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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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Why this pale male is shutting up (for a little while anyway)

Six weeks ago I touched down in London: a born-and-bred Cape Town boy about to start a new job in another country.

While the online smorgasbord of Politicsweb, the Mail & Guardian and Business Day still form a daily news staple, an inevitable sense of detachment from the roiling intrigue of South African politics has crept in. And not merely detachment: perhaps it’s because I’m living in a country, far, far away, that I feel less able – or qualified – to comment about day-to-day political issues.

But I’ve also succumbed to ennui. I’m tired of participating in a debate riddled by crass racial accusations – a discourse where identity prevails instead of ideas, rash insults instead of reason. South African debate is lively – thankfully so – but arguments are too often drowned out by the din of racial politicking. It’s become reflexive – a lazy tic employed by so many commentators. It’s easier to resort to racial stereotypes, or accuse people of being racist, or place blame on our racialised history, than it is to grapple seriously, thoughtfully, considerately with the mammoth challenges South Africa – and Africa – faces.

At the back of my mind every time I consider piping up, is the thought of my own impotence – condemned to irrelevance, almost, thanks to my perceived identity. I can’t avoid those thoughts: what’s the use in saying anything, when whatever I’ll say will be dismissed by a cursory “But he’s just another middle-class, white male”? It would seem my love for South Africa, my desire to see positive, long-lasting change in this country, counts for nothing in the eyes of many. I dream of a nation where all South Africans – black and white, and every shade in between – are prosperous; where children receive a good education; where families receive the support they need; where men and women are able to chart their own lives and shape their own destinies through their own efforts.

That counts for nothing in a media environment palsied by identity politics. Apartheid’s scars were often physical – and certainly social. Glance through the pages of our newspapers or tune into our talk shows, and you will witness that the wicked system’s lingering effects are psychological too. Sadly, the obsession with race, and with what race supposedly says about a person, has only deepened.

After more than 16 years of democracy, an implicit racial bias underpins much of South Africa’s media’s ouput – both in its commentary and reportage. Many journalists, it seems, are tempted to reinforce a narrative in which the legitimacy of people’s motives or actions are based purely on their skin colour.

I find this particularly evident in coverage of the DA’s governance in the Western Cape – the Makhaza toilet saga being a perfect example. Coverage on the issue laid bare the media’s inherent hostility towards a party perceived as “white”, as well as journalists’ reluctance to obtain facts on the ground that might contradict their sly suggestion that the DA was hell-bent on humiliating township residents.

Now that I’m living in London, a new label – that of expatriate – will of course be slapped onto me, further undermining the “legitimacy” of my contribution to political debate. South Africans can easily misinterpret moving countries as a sign of indifference about the migrant’s homeland: he’s run away; he’s given up; he doesn’t believe in our future. Staying is equated as a vote of confidence in the new South Africa, leaving merely shows contempt for it. Those who believe this forget, of course, that our world is an increasingly globalised one – and that leaving often has very little to do with the faith (or the lack thereof) in the country of one’s birth.

A part of me says this all shouldn’t matter, and that I should be writing about South Africa regardless, in the hope that my views won’t always be completely discarded as self-indulgent musings from an ivory tower. But, for the moment, that argument doesn’t hold sway and, wearied and wary, I’ll be letting my typing fingers rest for a little while yet.

Rest assured: I won’t remain silent forever. That would simply allow victory for the bigots who say political debate is a territory that can only be occupied by those who claim victimhood. For South Africa to move forward, we cannot allow that belief to prevail.

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Ideas must trump race for democracy to survive

DA leader Helen Zille neatly sums up the underlying challenge to the sustainability of South Africa’s democracy in “SA Today”, her weekly newsletter:

Breaking the racial logjam is essential for democracy in South Africa to survive. If elections are always a racial census, one party will always be in power. This has been the root cause of the ‘failed state’ phenomenon on our continent. Knowing they won’t ever be voted out of office is what leads politicians to abuse power and to steal people’s money in an ever-worsening spiral of corruption. They have the freedom to loot with freedom from accountability.

