The (current) metamorphosis of the Democratic Alliance

I realise that most people are focusing on today’s election in the United States (the lizards will win, no matter what!), but I nevertheless wanted to make a few points about South Africa’s official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).


The Democratic Alliance and its uncertain future

One of the few positive recent developments for the Democratic Alliance is the fact that Mbali Ntuli will be contesting for leadership of the party at their elective conference in May this year.

I say this because, as a current ex-supporter of the party, I’ve long been trying to persuade friends that there are still liberals of the “right” sort in the party, but that they are mostly younger leaders who have not yet (for the most part) occupied the top positions in the party.


The Democratic Alliance “2.0” and how they have (allegedly) killed the liberalism of Suzman et al.

With critics like Ismail Lagardien about, it’s not so obvious that political parties need to spend time defending themselves, rather than simply pointing to negative opinion pieces about them while trying to resist guffawing. This is because while much of what Lagardien says contains a kernel of truth, this contribution is hyperbolic – and prolix – enough that it would only entrench existing biases rather than change any minds.


Who to vote for: South African National Elections 2019

For those of us who don’t reflexively vote for the same political party in every election, regardless of contextual details like their performance, their choice of candidates, and of course their policy platforms, the 2019 National Elections (May 8) might well be the most confounding choice we’ve ever faced.

None of the candidates are not sub-optimal in some form or another. The ANC’s candidate list includes people who have been directly implicated in “state capture” and corruption. While it’s true that they are eligible to be members of Parliament – as Ace Magashule says, “Anybody who has not been found guilty by a court of law is on the list” – you’d hope that the bar would be set higher than “not a proven criminal”.

Free Speech Politics

Zille’s suspension, and the suspension of common sense

As those of you who care about these things know, Helen Zille was (on June 7) suspended from all Democratic Alliance roles, pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing. The hearing began on Friday June 9, and it’s fairly safe to assume that Zille will contest any finding that doesn’t exonerate her.

General Politics

Helen Zille and “valuable aspects of colonial heritage”.

Readers will know that I’m not partial to shaming others, and that I try to avoid polarised viewpoints. I also try to apply the principle of charity – in other words, try to understand what someone was trying to say, rather than simply judging their statements based on surface-level meaning.

And while it’s fairly easy to imagine what Helen Zille thought we should take from her tweets yesterday, it’s very difficult to comprehend how someone with so much experience and knowledge of South African politics could be so naive – or ignorant – as to tweet what she did.


Dianne Kohler Barnard, social media and proportional punishment

As anyone with more than a passing interest in South African politics would know, the Democratic Alliance (DA) Federal Executive on Friday confirmed the expulsion (which is under appeal) of Dianne Kohler Barnard (DKB) from the party, following her Facebook share of the following post:


It’s easy to see why so many found this offensive – PW Botha presided over many of apartheid’s crimes against humanity, the positive elements listed above were largely to the benefit of white South Africans (8% of the population), and the police did plenty of murdering on behalf of “government toadies”.

PWBothaDKB removed the post fairly swiftly once it got noticed by Twitter, offered effusive apologies to all and sundry, and claimed that she had posted it in error, not noticing the PW Botha reference.

I find this difficult to believe. The post is 10 lines long, and PW Botha is mentioned right in the middle – even skimming the paragraph seems sufficient to notice his name. But at the same time, it’s fairly difficult to believe that she’d be stupid enough to post it intentionally.

The DA’s social media policy is posted on TimesLive, and it exhorts members to exercise extreme caution regarding what they publish, as it should. There’s no question that she violated that policy, and also brought the party into disrepute. The DA’s Federal Constitution lists the following sentences that a disciplinary committee can impose:

  • the membership of that person be terminated;
  • the membership of that person be suspended for a specified period;
  • the member be suspended from any position in the Party or from holding any position in future, or for a specified period, or that all or any of the privileges of a member as stated in this Constitution be suspended;
  • the member be admonished;
  • the member be fined an amount not exceeding the amount determined by the Federal Council from time to time payable upon such terms and conditions as the committee may recommend;
  • The member be ordered to render a period of service, including but not limited to, service to the community or to the Party.

Put yourselves in the minds of the disciplinary committee, and the Federal Executive who had to ratify the committee’s recommendation to terminate her party membership. If they had believed her account of posting this in error and ignorance, terminating her membership might seem a disproportionate sentence, motivated largely by their ongoing attempts to undermine accusations from some quarters that they are an “untransformed” party, or that they at least harbour far too many racists.

