RW Johnson has got it wrong

I have always held RW Johnson’s insights in great regard. However, his latest article is simply a personal agenda masquerading as public analysis. It does not reflect well on him or on his status as a political commentator. His suggestion that the DA is becoming untethered from its liberal moorings in its bid to enlarge support is bizarre. Liberalism remains very much the bedrock that the party’s policies and processes are built upon and there is every indication that this will remain so.

I know this because my participation in the DA’s Young Leadership Programme in 2009 gave me the opportunity to observe the party at close quarters. The DAYLP seeks to develop leadership amongst young South Africans, as well as rigorously deepen the participants’ understanding of liberal values and how they apply to the South African context. Expecting Young Leaders to be familiar with both A.C. Grayling’s treatise on liberty, Towards the Light, and Nobel Prize -winning economist Amartya Sen’s extraordinary Development as Freedom is hardly indicative of a party on the verge of being consumed by communalist mayhem.

Across the country there are growing numbers of graduates from this course who are profoundly committed to a liberal vision of South Africa. Many of them now represent the party in legislatures, in city councils or on student leadership bodies at universities. But the DA is not only committed to enlarging the pool of liberal-minded future leaders. The party places enormous emphasis on the constant training and development (both politically and personally) of its public representatives and employees. In addition to workshops and coaching, the party also has an online training course called Umothombo which aims to broaden their knowledge about liberalism and how it applies in SA.

It is disappointing that Johnson appears to believe that, with the exception of Chief Albert Luthuli, being black and being a liberal are somehow mutually exclusive. That is nonsense. The DA’s black members are genuine liberals and leaders, not an politically expedient shade of window-dressing. Johnson trumpets the role that Anglophones have played in providing the DA and its antecedents with intellectual heft and moral muscle. But this is changing: liberalism is no longer confined to the halls of Magdalene College, Oxford, or the drawing rooms of the Cape Town Club (if indeed it ever was). As the DA’s branches grow across the country, staffed by those who genuinely believe in the party’s vision for SA, liberalism in this country is becoming far more pervasive in villages of Limpopo or on the streets of Mitchells Plain than it is in those supposed bastions of the enlightenment.

Of great concern is Johnson’s suggestion that in appealing to black voters, the DA is in danger of embracing a kind of politics which he argues as being typical of the African continent – “tribalism, bossism, warlordism, racial patronage politics”. He appears to see the foregrounding of Lindiwe Mazibuko as part of this problem.

But Mazibuko is no token warlord. Her rise within the party has certainly been meteoric but it is demeaning and unfair to ascribe this to her race and gender. Mazibuko may be young and relatively inexperienced but she has a sparkling intellect, boundless energy and a fearsome work ethic. She also has a charisma: people like her, and they want to be led by her. She is a natural leader: not just confident and eloquent, but also warm and able to empathise. Far from being Zille’s puppet (as her detractors are inclined to depict her), she is forthright and independent-minded.

It is not surprising that a politician with these qualities is likely to stand out from amongst the DA’s parliamentary ranks. Save for a few bright stars, the DA parliamentary party of the post-Leon era has been moribund to say the least. There are one or two headline-grabbers, but most MPs have kept a low profile – lower, even, than in the days when their numbers were far fewer. This state of things hasn’t been helped by Athol Trollip’s lacklustre leadership. I have no doubt that Trollip is a genuine liberal, devoted to building a better South Africa. But he has failed to energise or inspire the DA caucus and his tenure shows he has neither the intellect or the charisma to do so.

The emphasis Johnson places on age and identity within the parliamentary leadership race is disconcerting. In trumpeting the alleged benefits of “maturity”, he does not bother interrogating who is truly the better candidate for the post. Trollip’s age and experience does not make him better able to lead the party in parliament.

Johnson can be rest assured that Anglophones will certainly continue to make a valuable contribution to the DA’s growth, and the future of our country. It is time for him to accept, however, that the face of South African liberalism and, by extension, the DA, is changing. That it is becoming a predominantly black one does not mean the death of liberalism, but rather its acceptance into the South African political mainstream.

This article was first published on Politicsweb. Read RW Johnson’s response here.

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