Kameel Premhid
Kameel Premhid

The real problem with the DA’s Values Charter

The opportunity for a genuine debate about liberalism in South Africa, started by the DA’s adoption of its Values Charter, is likely to be squandered.

In two separate pieces, MPs Marius Redelinghuys and Gavin Davis, both supporters of new DA Leader Mmusi Maimane, demonstrate the real reason for their staunch defence of the Charter. It is an extension, if not a symbol, of Maimane’s leadership.

On one hand, both Redelinghuys and Davis seek to shut down debate. On the other, they demonstrate a shocking misunderstanding of it.

Redlinghuys scathingly refers to “self-appointed custodians of liberalism” who “pretend to have a monopoly over … ideology and … (advance) a rigid inflexible interpretation of it”. They are guilty of attacking in a way that is “anathematic to the very basic principles of ideology, and (which) at the very least (is) arrogant”. He states, without a hint of irony, that “a dogmatic approach to liberalism is also illiberal.”

His colleague, Davis, has also taken aim at the new leadership’s detractors – notably Wilmot James, who lost the leadership to Maimane. James continues to publicly oppose the Charter. Oddly, Davis writes that “what separates the DA apart … is the culture of open debate that characterises internal elections”. He goes on to write about how James failed to use his prominence within the party to influence the Charter’s contents nor convince colleagues to defeat it. This, Davis writes, should settle the matter. Davis’s conclusion is instructive: “It is important for the DA to engage in robust internal debate … But we must do so in a way that strengthens the party, not weakens it. So when we debate issues, let’s do so honestly and with the best intentions. And when we lose … accept the outcome with good grace.”

Firstly, the language used to characterise opponents is markedly intolerant. It belies a thin-skinned antipathy to criticism.

Secondly, who better to police the meaning of liberalism than liberals themselves? The argument about rigidity is fatuous at best.

Thirdly, the problematic qualification of debate being good only when it is “internal” suggests opinions are only allowed where the party can manage them. Not where the party may lose face, to opponents, even though voters can be best informed.

Fourthly, suggesting well-publicised internal disagreement must stop when the matter is settled by the vote is contemptuous of voters. This notion of unity is artificial and takes voters for fools.

Fifthly, why should debate, which is so good inside the party, be stopped when it goes outside? Surely those benefits continue?

The superficiality of this attitude is thrown into even sharper relief when you consider that the DA accuses the ANC of failing to do this all the time. Why does the DA hypocritically support this double standard?

As for whether the family, as a construct, is concomitantly liberal, both Redelinghuys and Davis miss the point. Redelinghuys writes soporifically of the various strands of liberalism, excruciatingly attempting to identify his own. Davis tries to force a square peg into a round hole through his elaborate, if not tortured, location of families within mainstream liberalism.

This is not the issue. Families are important and only a fool would suggest otherwise. The nuance they fail to grasp is how they reconcile the primacy they now afford families with the kind of individualism the DA used to espouse.

What is notable is the incumbent leadership’s seeming inability to be honest about the transition it has made. Given the minimal effort it would require to say ‘still liberal but of a different strand’ makes this more alarming.

Ironically, the shift makes political sense. The kind of liberalism many critics idealise is at odds with a conservative South Africa. Structures like the family are important.

And even where the DA tries to reconcile these competing strands – by accepting families as essential but leaving individuals to define them – it makes matters worse.

An individual-centric, liberal, criticism of its position may be that its Charter is simultaneously heteronormative and homophobic. By giving primacy to a heteronormative idea of what the end goal of life is, the DA conforms to exclusionary ideas. This is made worse when you consider the significant criticism of co-option the sexual equality agenda to contrarily fit the more ‘acceptable’ heterosexual mould. Consequentialism is a legitimate response to this attack – as the DA will undoubtedly argue – but whether it is honest about that is another question altogether. A reaffirmation of individualism would be the better answer.

The DA cannot straddle both worlds. It can be proud of its liberal history and attempt to break new ground. It just needs to be honest.

If the DA remains intolerant to debate and continues this perilous attempt to walk the tightrope between authenticity and artifice, the danger is that if it fails, South Africa may fail with it.

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