On the other hand, that sort of post is a spectacular example of bringing the party into disrepute, given those exact accusations regarding the party’s character, upcoming local government elections, and the evil of PW Botha. To have not punished her severely would have played right into the hands of critics, and would have given the ANC a hefty stick to beat them with in the elections.

It would have been a tough call, given that they would also have been aware that it would be perceived as vote-chasing opportunism by some, principled by others, and an over-reaction by yet another section of armchair analysts, few of whom would know much of the detail behind the deliberations.

I have a completely unfounded suspicion that her appeal will result in her membership being suspended for a year or so, rather than being terminated, in order that the matter not be an election issue. Unless, of course, the termination was because they actually believe – or know – that she does hold sentiments of the sort endorsed by that Facebook post, in which case termination seems entirely appropriate.

These things do expose amusing sub-narratives, such as this column by a media manager for the ANC telling us that DKB would not even be fired as Member of Parliament (never mind being kicked out of the party), because she was really just expressing a standard DA view (I’m paraphrasing, liberally). A month later, the ANC press release on DKB’s expulsion does a 180 degree turn, telling us

 The DA’s decision on Kohler-Barnard, far from being a positive move, is a serious indictment on the DA as a party that is still haunted by demons that characterised the nation’s darkest period prior to the dawn of democracy and non-racialism in 1994.

So, they’d be racist if they kept her, but terminating her membership does “little to cleanse itself of its twin demons of racism and apartheid rule”. Sure, the DA might be both opportunistic (and arguably inconsistent in not terminating various other memberships for sexual assault, or in other instances of racial abuse) – but it’s also rather opportunistic to beat them up for whatever decision they take.

These cases also offer cause for deep frustrations for the party, I’m sure, as they remind you that your supporters can be your worst enemies, as we’re now seeing with some of white Twitter bleating about how the ANC is much worse, because they harbour a corrupt, thieving President and various other disreputable folks.

Well, sure, but that’s got nothing to do with whether DKB is fit to be a public representative or member of the DA or not. Two (or more) wrongs can co-exist, and the existence of one might say nothing about how we should deal with the other.

“Whataboutery” in the form of saying “look over there, they’re worse!” mostly serves to signal that you’re more interested in scoring points than in political progress. Whether DKB was given the correct sentence or not, there’s no question that she did something either unforgivably stupid or indicative of inexcusable views, and that’s the important thing here, rather than what crimes someone else might or might not have committed.


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.


Helen Zille’s resignation, and hyperbole in political commentary

helen-zilleOn Sunday, we witnessed an atypically shambolic press conference from the Democratic Alliance (DA). Part of the reason for the chaos was presumably the significance of the news, namely Helen Zille’s announcement that she won’t be standing for the position of party leader at their upcoming elective conference.

A journalist contacted me yesterday for comment on whether she “jumped or was pushed”, and it strikes me as unfortunate that the question seems as high on people’s lists of interests as it seems to be. The News24 live feed of the press conference chose “I wasn’t pushed” as their headline, even though the mere idea that she might have been was mentioned only once by Zille, and then once in a speculative tweet by UCT’s Professor Pierre de Vos.

My view is that the distinction is to a large extent a meaningless one, and one that mostly serves to feed a public demand for sensation.

Zille is undoubtedly a strong enough character to have stayed on if that was her preference – so to some extent, it strikes me as absurd to suggest she was “pushed”. But in this discourse, “pushed” is interpreted to mean something closer to “evicted”, or told/asked to go.

If you think of “pushed” in the less hyperbolic sense of being subject to internal pressures, it would be absurd to think that those were not present. For one, there isn’t a political party that has no internal dissent, and second, we also know that Zille has been contemplating stepping down as leader for some time now.

The fact that Zille herself made the possibility of stepping down public knowledge would also mean that anyone who would like to see her do so might have been emboldened to make that suggestion internally more often or openly than before. This wouldn’t amount to being “pushed” in any sense that represents an ousting or a coup, which is what the hyperbolic language suggests – it’s rather part of the ordinary growth and evolution of an organisation.

In this case, I think the timing poor. I of course don’t have access to all the information, and there might well have been compelling reasons why it couldn’t wait. But I think it poor first because it will have the likely effect of eliminating any serious competitors to Mmusi Maimane as Zille’s successor, and second because there isn’t much time for any successor to be confident of full control of the party in time for the upcoming elections in 2016.

The first issue undermines internal democracy, and has the effect of Zille anointing her successor, rather than that successor being chosen by the party. Postponing the federal congress to give other candidates a fair shot would have cost R5m, according to Gareth van Onselen.

