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Black liberals’ big DA-lemma: Race, ideology and breaking ranks

Who does Lindiwe Mazibuko think she is, running to become the DA’s new parliamentary leader?

Let’s face it: the DA is not considered a white party just because of its history. Its liberal, economically right-of-centre ideology is also a large part of the problem.

The truth is, if you vote left of centre in South Africa, you’re almost certainly black.

But who are you if you don’t?

Mazibuko’s ambitious stance exposes the uncomfortably persistent linkage between politico–economic and ethnic identity; so much so, in fact, that an ANC MP once told her she should consider leaving the DA and “coming home”. But the more liberal black South Africans reject such calls for spurious ethnic loyalty, the better it will be for the country, and even the ANC itself.

South Africa is not alone in its ethno-political deadlock.

In the north-east European country of Latvia, for example, voting left means you’re probably an ethnic Russian. That leaves an entire half of the political spectrum de-facto off-limits to the majority of its ethnically-Latvian citizens.

How many black South Africans are put off from voting DA by the threat of being seen as race traitors? Probably about as many as there are socialist-inclined ethnic Latvians prevented from voting their conscience for fear of becoming branded as a Russian fifth column.

A quick bit of background:

After breaking away from the Soviet Union, which had taken over their country after World War II, Latvians developed an aversion to anything that reminded them of their former bondage. And since a socialist ideology was the USSR’s defining characteristic, parties representing left-wing ideas became politically toxic for most Latvians.

But the ethnic Russians who make up a third of the country’s population have no such misgivings about the Soviet legacy. Often discriminated against and generally poorer and less upwardly mobile than their ethnic Latvian counterparts, Russian Latvians tend to support left-wing parties offering social protections and public services, as well as emotional links to the socialist past.

As a result, working-class Latvians who would otherwise vote socialist end up supporting the more right-wing, but ethnically acceptable, parties, while successful Russian entrepreneurs can’t embrace a pro-business but ethnically Latvian party without being branded turncoats.

In South Africa as in Latvia, the simple and banal act of voting another way can often be taken as a betrayal of your very origins and identity. That is a deeply unfair and unnecessary burden to carry for any citizen of a democratic republic, one that falls on blacks and whites alike.

Like Latvia’s leftists, the DA is a party tainted by its links to an old oppressor and the economic interests of the former oppressor class. But support for lower taxes, a smaller state and a liberal-democratic politics is winning favour among many of South Africa’s formerly oppressed too, who do not deserve to be portrayed as illegitimate or complicit simply because of their views or aspirational lifestyles. Guilt by association, never a good idea, is particularly baleful in politics, because it jeopardises the unprejudiced battle of ideas that is the very lifeblood of democracy.

When Nina Simone famously celebrated being “young, gifted and black” in the 1970s, the phrase was still considered an oxymoron by America’s white establishment.

Today, being educated, liberal and black is the big taboo for South Africa’s black establishment. Yet such people exist, and their numbers are growing; telling them to “come home” is patronising denialism.

Yet ironically, the more Mazibukos and Maimanes start “defecting” to the DA, the better it will be for the soul of the ANC.

That’s because only when the ANC is forced to stop relying on guilt trips and blind ethnic loyalty for the support of the black middle class will its policies begin to seek a universal appeal, and start targeting DA voters of all colours who might otherwise be sympathetic to ANC ideas but put off by its overpowering identity politics.

The more black South Africans join the DA, the less room there will be for the party’s residual racists to influence the agenda and the less believable Malema-style calls to equate all political opposition with treason will become.

No political ideologies or belief systems should be off-limits to anyone. After all, no individual is an automaton, programmed by history, identity, ethnicity or even economic self-interest to act in one pre-determined, “correct” way. By disrupting the link between appearance and political substance, it’s precisely the so-called “coconuts” and other bold stereotype-breakers that can help prevent identity-based and racist demagoguery.

Discrimination will only end when it becomes impossible to tell how someone thinks, loves and earns based on how they look, what language they speak, or what surname they carry. Of course, that’s still a long way off, but making it impossible to tell how they vote is a big step in the right direction.


  • Journalist Vadim Nikitin claims to be working on a book about nostalgia. He blames his poor judgement and unhealthy obsession with the past on having been born perilously close to the Soviet Union's largest nuclear submarine base.


  1. Sterling Ferguson Sterling Ferguson 30 September 2011

    @Bara, studies around the world have shown that a large number of people don’t always vote their interest. The US is a good example of what I am talking about the poor white are voting for people in government that are against their interest. Why would a lot of poor whites in the US be against health care and aid to education?

