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