important to have principles. But it’s equally important to have values (fairness, justice, etc.,). Not having proper values is what go South Africa into this mess.

    • Doom

      Unlike you I may not understand economics but I do understand logic and logically speaking your argument entails conclusions that you may not intend or maybe you do intend making those conclusions but in a surreptitious way, either way your conclusions have been made and we must judge you on them. First and foremost, you exhibit hubris of the highest order, your contempt for the average South African, the uneducated South African is astounding. I am not sure if you proof read your argument but you stopped short of suggesting that people unlike you, the very few economically inclined (educated) should be barred from voting because they equivocate between substantive (economical) and non-substantive (racial) issues. If you couple this statement with the one about the demographic composition of the ANC and DA and the policy discrepancy between these two parties, you are implying and ironically so in an article about the stupidity of race in considering issues of governance (policy) that race is somehow a factor in making the right choices about government and governance. Just in case I am accused of overlooking the statement about the change in the DA’s demographic composition, its nothing more than the self-aggrandizing, myth of meritocracy rhetoric that is recited by the lucky black few who have made it and made it solely on their own steam, I could make the same claim but a little reflection has led me to the conclusion that this would be disingenuous.
      Secondly for a self-confessed liberal your essay smacks of paternalism (libertarian paternalism perhaps like behavioural economist Richard Thaler), again this contention, my contention is derived from what I feel (see) your argument entails. By making a distinction between the substantive and the non-substantive and then suggesting that the focus should be on the substantive and that only a few have the skills to weigh in on the substantive, you are suggesting that those with the skills to make claims about the substantive ought to judge or decide for those without the skills and this is problematic. In a democracy one has to suffer the unenlightened and their contribution, maybe not malign them maybe enlighten them but that’s only assuming they can be enlightened.
      Thirdly and finally this article is a thinly veiled allegory about South Africa and not the DA. The DA typifies some of the tensions inherit in South Africa and thus is a perfect analog but lets be real this is about South Africa as a country and society. What should South Africans accept? I would argue that if the ANC is unacceptable because its focus is solely on race, the DA is equally unacceptable because it seeks to ignore or rather downplay the impact of race or racism. ignoring race and its impact on development is tacit support for trickle down economics which by the way isn’t supported or vindicated by the existence of a few “exceptional” black people who have made it, its more telling that only a few black people have made it. We need a third way a three out of three way, two out of three isn’t bad but isn’t bad is not good.

    • Mo Haarhoff

      Hits the nail on the head. No party can monitor every voter.

    • EGB

      Don’t expect the world to rush to the rescue of South Africa’s minorities. The West is having a hard enough time resolving its own racial/colonial legacies. Far better to shore up the safety and constitutional rights of minorities, in the South African courts. And to chip away at the ANC government’s credibility and support. There are plenty of stumbling blocks to put in the way of the “progressive” totalitarians.

    • Felix Furtak

      Just on a sideline: I was born in Germany in 1962, so I am worlds apart ( pun intended ) from Gwen in time and space :( However we not only share a common humanity, but Meatloaf, which evokes very fond teenage memories, yet it serves to describe our current political issues. While not officially administered by the doctor, music is the most wonderful unification agent.

    • Jaap Folmer

      Race is irrelevant.

      (Yes, yes, I know: that is hard to realize there in SA. You are sooo steeped in all this race stuff…)

      The DA is arguably the most racially diverse organization South Africa has ever known. The one where race is more irrelevant than elsewhere. That is not a liability ‘that you can’t win’, that’s a strength!

      How come the ANC was never been successful in gaining the trust of the minorities? In that sense they have been like the Republican Party here in the US: diversity is not exactly their strength… Latino or African-American support is almost non-existent.