/OPINION: The DAs stance on equal opportunity continues to be misunderstood

OPINION: The DAs stance on equal opportunity continues to be misunderstood

2019-11-28 09:47

When the DA speaks of promoting “equality of opportunity”, we do not mean that everyone already has equal opportunities, but that everyone should have equal opportunities, writes Zakhele Mbhele.

In responding to
Ralph Mathekga’s opinion piece “DA’s classical liberalism borders on
classical lunacy”, it is important to start with the clarification that
while the DA may have many members and supporters who identify as classical
liberals, we do not define ourselves as a classical liberal party.

The Democratic
Alliance is a liberal democratic party that embraces a broad liberalism, probably
best captured in the Alan Paton quote: “By liberalism, I don’t mean the creed of any party or any
century. I mean a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to
comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the
worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of

This broad
liberal tradition encompasses a spectrum from libertarians to social liberals
to social democrats who share a core set of values and principles on which all
agree, anchored in the primacy of individual freedom. The diversity of opinion
and ideas within that tradition enriches debate, while contestation sharpens
ideas and arguments for or against different approaches.

Dr Mathekga
unfortunately betrays a profound misunderstanding of liberalism. Even if one
was to confine oneself to the classical liberal strain of it, its approach in
governance would indeed be to “address the historical challenges of inequality” which exist
as legacies of colonialism and apartheid, based on the reasoning to follow.

In liberal philosophy, the role of the state is two-fold: firstly,
to protect, uphold and give substance to the rights and freedoms of all
individuals and secondly, to ensure consequence and
restitution/reparation/redress for any violation of those rights.

That is why even the most purist of minarchist libertarians would
generally agree that it is right and proper for the state to run and maintain a
police service and independent courts to dispense justice (ensuring rights
protection and restitution for the violation thereof), as well as a national
defence force (deterring and, if needed, rebuffing rights violations by a
foreign aggressor, be it a state or non-state actor).

This restitution/reparation/redress role of the state
is the moral premise for it to tackle structural disadvantage because any
substantively and historically informed analysis of South Africa, which Dr
Mathekga correctly characterises as being an abnormal society, would recognise
that the status quo is in many ways the product of past acts of uncompensated
theft and violence.

Since restitution/reparation/redress is
inherent and core to the role of the state in liberal thought, in terms of
ensuring justice when an individual’s rights are violated, the substantive
agenda of any liberal government would be redress for the legacy of past
dispossession; in a sense to deal with the backlog of justice that should have
been meted out previously by the state.

Redress is the state playing catch-up for failing to do its proper
duty in the past. Redress is about ensuring that justice delayed does not in
fact become justice denied. This understanding would be shared by liberals
across the spectrum; where the contestation and debate would begin is the how of giving effect to it, with those
of libertarian leaning towards promoting vouchers to ensure that all people
have the means to be purchasing power-bearing consumers with choice in, and
equitable access to, the market of goods and services, while social
liberals/social democrats would be more inclined to direct state delivery of
goods and services like education, health, transport and housing.

Dr Mathekga is also patently wrong in
describing the DA’s approach as one of “treating people equally irrespective of
the conditions in which they find themselves”. Rather, we have been
explicit and fulsome in our commitment to promoting “positive liberty”,
as articulated by the liberal thinker Isaiah Berlin. Indeed, one of the DA’s
longstanding slogans which expresses that commitment is our vision for all
South Africans to have “Freedom You Can Use”. As Helen Zille said in
her speech at the opening of the 2012 DA Federal Congress, “Freedom is
hollow if people who suffered under apartheid remain trapped in poverty… freedom
means nothing unless it is Freedom You Can Use to build a better life.”

Values Charter, contained in the DA Federal Constitution, codifies this understanding
in saying that “[a]ccess to opportunity gives life and meaning
to our hard won freedoms” and we fully recognise that “[a] society
cannot be fair if there exists large-scale inequality”. So when we speak
of promoting “equality of opportunity”, we do not mean that everyone already has equal opportunities. We mean
that everyone should have equal opportunities
and thus redress policies must be implemented to benefit those who are unfairly
disadvantaged, especially by socio-economic circumstance resulting from past
injustice, in order to ensure a level playing field.

That is
why we promote the idea of an ‘Opportunity Society’, which is the corollary of
the ‘Open Society’. Speaking for myself, I know full well what access to
opportunities can mean for one’s prospects to build a better life: my high
school education was funded by a scholarship, I got through university on a
bursary and my first job was an internship that was ultimately converted into a
permanent contract position. All of these were opportunities that enabled me to
apply my talents and abilities to pursue my aspirations.

biggest shame about structural inequality in South Africa is that it locks
millions of talented South Africans out of opportunity to develop skills, start
businesses and make a contribution to our society, whether as educators,
engineers or entrepreneurs. As the DA, we are indeed “repulsed by the unfair
privileges that flowed from the apartheid system or colonialism” and that
is why where we govern, our DA governments are making steady progress to
redress the legacy of apartheid and colonialism through quality education and
healthcare, investment attraction that creates jobs, efficient delivery that
ensures near-universal access to basic services and clean governance that
ensures public benefit from the public purse.

We do not claim to be perfect, nor
do we promise that we can deliver paradise, but it is ill-informed at best, and
disingenuous at worst, for any of our detractors to argue that the DA, as a
liberal party, has no commitment to redress, both in creed and in deed. 

– Zakhele Mbhele is a DA MP and the party’s spokesperson on police.

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