While it’s clear that many people are at the very least suspicious of the Institute for Race Relations’ (IRR) sudden interest in “saving” the Democratic Alliance (DA), former IRR head of politics and governance Gareth van Onselen’s opposition to the think tank’s move came out of left-field.
Van Onselen and I certainly agree on one thing – that the intervention of the IRR “isn’t working”.
Other aspects of a column by Van Onselen in Business Day resonated less, like how DA leader Mmusi Mamaine has said “disgraceful” things which have seen him play an “entirely irresponsible role in setting the scene for a potential race war”. Van Onselen didn’t specify which utterances from Maimane warrant such hyperbole.
I also found his bit about the media – which he said showed “utter contempt for perspective, evidence and reason” by making “race the fundamental and only issue” – a strange position for Van Onselen to take, as he himself concedes that the issue one which could “burn the entire organisation to the ground” is race.
There are of course other issues driving the IRR’s campaign to supposedly “Save the DA”, such as Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s cooperation with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in his municipality; the DA’s dire performance in the last elections, in which they lost about 400,000 votes; and alleged corruption on the part of some DA politicians.
But the rift between the party’s classical liberal camp, which includes members such as Mike Waters, Gavin Davis, Michael Cardo, Jack Bloom, and of course Helen Zille – who recently quit as a senior research fellow at the IRR to run for the position of DA federal chair – and prominent black members such as Mashaba, Maimane, MP Phumzile Van Damme, DA youth leader Luyolo Mphiti and national spokesperson Solly Malatsi – is undoubtedly mainly due to their opposition on issues relating to race.
Even the allegations of corruption recently levelled at Maimane can be seen through the lens of race.
It is unclear whether two allegations of corruption leveled at Maimane – involving his driving a car donated by Steinhoff and declaring ownership of a Cape Town property in parliament which he was actually renting – weren’t engineered by the classical liberals as an attempt to discredit Maimane.
The DA leader, who was cleared of misconduct following an internal investigation, is not well-liked by the classical liberal camp due to him being – at least by their standards – too outspoken about race, after comments he made about white privilege which were met with criticism from some party members.
While the party’s poor performance is being touted as the reason for the party trying to get rid of Maimane, there were reports released long before the elections indicating that this camp was planning to use this – if it happened – as an excuse for his removal.
The classical liberals, who the IRR clearly backs as a transparently classical liberal think tank, say the emphasis of some members on racial identity politics has led the party astray. Zille herself argued this at length in a column in which she says her greatest mistake as DA leader was to “not fight hard enough to prevent the DA from entering the ANC/EFF’s ‘race narrative’ arena”.
The IRR, in its argument for why the DA needs to be “saved” by the think tank, says the party must sanction “racist leaders”.
It is also unlikely the IRR is referring to Dianne Kohler-Barnard, expelled from the party for a racist social media post only to later return.
Rather, it seems in a common twist of logic for classical liberals, the IRR considers DA’s “racist leaders” to be those leaders who bring up the topic of race, and refuse to see it as a non-issue.
In another twist of logic, the IRR and the classical liberals say they are fighting for “non-racialism” in the DA, through the targeting of leaders who all just happen to be black, many of which also happen to be young, by people who just happen to be white, many of which also happen to be old.
While the IRR didn’t single out who these “racist leaders” are, the debacle at Schweizer-Reneke school in the North West came up.
This is likely due to the involvement of Mphiti in what transpired. It was reported that AfriForum-affiliated union Solidarity wanted Mphiti to apologise for “sowing racial divisions” and his supposed role in getting teacher Elana Barkhuizen suspended.
Mphiti denied having played any such role.
“I reacted to a picture four hours after it went viral. I was hugely concerned by media reports of alleged racism at this particular school. Shortly thereafter I released a statement stating I would visit the school to seek answers, which I did the following day, and stated that the matter must be investigated and members of the community must remain calm,” he said.
It is also likely that Phumzile Van Damme is being targeted by the classical liberal camp and the IRR due to her outspokenness on the topic of race, and involvement in an incident which saw her punch a man – allegedly in self-defence and as a response to being both physically threatened and racially abused. The incident was met with criticism from voices within and outside the party, who did not believe her version of what transpired.
The direction Maimane steered the DA in resulted in reports that Davis, Waters and Cardo planned to form a break-away party, and three guesses who they reportedly wanted as its leader – gogo Helen, of course.
The classical liberals aside, many within the DA – including Athol Trollip, who has defended Maimane – have expressed regret over losing votes to the Freedom Front Plus, which grew from 1% to 2.7% of the vote as the DA declined.
Their solution, which sees the return of not only Zille but Tony Leon, who was reportedly part of a delegation sent to ask Maimane to step down, is for the party to party like it’s 1999 – when Leon first became leader of the opposition, which simply won’t work, because while the DA’s uppermost leadership structures still seem dominated by white people, the party’s support on the ground shows they have managed to become what they are today with the help of the black vote.
Zille herself once argued, in 2016, that the party’s support base is mostly black. Whether or not this is true is unclear (AfricaCheck could find no proof of the party’s figures), but trying to remain the official opposition while pandering to 2.7% of the vote seems deeply shortsighted.
Not everyone in South Africa shares the DA old-guard’s vision of “non-racialism”, which sees four white people run for the important position of federal chair – and which now sees several important black leaders within the party targeted.
To many – including potential DA voters – Maimane is now suffering the same fate as Lindiwe Mazibuko and Patricia de Lille before him, creating the continued impression that the party cannot handle strong, black leaders.
If the DA manage to regain the FF+ votes, this will likely be at the expense of hundreds of thousands more.
Which means the biggest beneficiaries of the IRR’s shortsighted plan to “save the DA” may be the ANC and EFF.