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Liberalism, the Democratic Alliance and identity

Mmusi-MaimaneThere’s perhaps an argument for saying this about any election, but to my mind, the upcoming national elections in 2014 will be South Africa’s most interesting since our first (democratic) election in 1994. Various factors align to make it so – the ANC’s corrupt leadership, and President Zuma’s apparent inability or unwillingness to do anything but enrich himself; the untested effects of Ramaphosa’s re-emergence as a political force; the reaction of a nation to scandals (Limpopo textbooks) and murderous police (Marikana); and whether these (and other) factors will lead to mass apathy and a low voter turnout, or to more votes being cast for the official opposition.

And that’s where another complication can be introduced – one that I intend to be the topic of this post – namely the identity of the Democratic Alliance, and whether liberalism can accommodate concepts like ubuntu, or be sympathetic to “African-ness” (whatever either of those terms might mean). In her Sunday column for the City Press, Carien du Plessis asked:

Rather than splitting hairs on whether its leaders are true blue liberals or not, the party would do well to think about how its version of liberalism could include rather than reject Africanness and concepts that are a hot sell among a South African electorate craving some feel-good ubuntu.

Otherwise the DA could be wandering in an elitist wilderness forever.

The “splitting hairs” she refers to is contained in a sequence of op-ed’s and blog posts by Mmusi Maimane (DA national spokesperson), Gareth van Onselen (previously communications head at the DA, then executive director for innovation and projects, and now resigned from party leadership) and Gavin Davis (current communications director for the DA, but writing in his personal capacity). If you want to read them, go here, here and here.

I don’t think it’s splitting hairs to contest whether or not leaders are true blue liberals, if we believe that there’s something important about being one, and can agree on what liberalism is. Van Onselen has strong views on what liberalism is, and on how the DA should compete for the flourishing of liberal ideas in South African politics. Du Plessis, in saying that the party should think about how it could include African-ness and ubuntu, is making the implicit claim that liberalism can include those concepts. Well, the DA’s “version” of liberalism can, at least – and it’s exactly what this version should be that van Onselen is concerned with, arguing that these are essentially illiberal ideas.

So, I think a legitimate case can be made that if we were to foreground (or “include”, however we end up defining that) these concepts, this would involve some sort of betrayal of classical liberal values. For some, that would be a good thing, for others a bad one. And we can argue about whether that makes the party no longer liberal, or liberal-lite, or whatever.

But let’s be careful of thinking this a crucial step in defining the nature of the party, or rather, let’s acknowledge the fact that the party hasn’t been a classically liberal one for quite some time now. To pick only some recent examples, some would say that a liberal party should not bow to religious pressure and act as a respondent in a court case aimed at the revocation of a liquor license on the grounds that booze would be sold next to a mosque. Some would say that our provincial transport MEC didn’t sound very liberal when threatening to confiscate the car keys of sleepy drivers, and when asked if this was legal, saying “I have no idea, but I don’t care either”. There was Helen Zille’s suggestion that she’d like to make the wearing of condoms law in non-monogamous sexual intercourse, or Jack Bloom’s claim that “maybe if we all prayed more the social change we desire will happen” – which, while not obviously illiberal, certainly makes human agency and freedom seem subservient to some powerful force in the clouds.

So in summary, this might in the end be hair-splitting, because the party might have stopped being liberal a while back now. And perhaps van Onselen knows this, and is now saying things (at least, publicly) that he’s been thinking for some time. And, maybe, we can understand his concern at what Maimane had to say, in that Maimane is likely to be an increasingly influential force within the party, and thus serves as a bellwether for the ideological stance of the party in 2014 and beyond, where the party might start openly embracing illiberal ideas, rather than having to suffer through occasional bouts of illiberality from one of more of its leaders.

Maimane’s comments do matter, as do any prominent DA official’s comments on topics like these, because they indicate not only ideological direction, but also the extent to which a party is willing to compromise, and how honestly it’s willing to do so. For instance, Maimane could have chosen to say: “liberalism cannot include collectivist ideas like ubuntu, and in this respect, I consider liberalism flawed”. Or, he could argue that this version (to go back to du Plessis’ suggestion) of liberalism is more suited to a people who do have strong collectivist tendencies – or even that freedom has to include the freedom to be part of a collective, even if that seems counterintuitive to some.

But van Onselen is right in pointing out that Maimane does himself seem to believe in the idea that “being African” means something, and he also seems to think it should mean something – not just to him, but to “Africans”. And that is illiberal, because if Maimane restricted himself to the purely descriptive claim that “many people in Africa seem to believe X” or the more personal “I happen to believe or feel X” there would be less of an issue, in that self-identification is part of what liberalism is about. Prescribing versions of identity, or (at least) presenting them as normative, runs counter to self-identification, and thus to liberalism.

