The normally smug and steady Democratic Alliance has over the past month metamorphosised into South Africa’s political equivalent of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

This dizzying plunge through a Verwoerdian time warp was triggered by the Employment Equity Amendment Bill (EEAB), which prescribes swingeing penalties for private sector companies that don’t meet the government’s rigid new targets for racial and gender representativeness.

In “just a jump to the left”, the official opposition, hoping to make inroads on the black vote in 2014 and arguing that the Bill was “completely compatible” with its policies, joined the ANC to vote it through the National Assembly.

In response, over the next few weeks all hell was let loose by the DA’s old guard liberals. Leading the charge were James Myburgh, a former DA researcher who now runs the influential Politicsweb site, Institute of Race Relations analyst Anthea Jeffery, and political commentator RW Johnson.

The language was emotive, claiming the perfidious abandonment of sacred principles. Myburgh wrote of the “racial marginalisation” of minorities and of the DA leadership betraying “its supporters, its history, its principles and, indeed, the future of South Africa itself”.

Former DA leader Tony Leon restrained himself momentarily, and then with a joyful shudder of schadenfreude over the predicament of Helen Zille, his replacement as party leader, joined the fray. In a consummately subtle Business Day column, he without once mentioning Zille by name, compared her “flip-flop” performance unfavourably with the liberal steadfastness of previous DA leaders such as Helen Suzman, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and himself.

Leon’s laudation of Slabbert’s liberal fortitude would have stung particularly. Slabbert was for a long time reviled in liberal circles for almost destroying the Progressive Federal Party, a predecessor of the DA, when he in 1986 he resigned as leader because he felt Parliament and “white” politics had become irrelevant.

Battered by this storm of Transylvanian proportions, the DA leadership initially laid low. Then came the step to the right when the pressure became too much. After a fiery caucus meeting Zille emerged to announce the DA’s withdrawal of support for the suddenly “Verwoerdian” Bill.

It was the parliamentary team that had “dropped the ball”, explained Zille, without a blush. There had been “deficiencies … sequential errors”, and ultimately a “plane crash”.

Although Zille’s disingenuous attempt to blame the parliamentary DA – she is after all the national leader and her alter ego Lindiwe Mazibuko is parliamentary leader – was shabby, it worked. Zille and Mazibuko emerged unscathed from the plane crash and two deputy shadow ministers were shafted instead.

Any sense of victory on the part of the old liberals was short-lived. At last weekend’s DA federal council meeting – talked up by commentators as a battle between the “old guard” and the “black caucus” – it was yet again “a jump to the left”, with perhaps a concessionary little bum wiggle to the right. The DA’s final word, for the moment, is that “race remains a legitimate measure of disadvantage”.

The sop to the DA’s minority-group supporters lay in Mazibuko stressing that race was not a “permanent proxy for disadvantage”, but a “horizon” of which the limits would depend on how successful broad-based black economic empowerment measures were.

Judging by public and media reaction, Zille has emerged from this mad whirl with her reputation a little ragged. But it’s not as simple as that.

Although it has taken some messy zigzagging, it is something of a personal triumph for Zille that she has dragged the DA into a new political dimension. For good or ill, only elections will tell, the DA has been fundamentally transformed. For the first time its policy is based on the fact that in South Africa race defines disadvantage and consequently, restorative action is a necessity.

There is irony in all this. While it is true that the 2013 EAAB is disastrously unworkable and Zille should never have supported it, by this most recent articulation of DA policy Leon should never have opposed the 1998 Act in the first place.

Liberalism, of all ideologies, is not an unchanging religious creed. While remaining anchored in individual rights and freedoms, it has to adapt as best to an ever-changing political terrain. Sure, Zille dropped the ball, but she recovered to score a try.


  • This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day. Follow @TheJaundicedEye.


William Saunderson-Meyer

This Jaundiced Eye column appears in Weekend Argus, The Citizen, and Independent on Saturday. WSM is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times and Business Day....

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