Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Where is the black conservative in South Africa?

By Melo Magolego

The deafening umbrage surrounding the DA’s use of Mandela in DA posters makes me curious. What has made people so flustered about the appropriation of the Mandela brand by the DA?

I find reasons focusing on the veracity and accuracy of the claims about the track record of Helen Suzman wholly uninteresting. So too whether Mandela could be seen as a non-party affiliated icon.

I contend that if a constituency in a party’s voter base is garnered through an awareness of our racialised history, then it is reasonable to expect outrage at a concerted effort to de-racialise voting patterns in this country. The use of Mandela does not chart a new path of de-racialisation for Helen Zille’s DA but is merely another step along that path on which she has been leading the DA (since taking over from Tony Leon).

So why would voting patterns in this country need to be deracialised anyway? Surely if the DA is worthy then the black electorate would naturally coalesce around the DA and the ANC respectively according to policy and ideological proclivities? Or said differently, where is the black conservative in South Africa?

The liberal and conservative divide in politics (more so American) has been characterised by economist Thomas Sowell, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, and philosopher Roger Scruton as being founded of either a Utopian or Dystopian outlook on life.

They argue liberals generally tend to view the human condition as perfectible – but only through the action of a big “movement” (of like-minded people) which wages a “struggle” through an impartial actor such as the State. This sense of perfectibility underlies the Utopian dream that a better world is a State intervention away.

These authors argue conservatives generally tend to view the human condition as doomed and hence each individual should be given the individual rights and freedoms to maximise their own individual interests. Markets are a given since information asymmetries imply no single State actor could ever know enough about the complexities on which it governs. Limited State is also a must since issues of proximity to power mean there cannot be guarantees that State action would not be vested in promoting narrow and special interests.

In this model the ANC is certainly the liberal party which is given to State intervention as is witnessed in its National Democratic Revolution and Developmental State framework. The DA would be the conservative party given its manifesto of an open society founded on “individual freedom” and “limitation of State power”.

Given this model and its inferences, it would seem that there is nothing racially polarising about these dispositions. Then the question is: beyond the liberation euphoria hangover, what reason is there for the overwhelming black support which the ANC enjoys? My reading is that the most visible of the individuals who would be invested in a conservative ideology would be those who have something to conserve (e.g. wealth) and those who have the material means to self-actualise (hence the need for individual freedom). The most visible people who would be simpatico with a liberal ideology would be the downtrodden, who seek a benevolent State to act on their behalf and provide developmental assistance.

So where is the black conservative in South Africa? I think it is likely to rise out of the black diamond middle class. This presents the irony that is the fate of the ANC. The more successful it becomes the more likely it is to lose upwardly mobile voters. On the other hand, the worse it performs the more likely it is to have a grassroots uprising.

The opportunity this dilemma creates is why it is important for the DA not only to seek to de-racialise voting patterns but at the same time actively diversify its leadership corps. The latter is needed to overcome the aversion nascent black conservatives would have to supporting the DA. The DA has since the fall of the National Party unwittingly bore the yoke of responsibility for apartheid. The race difficulties of the DA perhaps are the strategic cleavage within which Mamphela Ramphele seeks to lodge herself.

So how likely is the DA to succeed in this de-racialising endeavour? American race politics fail us on this front precisely because the black population in the US is a single digit percentage of the total population. In seeking a country on whose history we can predict our own fate, an uncannily poignant country is Malaysia.

There the indigenous, ethnically Malay population majority had been an underclass to the economically more prosperous, small minority, ethnically Chinese population. Since independence in 1957 the Barisian Nasional coalition championed race based policies and has successfully won two thirds majority elections since then. The recent 5 May Malaysian election is instructive because it was the first poll in which the opposition Pakatan Rakyat threatened not only to deny two thirds majority to BN, but rather to win the election outright. This election was billed as a referendum on race-based governance versus class-based ideology. The credible affront by PR was attributed to the high number of millennials who are said to be influenced by information readily disseminated through social media and who have no seared experience with outright exclusion.