The problem, though, is that as much as you’d be free to think of yourself as an African, or to subscribe to something like ubuntu (on Inside Politics, van Onselen and I have previously discussed what that concept means) within a broad liberal framework, the DA don’t create the impression of welcoming those sorts of self-identification – and this is the real problem, and has been since the party came into existence (and before – I remember having the same debates at PFP Youth meetings in the 1980’s, and I’m sure they were discussed long before then too).

(An aside: on Twitter, van Onselen stated that the “ideas themselves are illiberal“, so he’d presumably dispute the paragraph above. I’d argue that whether African-ness was illiberal or not would depend entirely on what it meant, for you, seeing as we’re now talking about self-identification rather than someone else’s label. If African-ness means some sort of sentimental attachment to the continent, for example, calling that illiberal seems to me as false as it would be to call my identification as a Manchester United fan illiberal”.)

As I was saying, these debates have gone on for some time. To my mind, this is the same debate that Ryan Coetzee (former and current all sorts of things, but at the time, writing as CEO of the DA) was talking about in a 2006 strategy document where he noted (in a passage explicitly framed as generalisation) that:

all South Africans don’t share the same concerns about what might be called “identity issues” … white South Africans don’t have the same attachment to the cultural heritage of black South Africans – indeed black South Africans have always felt that their culture is regarded as inferior by whites, and that by extension they themselves are regarded as inferior.

The DA in 2013 looks vastly different to the DA of 2006, partly because it has taken the lead on initiatives (street renaming) and policy (basic income grant) that demonstrate a commitment to redressing history’s injustices rather than reinforcing some “neoliberal” caricature of wiping the slate clean, and letting people compete in some Darwinian pure market economy.

But if we say things like “ubuntu and African-ness are illiberal”, or  that Mmusi Maimane is being unfaithful to the tenets of liberalism in trying to define those concepts, an impression of hostility to that “cultural heritage” would be created. You might think it wrong that people perceive it as hostile – perhaps preferring that the argument be had on the facts, rather than on the emotive impact of pointing out those facts – and I would agree that it’s not ideal that we can’t dispassionately consider the merits of these competing views.

Unfortunately, humans – and politics – have never been only about the facts, or about rationality. Many of you might think the facts have even less to do with political argument than rhetoric does, and I’d be reluctant to disagree. So, when we ask if liberalism can “accommodate” these concepts, even if the answer turns out to be “no”, we should be concerned about how we get to that answer.

Asserting that it is the correct answer in a way that dismisses competing views as a nonsense can do little but feed in to a stereotype about liberals and liberalism, namely that they are and it is un-African. The concept is flawed, and it’s to my mind a nonsense, especially when prescribed to others.

But nobody will listen to your arguments as to why that might be the case if they think you’re insulting them, or even worse, telling them what they should believe – or ironically, even perhaps who they should be.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.

3 replies on “Liberalism, the Democratic Alliance and identity”

The DA and the liberal contingent inside the DA will falter greatly if they do not look at the substrata making up the bedrock of membership and reasons for the DA’s growth during the years from 2000 onwards. The fact that the overflow from the National Party’s members and followers resulted in exponential growth had to do with whites feeling deserted by the NP and the idea that the Freedom Front and Inkatha had nothing to offer. SO they decided to merge with the DP rather than folding into the ANC under van Schalkwyk. This had nothing to do with liberalism and I am absolutely convinced that 99% of the DA’s growth at that stage was from people who did not have an inkling of an idea what liberalism is about.

The further growth and ‘fight back’ under Leon had nothing to do with liberalism. The gradual opening towards the black electorate also had nothing to do with liberalism. Not a single policy statement pushed to garner votes amongst black voters are dripping from the juices of liberalism.

It has all to do with constitutionalism and mundane hybrid policies about fighting corruption and the other big ills of South Africa.

But not liberalism. The exponential growth from a single parliamentary seat to over 3 million votes had nothing to do with liberalism. It has to do with maximising the vote from a specific group of voters who wants to safeguard our country from failing as a constitutional state.

The liberal within the DA will always be welcomed as one of the influences which flavors the pot from which a really new South Africa will be born. It will intermingle with the other flavours so as not to stand alone or stand out from the rest.

In such a sense I can with ease declare that the DA as a liberal party is long dead and buried. Those who think they are thought leaders and make grand statements against ubuntu and atheism and all those intricately woven figments of the imagination which the liberal employed of the DA busy themselves with – your days must be numbered. Because the roots of freedom was not born from philosphers who had nothing better to do than think. The roots of freedom in Africa is born day by day by struggling and fighting to exist. By making use of ubuntu as a concept to free the mind to enable itself not to give yourself over to the animalistic urge to first care about yourself, but to care for others first. This is freedom of the mind and the basis of everything good and wholesome. It might be African. Call it “African liberalism” of you like.

But never ever, Mr Liberal, must you come with your Eurocentric inertness permuating with the not so long lost perfumes of colonialism, and come and make a statement that ubuntu does not belong in the DA.

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