  2. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 30 September 2011

    If there is one consistency in South African politics it is that political parties have formed co-elitions, and split, and changed – over, and over, and over again.

    Zulu – are you teaching your children history or myths and political propaganda? For instance do you teach your children that Shaka killed thousands of blacks, but not one white? Or that his favourite white friend, who was the first white man he saw on a horse,and the first person to show him a mirror and a gun, Flynn, was a renegade white reputed to be trading slaves with the Arabs up north and getting a supply of black slaves from Shaka?

  3. Belle Belle 1 October 2011

    @ Life

    Fronting occurs when a white business lists their black cleaner or gardener as a director. Are you saying that Lindiwe Mazibuko is a tea-girl?

    You make cogent points about the reality of our economy and nation. But then you make an irrational, fact-free statement that the DA will make the poor poorer and rich richer – ironically this is exactly what the ANC has done since 1994.

    Imagine if we all voted ANC? Mugabe first turned Zimbabwe into a one-party state before destroying the country. Do you not believe we need the balance of strong opposition?

    I vote only to strengthen opposition, because somebody’s got to. Helen Zille, replying to a question from Chris Barron, said she would stop voting for the DA if they begain heading towards a 2/3 majority. Me too.

  4. nguni nguni 2 October 2011

    @ Life: you seem to have 1/2 a brain but you still vote for the ANC? Your reasons for not voting for the DA (rich getting richer, fronting) are things that are happening under ANC rule, not DA.
    @ Tumi, and all the others fixated on transformation as their reason for voting ANC: it’s all gone far too far and fast already: already the impression is that any black in a decent job in SA is there because of his/her skin colour, not because of his abilities. The mess-ups in higher management, politics, the judiciary are all due to uncritical transformation, with blacks doing jobs (or not doing them in the case of the judiciary as 90% of cases are not completed) they are simply not competent enough to do. If you really want to see meaningful, permanent change then we must revert to the original american rules of AA: Jobs to be given on merit. Only if you have 2 candidates with the same qualifications of different race THEN let the black have the job or training position. Only this way would blacks earn the respect they desperately seek.

  5. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 2 October 2011

    The unequality between black and white is not caused by whites but by history, geography and culture.The blacks migrated to Africa in canoes across the Indian ocean; the whites in ocean going vessels accross the Atlantic (the most inhospitable ocean on the planet, not navigable by canoe). Blacks then migrated down Africa, leaving the area of the Congo in about the 16th century.

    The inequality is the inequality of the Congo culture to European culture – tribaisml against industrialisation.

    South African blacks have in fact more advantages than blacks of the Congo – more white settlers meant more development of schools, hospitals, roads, agriculture and mining.

    SA blacks must be compared in advantages to blacks of the Congo; SA whites to whites of the welfare states of Britain and Europe.

    Otherwise you are comparing apples with pears.

  6. Mandrake Mandrake 3 October 2011

    just read the first few lines of this blog and realised you have no clue…This is a Zille tactic and nothing more.

    and btw, Lindiwe is as liberal as they come. She’s what you term your new age darkie. speaks the queen’s tongue fluently, degree at UCT and probably has more white friends than black. If the DA didn’t have that “white stigma” you’d probably have more of “us” lining up for application forms. maybe Lindiwe is what the DA needs to get more black voters and i’d play that card as well if i was Helen.

    for South Africa to move out of the Dark Ages i applaud Zille’s shrewdness by pushing forward Lindiwe. it might not work, but its worth trying

  7. MLH MLH 3 October 2011

    In any discussion we all seem to retreat to one of two sides, which probably emphasises our need for functional alternatives. The need to slate the ‘other’ seems insurmountable. Time is probably about all that could remedy that notion. I hope we all have it on our side.
    Lindiwe Mazibuko is one of a new generation, as is Malema and for me, that’s what counts. I’d prefer to judge our future of the quality of the people likely to become our future leaders than on two existing political parties. With so much still so wrong in this country, I don’t believe either can get it all right immediately. I simply believe one is doing a better job than the other at this moment.

  8. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 3 October 2011

    A sound way into the many issues raised by this article is to think beyond the explanation we’re usually given for the way people vote; to forget also the idea that they vote the way they do because they are ‘stupid’ and do not understand where their own interest(s) lie; and, finally, to reject the idea that, whichever way they vote at this time, they are incapable of changing.

    The truth is one ‘simple’ answer is unlikely to be correct on its own and even less to be the correct answer longer term.

  9. Paul Whelan Paul Whelan 3 October 2011

    A sound way into the many issues raised by this article is to think beyond the explanation we’re usually given for the way people vote; to forget also the idea that they vote the way they do because they are ‘stupid’ and do not understand where their own interest(s) lie; and, finally, to reject the idea that, whichever way they vote at this time, they are incapable of changing.

