There’s a refereeing protocol in ice hockey, which urges referees not to get between two players slugging it out on the ice – never mind the sometimes gruesome bloody blows to the faces of fighters – and pounce on the goons only once they have exhausted themselves and fall to the ice. Fights are part of the spectacle of ice hockey, and many decent folk want it banned from the sport. But, sadly, most spectators “enjoy” the bloodbaths on ice. As a famous wimp, I have escaped a few scraps during my brief career as a hockey player.
I was reminded of this refereeing protocol with the Democratic Alliance (DA) infighting over the past couple of weeks. Especially when, like the fans who so enjoy the fights in a hockey match, the nattering class, of which, I should admit, I am a part, gloated gleefully, enjoyed massive doses of schadenfreude, and generally shouted, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Okay, I made that last bit up.
In hockey, the refereeing protocol goes something like this: Let them slug it out, allow them to beat each other up, until they drop or exhaust each other, and then get involved, pull them apart, and get some perspective from other officials.
There may be times when journalism is like refereeing. The huge caveat, here, is that journalists’ day-to-day reportage does not have the (almost immediate) benefit of the VAR (video-assisted referee in football), the TMO (television match official in rugby), or cricket’s third umpire and her television slow-motion replays.
For better or for worse, reporters have to make on-the-spot decisions and report as things happen. When I started out, too many years ago to recount, we were taught to focus, first, on “Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?” Write up your report, send it to the newsdesk who will examine it, the news editor will send it to the chief subeditor (who examines it again), and the chief sub will send it to a line sub etc….
The columnist, opinion writer, analyst or commentator plays a different role. These folk are usually more seasoned, more experienced, they often have developed deeper insights into current affairs (and events), and are usually able to provide a range of perspectives of what had happened. They work with the facts, but are able – at the best of times – to understand the significance of facts. They are able, also, to situate particular events in social and historical contexts; the importance of the plural “contexts” is what matters, here. In short, reporters report on political fights, readers enjoy or get excited about the fights. It is then up to columnists, opinion writers, analysts and commentators to provide some contexts, which helps generate perspectives.
So now that it looks like the fighters have stopped slugging it out, and seem exhausted (or concussed, as often happens in hockey fights), we can look back at the past two weeks, place it in some broader contexts, and help readers develop some perspectives.
At first glance, it seems black people are being pushed out of the DA. Lindiwe Mazibuko, Herman Mashaba and now Mmusi Maimane. The feisty Phumzile van Damme is still standing – and may be going nowhere any time soon. Gwen Ngwenya is still somewhere, apparently lost in a forest of white males at the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), which enjoys (suffers?), perhaps more than any other institution, the fatal delusions of classical liberalism.
So, one perspective may suggest the DA is uncomfortable with black people – especially those who were fast-tracked to leadership positions and those who were given window seats. You know, so the casual observer can see that the DA has no problem with black people….
Walking around the issue, to gain more angles and perspectives, it may seem that the “alliance” in the DA can no longer hold. It is important to note that the alliance is made up of people whose sentiments are consistent with any of the old National Party, the former Conservative Party, the Freedom Front Plus and probably the ANC. With such a motley crew, it is not inconceivable that the DA was simply not ready to be a truly liberal party – which I will come to, below.
Yet another perspective is that Maimane was simply not forceful enough as a leader. Good political leaders surround themselves with intellectually courageous, innovative and trustworthy people. There is no clear sense that Maimane had this arrangement. But we may never know, as the best of the background staff remain anonymous. Ultimately, Maimane seemed to be a weak leader. A young black man who tried to lead an alliance of possibly unreconstructed NP and CP members, and those hankering for the return of Tony Leon.
The Leon perspective is the most intriguing. I want to come back to a statement in his 2019 Liberty Lecture, An Imperfect Fit? South Africa and the Need for a Liberal Party, at the SAIRR. That title is hardly a surprise. Parenthetically, over dinner at Robyn Carlisle’s home in about 1992, attended by a few people including Leon, I decided never again to engage Leon in any discussion. But he is slinking back into politics and seems to be leading a move to “recreate” a liberal party in South Africa. This may or may not be true.
So, while I will not engage Leon directly, because of the decision I made in about 1992, I should say this. His “fight-back” bolshevism of the late 1990s is a political headache that will not go away. He may be behind the removal of Maimane; more so than just through the formal recommendation of what my colleague Tim Cohen referred to as the “report of the DA’s elder statesmen, Ryan Coetzee, Tony Leon and Michiel le Roux, to the DA federal council (the three wise men or the three white men, depending on your politics)”. It is not inconceivable, it is possible, and not improbable.
Nonetheless, what we have is, as an empirically verifiable observation, an alliance that is shedding good people (Maimane and Athol Trollip), and machinations to return to good old-fashioned liberalism.
South African politics is very often the easiest of all politics to understand, describe or analyse. (I should write about that someday.) One of the problems is that there are very, very many people who talk about communism, or socialism, or Fanonism, or “economic freedom” or liberalism who either don’t seem to know or care what they mean.
In some quarters, often not without reason, liberalism has become something of a pejorative term, and associated with white people – also not without reason. Yet, given the culture of consumer capitalism that has been embraced by the black middle class associated with the ANC, and the lumpenproletariat in general, there are more people who are, actually, liberal capitalist than they wish to admit.
Three things can be said, towards a conclusion. First, South Africa needs a liberal party in politics (for the same reason it needs a communist party, or a nationalist party or the Economic Freedom Fighters, without the politics of revenge and threats of biblical punishment for sins of the fathers of today’s landowners). All of that is good for democracy.
Second, liberalism has come under severe pressure around the world for its failure to address the myriad challenges in society – most notably inequality. While I have written extensively about this, much of it is behind a paywall. There is nonetheless a burgeoning literature on the “crisis” of liberalism or the “failure” of liberalism. Most recently, The Guardian was explicit and referred to liberalism as “the god that failed.”
Third, the problem with liberalism is its obsessive individualism (which considers all humans as atomistic beings), and thorough obeisance to meritocracy, one of the most spurious ideas in a country that has inequality running from top to bottom, and where more than three centuries of vertically integrated privilege continue to determine the futures of millions of people.
All of this feeds liberal capitalism, which suggests that everyone is equal, that markets will allocate resources efficiently and return to equilibrium. In other words, if that woman in Cofimvaba worked as hard as Markus Jooste or Christo Wiese, she too can become a billionaire.
For now, let them fight. Let us make like the referee when an ice hockey fight breaks out. Once they have beaten one another to a pulp and collapsed in exhaustion we can pounce on them and get closer to the truth.
- Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs.
OPINION: Ismail Lagardien