But alas, BN went on to win its 13th straight victory – race-based policies and all. The DA’s use of other struggling African countries as a predictor of the fate of the ANC may be characteristically Dystopian. On the other hand, Utopia shall have been reached for the ANC when “Jesus comes back”.

Melo Magolego is also a Fulbright scholar. He read his MSc in Electrical Engineering at Caltech. On Twitter: @melomagolego

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    • bernpm

      Mandela is not a brand, just the name of a person. Suzman is also not a brand but a person. Both stood for different ideas for some years. The differences blown up by the other interested arty , the NP.
      The authentic picture used by the DA suggests that the two had touched base outside the political arena.
      Election propaganda has always been riddled with pointed statements or suggestions.
      The ANC has been promising “a better life for all” for years while blatantly excluding a segment of the SA population from the job market. The “race over competency” policies are well defined by the DTI in the AA prescriptions for various industry groups.
      The DA has taken this election opportunity to point to a vary valid event in SA’s history…a suggested approach between two political adversaries. The suggestion cleverly underpinned with an authentic picture confirming the suggestion.
      Mr Fransman seems just have missed the boat on this one. With the current reputation of the the ANC as political and governing party, it will be a hard act to follow.

    • Comrade Koos

      “where is the black conservative in South Africa?” They are currently in power, with their neo-liberal agenda that has kept the gini-coefficient, i.e. gap between rich and poor the same since they took over in 1994.

      “Markets are a given since information asymmetries imply no single State actor could ever know enough about the complexities on which it governs. Limited State is also a must since issues of proximity to power mean there cannot be guarantees that State action would not be vested in promoting narrow and special interests.”

      And you, Melo the Fullbright Scholar and author of this article is another conservative out of touch with reality. You fit in well at California Institute of Technology in the USA (commonly referred to as Caltech) .

    • Sicelo

      An interesting perspective! Would this be the reason why the ANC got rid of Thabo Mbeki AND his ‘Class of 96′ because, central to THIS GROUP’s policies was the development of a ‘conservative’ cadre (middle class or black diamonds) that would sooner than later turn against the ANC? Was this Mbeki group blind to this danger out commitment to pursuance of country people’s needs rather than party?
      With regards current ANC, would this explain the expansion of BEE to BBEEE in order to extend the base for liberalism, alternatively State benefit for those without?
      Is so, could any of it be said to be in the narrow interests of the party above those of the country? It’s a silly question! Sorry.

      With regards the DA, I have absolutely no issue with your shared view as I indeed hold a different viewpoint to that which seeks solely to paint it into a white corner.

    • Steve Woodhall

      Wow there are some really refreshingly different views on Thought Leader recently, this one included. Maybe the ‘hive mind’ way of thinking is really on the wane… certainly hope so! Well said Melo. I wish there were another 25 million like you…

    • Sterling Ferguson

      The ANC has became the conservatives in SA.

    • Mlilo

      The weakness with this input is that it totally ignores history. Unintendly it reveals the author’s age group.

    • Melo Magolego

      @Mlilo the weakness in your comment (about my age) is that it ignores logic. Do old people know history better? Or are they better positioned to contextualise it? Perhaps it is your age group that is unwittingly exposed by your input?

      If my contribution is wanting of historical context that is a fair subjective assessment. However it is a non sequitur to comment about my age.

    • Melo Magolego

      @comrade koos if conservatism a priori is out of touch with reality then Helen Zille should be told to retire because she is wasting her time. If blacks writing about alternative ideologies is out of touch then are we not risking replacing the white supremacist hegemony with a liberal one?

      If my comments specifically show me to be out of touch with reality then that is fine. If writing about conservatism necessarily makes one a conservative then we are living in a country that is a time-bomb. Precisely because such a view implies actors which can’t look at issues from other perspectives

    • Melo Magolego

      @Sicelo beyond Mbeki’s personality there are issues of people still beholden to the Marxist theory of State. That is part of the reason the Class of 96 project is so hated. The ANC has abandoned this theory of State and are looking at a hybrid through its Developmental State framework.

    • Gareth Setati

      Great read Melo. Much enjoyed.