    The truth is one ‘simple’ answer is unlikely to be correct on its own and even less likely to be the correct answer longer term.

  10. Psalm Psalm 3 October 2011

    @ Sterling Ferguson

    I agree with you that the DA is a party that is most likely to impose (for that is what “leftists” often excel at) on Africans, what the Dems in US have showered on the African-American community. The Dems seem to consider abortion clinics a primary healthcare for African-Americans. It is the type of primary healthcare concern that the DA might embrace, but I certainly would not.

    Don’t even get me started on “education” by the Dems… I would have to have a 2 digit IQ to support some of their “educational” policies. Mind you, this, in a first world country where many kids leave school barely literate. But, alas, you seem to think that the DA taking a more Dem-like approach would be great.

    I think that perhaps you should reserve your pity for yourself, not for me…

  11. X Cepting X Cepting 3 October 2011

    @Psalm – The illiteracy of post-schoolers in America is a legacy of the Republicans, not the Democrats. Some of the highest education levels are found in countries that fully embracy socialism or social democratism. The only education the right, in the form of Nationalists and Republicans, excel at is military and religious. The idea of an abortion clinic being considered primary healthcare for anyone by anyone is just silly. These have increased with the feminist movements and women’s demands to have choice over their own lifes.

    The DA IS a democratic party and do not need to move that way. Are you just being arbitrary out of sheer contrariness or actually interested in a better future for the country?

  12. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 3 October 2011


    Welcome back – where have you been? I missed you!

  13. Mpumzo Mpumzo 3 October 2011


    Just a quick note: in my reading of your article, I detected a conflation of the issue of race and the issue of ethnicity. The call for Lindiwe to join the ANC was a racial call (move from a perceived “white” party to a perceived “black” party. Ethnicity is a separate but related issue. More importantly, the issue of ethnicity divides Black people amongst themselves. Such divisions, as you know, exist in the ANC in the form of the Zulu versus Xhosa rivalry, and the perception of the Sotho groups (Sotho, Tswana, Pedi) of Nguni domination (Zulu, Xhosa, and to a lesser extent Swazi and Ndebele) in the ANC.

  14. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 4 October 2011

    The main leaders of the ANC were not Xhosa, but Fingo (Mfengu), who were slaves of the Xhosa, detribalised blacks, who identified most with Black Power America.

    They lost their lands under Shaka, fled to the Xhosa, who used them as slaves/servants, fled to to whites , who gave them land as a barrier between white settlers and the Xhosa, and then took the same land away under apartheid and tried to re-tribalise them.

    They were called Fingo because the tip of the little finger of the left hand was removed to differ them from the Xhosa.

    Thabo Mbeki and Bishop Tutu are Fingo, and so was the grandmother who brought up Winnie Mandela.

  15. X Cepting X Cepting 4 October 2011

    @Mpumzo – You consider “white people” to be a race and “black people” to be another? Hmmm, interesting, Verwoerd and the other racists had exactly the same strange simplistic ideas of race. The ANC is starting to sound more and more like the old Nats, strange that the two parties did not get on better or eventually merged?

  16. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 4 October 2011

    X Cepting

    Black people being one race and whites another is the whole basis of the Black Power Civil Rights movement of the USA under Malcolm X – who identified the weakness in the United Nations as each country having one vote (whether a debtor country of 2 million people, or a creditor country of 400 million people) and the way that Muslim Blacks could take over the world from Christian Whites.

    Which ignores black Christians, like the Ethiopians; and white Muslims, like the Arabs (genetically classified as white).

  17. Psalm Psalm 6 October 2011

    @ X Cepting

    Actually, based on the fact that AFRICAN-Americans are openly drawing attention to the Dems’ approach on abortion and the devastating effect that it is having on the African-American community, I think I will take their views over yours any day.

    Furthermore, on education, perhaps you should read up on the practice of Dems, before endulging in your rather bizarre stereotypes. Boy, you sound like Obama with his foot-in-mouth comment about “bitter” people with “guns” and their Bibles.

    I maintain, I would not vote for the DA and its whiff of anti-Christian social liberalism (leftism) if you paid me – full stop.

  18. Joe Joe 24 October 2011

    @Peter Win

    “How much South African history have you read ?

    Where on earth did you get the notion that the DA “is a party tainted by its links to an old oppressor” ? Which oppressor ? The Nats ? They joined the ANC – and the DA has never associated with them at all.

    Come on…”

    -I love it when people boast about their ignorance.

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