Sparks, Dlamini, and whether “cleverness” is praiseworthy

ASWhen I saw that Allister Sparks told the Democratic Alliance congress that Hendrik Verwoerd was a “smart politician”, I was relieved to have previously defended not only Mcebo Dlamini’s right to say stupid things, but also to have argued that we can (and should) distinguish between an individual’s sentiments and poor expressions of those sentiments.

Relieved, because the cases do have at least one similarity – Dlamini was apparently attempting to make a pro-Palestine comment rather than a pro-genocide/eugenics comment, and Sparks was apparently attempting to praise political cunning rather than to present Verwoerd as a morally praiseworthy individual.

Both of these individuals have made matters worse for themselves in their explanations of their remarks, to be sure. Dlamini has legitimised interpretations of him being anti-Semitic by speaking of his Vice Chancellor being a “Jew puppet” who bowed to pressure from “Zionists” in removing Dlamini from office, while Sparks initially doubled-down in saying that Verwoerd gave a “veneer of moral respectability” to apartheid’s slogan, “The K***** in his place”.

Sparks has now offered a fuller account of, and apology for, his remarks, asking us to blame forgetfulness and senility for his not having name-checked any black politicians as “smart”, and also reminding us that he was drawing from his personal frame of reference as a veteran political observer in an environment where he’d naturally have encountered more white politicians.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has also distanced themselves from Sparks‘ remarks, albeit only a day after they were made – allowing for social media to spend the intervening 24 hours exchanging views and confirming their interpretations of the DA as oblivious to the politics of race in South Africa, even as they were busy electing their first black leader, Mmusi Maimane.

The link immediately above takes you to a YouTube video where James Selfe, Chairperson of the DA’s Federal Executive, explains (repeatedly) that Sparks is not a party member, was speaking in his personal capacity, and expressed views that the DA does not endorse. He also notes that they didn’t want to say this immediately after Sparks’ speech, as that would embarrass him.

And there’s the problem – it is embarrassing to run off a list of “smart” politicians, and in doing so to not only mention Verwoerd but also to not mention a single black politician. You should be embarrassed in this situation, as it’s a situation that’s only possible if you’re insensitive to context and history to the extent that this sort of racial myopia can go undetected (in yourself).

If you’re a political party that’s aiming to speak for all South Africans, and that currently presents itself as the “most diverse” party in the country, having this happen at your national congress should likewise be embarrassing, even if you think that the commentariat is over-reacting. Perceptions matter, even if you think those perceptions are unfair interpretations of what someone was saying.

As I’ve said in the past with reference to the mind-boggling decision to rename a road after FW de Klerk, if you know – as the DA surely does – that you’re perceived as a racist party, you need to bend over backwards to avoid signalling that those perceptions are true, even if it means embarrassing your outgoing leader’s friend and mentor.

Yes, of course it’s frustrating to have to cater for misinterpretation. But you need to do less of that once trust is established, and people no longer think of you as being a party of white (quasi) liberals. Once that trust is established, I’d be more sympathetic to the DA being annoyed at those who took offence at Sparks’ remarks.

But if the DA thinks they’ve already earned that trust, they’re sorely mistaken.

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.