The politics of race are never far from the front pages in South Africa. If it isn’t Julius Malema declaring that white people do not matter to him and the EFF, it’s some right-wing Australian politician declaring that white South African farmers deserve special protection in the form of fast-tracked immigration into Australia.
Nothing surprising here. It’s a case of two politicians pandering to their supporters’ worst fears in an attempt to get votes from an emotionally stirred up electorate. What is of concern, though, is when fear-mongering by the country’s official opposition feeds into those fears and that opposition does nothing to challenge racist politics from the leader of their coalition partners, the EFF.
To understand the paralysis of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in responding to Malema’s racist rhetoric, one needs to go back about 20 years to the DA’s predecessors, the Democratic Party (DP) under the leadership of Tony Leon in the late 1990s.
Following Nelson Mandela’s reconciliatory five years in office, the DP felt it appropriate to run a campaign titled Fight Back. The ill-conceived campaign urged South Africa’s white voters to fight back against policies such as affirmative action based on the premise that they were not responsible for the actions of their ancestors and should not take responsibility for the consequences of apartheid.
In one short campaign, Leon had managed to write race politics into the DNA of the official opposition.
Fast-forward two decades later and Mmusi Maimane has become the leader of the same official opposition which now officially has more black voters than white voters, but the party cannot shake the unofficial title of “white party” off its back.
They jumped into bed with a party whose ideology is far more removed from theirs than any other party in parliament. And today, when Malema shouts that the interests of white voters mean nothing to him, they cannot challenge him.
Without realising it, Maimane’s DA is reverting to Leon’s divisive Fight Back politics. The unfortunate SMSes they sent out accusing the ruling party and the EFF of plotting to strip citizens of their land and property through dubious means is in exactly the same league as urging white voters to “fight back” against affirmative action and take no responsibility for the consequences of apartheid.
It is based on stoking the fears of the white electorate and it feeds into the same narrative that the Australian politician was peddling: whites in South Africa are under attack.
In the short term that strategy might work in gaining the official opposition the votes of all those opposed to continued social transformation in this country, but it denies the DA the right to be itself. The DA’s predecessor was based on basic liberalism which was at one stage championed by the likes of Helen Suzman.
That liberalism never pandered to “Swart Gevaar” tactics that sought to make white South Africans afraid of the intentions of their fellow black countrymen.
The DA needs to reach for its founding principles to become meaningful again and give the likes of the EFF a run for their money.