On the second issue, a new leader will not only have to get to grips with a broader range of internal interests and pressures, but will also presumably want to put his or her own stamp on things, which means that those they lead will also have to adjust to a new regime. Add those complications to the strong suggestions that the DA will be launching a new “values” platform before the election, and the recipe seems to indicate an incoherent election campaign.

Regarding Maimane himself, I think he’ll struggle with internal and external credibility, at least initially. His rise has been too rapid to establish a track-record that inspires confidence, and beyond being a good rhetorician, we know little about him as leader – his strategic inclinations, his views on policy, and so forth.

Having said that, there’s a wealth of experience in the party that can offer advice during the transition, and I also doubt that Zille would have been as supportive of him as she has been until now if he were not up to the task. She’s also not going anywhere, having committed to seeing out her term as Western Cape Premier.

However it plays out, there are interesting times ahead for watchers of South African politics, same as it ever was.

Science Skepticism

Pseudoscience Friday – The DA swallows Food Babe’s babble

downloadIt’s taken less than a week for dedicated time-wasting to begin, for some members of the Democratic Alliance in the Eastern Cape. Soon, they’ll bring this time-wasting to Parliament, if we are to trust this DA statement telling us that MP Annette Steyn will take questions on the issue of Sasko (and others) adding ADA to their bread to the relevant Minister.

Briefly, for context: ADA (Azodicarbonamide) is a chemical used in bread production (as well as in the production of yoga mats, among other things), and ADA is legal for use in quantities smaller than 45 parts per million. It helps with both bleaching of bread, and giving it a lighter and fluffier texture.

And, says the Eastern Cape DA,

according to the World Health Organisation ADA is known to cause respiratory problems such as asthma, allergies and skin problems. Scientists are of the opinion that ADA has the potential of causing cancer.

Furthermore, the

people most affected by this potential health risk are the poor people of the Eastern Cape who do not have access to information about ADA. They are the very people who need the most protection from questionable foodstuffs that could compromise their already precarious health status.

The fact that something is a legal additive doesn’t mean it’s safe, of course. However, the fact that a chemical can be dangerous under certain circumstances does not mean that it’s unsafe under other conditions – for example, in the production of bread. As this superb Guardian article reminds us, it’s the dose that makes the poison.

And, the fact that Australia, the UK and some countries in Europe have banned ADA in bread does also not demonstrate that it’s harmful either – it might just be that they have succumbed to the fearmongering propagated by the likes of Vani Hari (the self-styled Food Babe), who is so dedicated to over-reacting to the mention of any chemical in food that I’d not be surprised to see her falling for the Dihydrogen Monoxide panic next.

Vani Hari started a petition that was instrumental in getting Subway to remove ADA from their bread, where she cited the same World Health Organisation (WHO) information quoted above. However, she either didn’t read what the WHO said, or she’s happy to lie in service of fearmongering. The DA also don’t seem to have read the WHO report, which says (my emphasis):

Case reports and epidemiological studies in humans have produced abundant evidence that azodicarbonamide can induce asthma, other respiratory symptoms, and skin sensitization in exposed workers.

In other words, factory workers – working with large quantities of ADA – could be at risk. This has zero relevance to 45 parts per million (or less) in bread. Steve Novella addresses this misrepresentation of scientific evidence, alongside other examples, in a superb blog post on Vani Hari’s Subway petition. (Here’s another by him, on Hari’s concerns regarding DoubleTree Hotels adding “antifreeze” to their cookies.)

Then, as David Gorski points out, there might not be any ADA left in finished bread in any case:

Moreover, azodicarbonamide arguably not even in the final product. According to this article, once flour is wetted with water, reaction with azodicarbonamide with the constituents of flour is rapid. In the experiments described, it only took 30 minutes for all the azodicarbonamide to disappear, with trace amounts left. By 45 minutes, there weren’t even trace amounts left.

In other words, what we have here might be worse than simple “chemicals are bad” panic – we’ve might have a homeopathic version of that panic!

Also on the topic of the naturalistic fallacy and pseudoscience, you might want to take a look at this open letter to Woolworths, which manages to combine a moral panic around GMOs with the more sensible point that food should be adequately labelled.

As a friend pointed out on Twitter, it didn’t take long for the food version of Godwin’s Law – namely the invocation of demon Monsanto – to crop up in the comments. But emotion doesn’t resolve scientific queries, and if you want to read a more sober account of what we know and don’t know about GMOs, I’d recommend Grist’s “20 questions” roundup to you.

(Pun fully intended.)