The implosion of the Democratic Alliance has been a long time coming, but when it happened, the party’s collapse was swift and painfully public. There will be no quick recovery. The DA has been captured by the right-wing zealots of the Institute of Race Relations which, like Helen Zille, has decisively moved from the South African liberal tradition once embodied by Helen Suzman towards a version of the libertarian wing of American alt-right politics. There will be no black constituency for this politics and many whites, especially younger whites, will find it distasteful too.
Zille will go down in history as the person who both extended the DA’s reach after Tony Leon’s time at the helm and then, after her turn to the right, broke everything that she had built. Time will tell, but she may go down in history as the person who finally broke the liberal tradition in South Africa.
Zille was once a courageous young journalist who broke the story of the murder of Steve Biko at the hands of the state, and sheltered MK operatives in her home. She was, in her youth, to the left of the South African liberal tradition. Her rapid movement to the right of that tradition has been well documented in her public pronouncements and deftly analysed by people such as Ferial Haffejee and Chris McMichael.
However, the reasons for her shift towards the form of right-wing zealotry embodied in South Africa by the IRR are not clear. Perhaps a good biographer, a writer with the gifts of someone such as Mark Gevisser or Jacob Dlamini, will one day explain the personal psychology that led to this dramatic move to the right. But, of course, Zille herself has not been able to see that she has moved so dramatically to the right. This blindness will end her career in ignominy and destroy the DA’s prospects of becoming a national political force.
Of course, Zille and the IRR are not the only force within the DA that has veered sharply to the right in recent years. Herman Mashaba introduced a crude xenophobic populism into the party, one that commentators often described as “Trumpian”. This fundamentally compromised the party’s claim to be liberal and showed that it was willing to put opportunism before principle.
By declaring Mashaba to be a “hero” Musi Maimane has allied himself with Mashaba’s right-wing populism and given up any prospect of being seen as a principled alternative to Zille and the IRR, despite his exit from the party.
Mashaba’s xenophobic populism is scurrilous. So too is the race denialism of Zille and the IRR, and their ridiculous fantasy that “non-racialism” is a liberal concept that they now embody. Non-racialism entered the South African lexicon via organisations such as the Pan-Africanist Congress and intellectuals like Steve Biko and Neville Alexander. It was a radical concept mobilised against liberal racism and liberal multi-racism.
Although the concept of non-racialism was co-opted during the Mandela era, its origins are as a form of radical anti-racism that aimed to overcome racism by taking it on directly. Zille and the IRR engage in a form of race denialism that masks enduring racism and functions to legitimise ongoing white domination. It comforts the powerful and afflicts the oppressed. In a country in which poverty is a deeply racial phenomenon, to pretend that race is no longer a relevant consideration in policy-making and public discourse is to implicitly endorse the status quo.
If there is any faction of the party that remains committed to the classic tradition of South African liberalism it does not have any public figure leading it, or any public profile. Instead, the party has collapsed in a battle between white and black forms of reactionary politics.
At the same time, the ANC is, in economic terms, moving swiftly to the right as Cyril Ramaphosa endorses Tito Mboweni’s right-wing economic proposals. This general movement of our politics towards the right should be understood as part of a global shift to the right.
However, there is, also, a global counter-movement towards a new and reinvigorated left. In electoral terms figures like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders lead the charge in the UK and the US, and Evo Morales remains an important figure for the left in Bolivia. In Chile, Ecuador and Lebanon, people are on the streets demanding a new order.
What the great Ugandan intellectual Mahmood Mamdani famously called “South African exceptionalism” often blinds South Africans to the global dimensions of our situation. But as the DA and the ANC both jump to the right, and the EFF’s credibility implodes under relentless evidence of criminality on the part of its top leadership, there will, inevitably, be some sort of backlash as the unemployment crisis deepens. The form that this backlash takes will have a profound impact on our future.
Will it take a right-wing form, such as a new outbreak of xenophobic violence? Or will it take a progressive form and demand greater social justice? At the moment no party in Parliament has any capacity to speak to this urgent question. The EFF has destroyed its credibility with brazen and repeated corruption, often in the form of actual stealing from the poor. The party has become a caricature of the corrupt “national bourgeoise” against which the great Caribbean intellectual Frantz Fanon issued such an urgent warning in The Wretched of the Earth.
The DA has now imploded in a battle between white and black forms of reaction, with a dogmatic form of white right-wing politics capturing the party and destroying it in the process.
Our politics is in urgent need of a credible socialist or at least social-democratic alternative. But without a figure like Corbyn, Sanders or Morales in our Parliament, we are a long way from that. And, in the meantime, as the economic crisis deepens, we confront an ANC rapidly moving to the right and a DA that will now be able to continue only as a minor racially-based outfit without any prospect of competing for power outside the Western Cape, where it increasingly looks vulnerable.
- Imraan Buccus is senior research associate at ASRI, research fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN.
OPINION: Imraan Buccus