/OPINION: Idea-less DA continues to revert to type

OPINION: Idea-less DA continues to revert to type

2019-12-13 14:00

One look at the continuing convergence between class and race inequalities confirms the reality of race in the lives of millions of South Africans. For example, the average black African household enjoys as little as four percent of the wealth of the average white household in South Africa, writes Christi van der Westrhuizen

It’s always a pity when a politician confuses insults with substantive debate, as Prof Belinda Bozzoli does in her reply

To follow so many unthinking Twitterati in dragging in decontextualised American buzzwords to add to the insult, is also disappointing. One would expect more from a former academic who contributed significant research and analysis over many years before she became a politician.

It is also noticeable that the official opposition party has become so sensitive and views itself seemingly as so fragile that it cannot withstand critical reflection from outsiders on its current actions and their possible causes.

This allergy to scrutiny and accountability is a problem across South Africa’s political class, and partly explains why our democracy is currently in such a mess.

The DA is losing ground fast, including two of the metros that it managed to govern in coalition after the 2016 local government election. The indications are that the party has become a victim of its own success.

It set out to expand beyond what it calls “minorities” to attract black voters.

With the expansion came new people and ideas, as could be expected.

But the old white liberal establishment in the party fears losing control of the DA so much that they would rather shrink it back to a minority party representing minorities than allow new people with new ideas to have impact.

The argument that is causing vehemently defensive reaction from the DA pivots on the understanding of difference, in particular race. Specifically, what could liberalism’s contribution be to eradicating the legacies of almost 350 years of direct colonialism in South Africa.

Prof Bozzoli, in her response, focuses on the generally accepted view among anti-racists that race is a social construction. One is, of course, relieved to hear that the “classical liberals” of the DA identify with the analysis that race is not a biological fact but rather a socially imposed category.

While Prof Bozzoli congratulates herself and her coterie on their acknowledgment of this basic scientific fact, she omits to mention why it is important.

The insight that race is constructed allows us to understand that racism consists of falsely attributed values to human beings, on the basis of biological and phenotypical features.

These false attributions are used to divide humanity into social hierarchies. When it comes to race, people racialised as black are positioned as so-called inferior, and people racialised as white are made out to be superior.

In effect, it amounts to a denial of the humanity of some people.

Why such a crude but elaborate schema that has proven so enduring over time? Prof Bozzoli fudges the effects that the social construction of race has in the real world, in step with what the racial denialism prevalent in the DA demands of her.

Race functions to justify the unequal distribution of life-sustaining resources.

In that sense, it can have real life-and-death consequences.

If Prof Bozzoli considered that, she would get to the question of how to undo these effects, and that is the sticking point that she’d rather not address, as it links to the party’s haemorrhaging of black leaders.

Instead, she sees only a limited binary of possibilities. On the one hand, she asks, should social constructionism be used to demythologise race, to “show” people to “look beyond it”.

Or, on the other hand: “does it mean that those caught in the mythology of identity need to be taken seriously by policymakers and their myths about themselves indulged?”

Firstly, one cannot but note the patronising tone, which is associated with the liberal tradition.

Her questions seem to refer to either splendidly smart politicians “showing” us voting fodder the error of our ignorant ways.

Or, the questions may refer to white people deciding to no longer “indulge” black people who are “caught in the mythology of identity”.


Back to her limited menu of possibilities: the real import of social constructionism is that it alerts human beings that what is made by them, can be unmade.

Paradigms of thinking, and resultant realities, can be shifted or changed. This goes for liberalism too.

Jamaican philosopher Charles W Mills’ differentiation of racial liberalism from other forms of liberalism can be read as an attempt to recuperate what is valuable about liberalism, and to discard from it what hobbles the mutual human recognition that we should be engaged with as South Africans.

US political philosopher Wendy Brown has made similar arguments, especially in the face of what seems to be rising anti-democratic neo-fascisms.

Prof Bozzoli bemoans that theories such as social constructionism do not provide policymakers with clear ways forward.

Theories can be made more concrete by grounding them in both context and history.

Such grounding is, however, not particularly popular with liberals, who tend to over-emphasise so-called progress at the expense of historicisation and contextualisation.

In her article, Prof Bozzoli accuses me of engaging in naïve binarism, and of supporting what she calls a nationalist position that indulges race.

Both claims are wrong, as my work shows. Addressing the operation of hierarchical binaries, also in nationalism, is not to succumb to them but to tackle the hold they may still have.

Far from me imputing a certain racial stance on the part of the DA’s white liberal establishment, it is a fact that the party’s original predecessor, the Progressive Party, had policies that were reflective of the racial binaries already described.

The contemporary resistance in the DA to corrective policies that could advance racial redress fits into a historical mode of thinking about race in South African liberalism.

The Prog position on extending the franchise to only “civilised” black people (educated, property-owning men) aligns with the readiness to remain active in the white apartheid parliament when the Prohibition of Political Interference Act of 1968 banned interracial parties.

They remained true to this position when Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert resigned as party leader of what was then known as the Progressive Federal Party in 1986 to pursue talks with the ANC in exile.

Slabbert could no longer abide the party’s position of remaining inside white politics, questioning the effectiveness of such “opposition”.

According to the book The Passion for Reason, written about Slabbert, Prog stalwart Helen Suzman was horrified by his decision.

For his courage he was made persona non grata, excluded from the negotiating team of what had become the Democratic Party in the 1990s.

Necessarily, given that racism was inherent to colonialism and apartheid, race runs like a thread through the history of liberalism in South Africa.

Prof Bozzoli’s interpretation of social constructionism advances race denialism. She over-emphasises the fictional dimension of race while ignoring the very real effects of race thinking on people’s life opportunities in the past and present.

One look at the continuing convergence between class and race inequalities confirms the reality of race in the lives of millions of South Africans. For example, the average black African household enjoys as little as four percent of the wealth of the average white household in South Africa.

South Africa urgently needs new thinking that will pull the country back from the brink of collapse while aiding the redistribution of resources.

The ANC’s empowerment of politically connected individuals and the DA’s empowerment of “raceless” people (which in its party structures usually work out to be white men) won’t achieve that.

South Africa suffers from a crisis of ideas, and the DA in its current state is one manifestation of that, along with the ANC.

– Christi Van der Westhuizen is Associate Professor at the Centre for the Advancement of Non-Racialism and Democracy at the Nelson Mandela University.

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