Eusebius McKaiser asks: “Could I vote DA?”

Finding myself in a bookstore with some time to kill, I sat down to read Eusebius McKaiser’s new book, Could I Vote DA?, and am now in a position to recommend that (some of) you do so, too.

Regardless of the book’s title – although the DA (the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s only self-identified liberal party) is the main focus – Eusebius does a fine job of capturing the essence of some key ideas in politics, such as the point and value of a political ideology, what liberalism entails and doesn’t entail, affirmative action, and the strategic and tactical dilemmas faced by those in the political arena.

The book is overtly (even proudly) subjective, and Eusebius’s character is manifest on every page. For some people that will be a negative, but for those of you who can read past an impression of a character that’s not your preference, the personal narrative does, I think, help to bring the ideas to the forefront.

One aspect of the book and its subjectivity that I wasn’t enamoured of was what seemed (at times) to be gratuitous sniping at some former and current DA representatives or employees, in particular their former Executive Director of Communications, Gareth van Onselen (also a friend). They don’t see eye to eye on some things, and neither of them are fond of being told they are wrong, but Eusebius’s account of some recent dealings between van Onselen and people in the DA seemed a little too eager to “school” van Onselen.

(Much of the conversation regarding Gareth van Onselen is in a chapter detailing the disagreement between himself and Mmusi Mainane – the DA’s National Spokesperson and Deputy Federal Chairperson – on the topic of ubuntu, so this is an opportune time to link you to an email conversation Gareth and I had on the topic of ubuntu a couple of years ago.)

The language of the book is very informal, containing many colloquialisms and much slang. In tone and content, I’d think it well-suited to a younger audience – perhaps those “born frees” that will be voting in a National Election for the first time.

Those of you who know your political philosophy won’t learn much by way of theory, but can certainly still enjoy the book not only for how it might get you to think about issues again, even afresh (of value, because our beliefs and views can easily calcify without our realising it), but also for its gossip value – Eusebius gets to hear plenty of interesting stories while hosting his morning show on PowerFM, and in similar gigs prior to that.

The question of what market this was aimed at is an interesting one – the book retails for roughly R230, which might, I fear, place it slightly out of that youth market’s comfort zone. Stephen Grootes recently published SA Politics Unspun for around R185, and while Richard Calland’s The Zuma Years retails for a similar price to Eusebius’s book, Calland’s is research-intensive rather than a piece of reflective political philosophy.

These books aren’t directly comparable, but they do give a sense of what other publishers thought a reasonable price for a book about politics, in a market that we know doesn’t read an awful amount in any case. I hope I’m wrong, and that Eusebius can treat me to a gloating dinner with his royalties later this year.

A final though: the key point, for me, made in Eusebius’s book was regarding the tension between principle and pragmatism, and how difficult it is to strike a balance that both satisfies the electorate while not selling out the values you are ostensibly promoting. The DA has mostly stuck to (an attempted) defence of principle, even while foundering in doing so at various points (to mention just one example, Eusebius highlights the illiberal stance of Helen Zille on HIV/AIDS, something I’ve also previously written about).

But when they try to make a case for something that’s about more than only principle – or when they make a case for a principle in a way that’s designed to appeal to more people than only their liberal base (if that is still their base at all, as I questioned when writing about the Maimane vs. van Onselen thing, their message seldom seems both co-ordinated and coherent. Last year’s BBBEE confusion was the most striking example of this, and these examples all speak of a party that knows it needs to change it’s manner of engaging our voting population, rather than the voting population that can be found in textbooks.

Eusebius makes this case very well, and very thoughtfully, and his book is a welcome contribution to South Africa’s political debate, especially with an election less than three months away.