      I thought to discuss the following point you made: “So where is the black conservative in South Africa? I think it is likely to rise out of the black diamond middle class. This presents the irony that is the fate of the ANC. The more successful it becomes the more likely it is to lose upwardly mobile voters.”

      I think the issue about a developmental state ultimately derives from Sen’s influential and powerful “capabilities approach” to development, and of course the subsequent adoption of the World Bank through the Comprehensive Development Framework (CDF). Of course from a public policy perspective, this approach has since become consensus among development economists, and this for good reasons which I suppose you know already. The developmental state is therefore here to stay in my view.

    • Gareth Setati

      As such, if we act in good faith, which I don’t see why we shouldn’t, the ANC will continue its proclaimed efforts to improve the “substantive freedoms” of South Africans, especially of black people. In doing this, indeed the black middle class will expand, but whether this expansion means that the ANC is “more likely to lose upwardly mobile voters” is something we cannot determine with the amount of certainty you come across, and therefore it is surely a fallacy of insufficient statistics – leaping to a conclusion?

      It isn’t impossible that the upwardly mobile could well become greatful of what the ANC has done to uplift them out of their deprivation traps, and while at it also agree with the direction the ANC is taking the nation.

    • Jack Sparrow

      Melo, I am amused at how you seemingly accept that the ANC is a race based party based on your Malaysian comparison. However I think that the reason for the ANC support is more complex; the race card is just one factor used mainly for scare mongering, blame diversion and cadre enrichment. More important is that the ANC government has brought improvements to many South Africans, the majority of whom happen to be black, as are the majority of SA’s population (duh). But, like in Zim, this majority does not maybe see, for whatever reasons, where ANC policies, corruption, dishonesty and greed are leading SA. Like Zim, they will get the government they deserve and, like Zim, still continue to vote for the ANC / ZANU PF. That is more difficult for me to understand.

    • Melo Magolego

      @Gareth Setati regarding that (the ANC’s) success might actually engender loyalty, I agree. I also agree that it is presumptuous to say middle class people will flee the ANC. However what I am saying is that conservative politics is a better ideological fit for the middle class hence why if there is going to be a defection “it is likely to come from the black diamond middle class”

    • Melo Magolego

      @Jack Sparrow the ANC was founded as an organisation to advocate the concerns of black people. This was after Generals Louis Botha, De la Rey, Christian de Wet and company formed a Union which excluded blacks. The ANC got its multi racial character with its introduction to the Communist party (circa 1940s) which strongly advocated a class based analysis. This then set it up as a movement for the poor which largely happened to be black. Since then it has become an all encompassing movement. The ANC in its policies and behaviour is not racist. However it does use race (justifiably so) in formulating some of its policies. Hence it is a race based party by that measure. The Barisian Nasional coalition has also uplifted the entire Malaysia and more so the indigenous Malays (since they are more populous – duh). The alternative is the DA where everyone is colourless and only measurable by the size of their pockets.

    • Andre

      I like the article, and I see hope for the Internet and the social media revolution to empower the growing and now information rich millennials to affect meaningful political change. We have already seen what has happened in the Arab Spring. It is increasingly difficult for governments to control and hide things (ask Obama). To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln…‘You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time, especially with Twitter.’

    • Brendan

      Huzzah! Lucid and thorough (I can recognise a fellow engineer with that succinct, logical, plain style). It is an interesting thing about democracy that you brought up. When lots of people are poor, they will vote for someone who will take away the taxes of the rich and build free houses. And when they are wealthy, the will vote for someone who gives them the freedom to keep and use their wealth for their own devices. What a dilemma!

      But the ANC need not worry about anyone but the EFF for now. The DA is probably about to hit a ceiling on votes. I think. They have tried out the youth wage subsidy idea, and maybe if they push it again, they can nab some votes from our large young population. Or the EFF will come up with something more radical for our revolutionary, crowd-gathering tendencies. I think it’s going to come down to an ante on social welfare promises, accusations of racism or incompetence either way, and filling up soccer stadiums for 2014. And old Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times…