The greatest political challenge we have in South Africa is to ensure that voters’ choices are not based on race, but on alternative policy choices for the future. A shift closer to this ideal is in everyone’s interest, because unless we achieve it, the chances are great that we will also end up as a failed state.

Read the rest of Zille’s piece here.

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ANCYL’s vitriol directed at DA supporters

The ANC Youth League’s spokesperson, Floyd Shivambu, attacked the “vampire” media for reporting about Julius Malema’s security arrangements and the R300 000 it is costing taxpayers every month in this statement. Shivambu believes that such matters are “confidential” and “are not supposed to be discussed in public”.

He then turned on the DA, which had released a statement on the matter. Shivambu had this to say:

Majority of DA supporters witnessed with appreciation when apartheid sponsored killings of thousands of our people for many years and know of the cowardly assassination of Chris Hani.


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Travelling down the DA’s Country Road

Early last year I complained that the DA’s image was too rich, too old, too white. I wrote, “Clearly brand DA is in need of a major overhaul, a major injection of cool. Its fusty look is rather reminiscent of what Woolworths was like 10 or 15 years ago when people under 30 refused to be seen dead inside a Woolworths store.”

This was having a discernible impact on its support amongst the youth, who found joining the DA was effectively social suicide. “As such,” I said, “its reputedly attractive members are remaining unloved and unlaid — leaving me wondering as to whether alliances (democratic or otherwise) will occur to ensure the reproduction of little Helens, Tonys and Joes in the years to come.”

I noticed that this was despite the DA’s intelligent policies that offered a blueprint to stimulate entrepreneurship, nourish education and tackle crime. And also despite its ranks being filled with bright young things with an alphabet soup of degrees and awards.

Now, like Woolworths, the DA has had a makeover – doubtless earning the gratitude of its younger members for staving off eternal celibacy. The party’s logo was Obamarised. Its leader started tweeting and doing song-and-dance routines to keep drug dealers awake at night. An online social network of DA supporters was created. The party also got major street cred amongst Capetonians because when it was elected in 2006, they finally got a functioning municipality.

But not just was the party prettied, it also developed a sexy sub-brand. The Country Road equivalent – cutting-edge, classy, cool. Welcome to the DA Young Leaders’ Programme. What’s so hot about a youth movement, you might be wondering? Well. This is different. It’s not the veld-and-vlei fandangos of the FF+’s youth league (brownshirts are so 1936). Or the Sandton parties and beer-bottle battles of the ANCYL. Or even the SACP Youth League’s caviar communism – business class flights to cushy conferences, anyone?

No. The DA Young Leaders’ Programme is a rigorous part-time course in leadership. During the programme’s four retreats you’ll meet guest speakers from both within and outside of the DA. You’ll have workshops on politics, personal development and public speaking. And between each retreat you’ll have plenty of reading (about politics and leadership, of course).  You’ll also be typing up writing assignments and attending one-on-one life coaching sessions that will help you overcome obstacles to your growth as a leader. And to prove you’re not just a paper tiger, you’ll be overseeing your very own a leadership project which can be anything from a soup kitchen to a clothing brand – the choice is yours.

The DA is taking a gamble by investing in you – you’re not signing your life away or under any obligation to serve in the party – though obviously they would like you to). Why are they prepared to take this risk? Because the party genuinely wants to deepen the pool of young people that can one day lead South Africa – in politics, business, civil society and elsewhere.

And don’t think this is only for white protestant males from Houghton (there was only one of those this year!). People from all sorts of backgrounds, cultures, languages, genders are welcome and, indeed, encouraged to enrol in the programme.

If you’re between the ages of 18 and 35, and want to help South Africa reach its potential then what are you waiting for?

Believe me. It’s a lot cheaper than Country Road.

Visit www.youngleaders.org.za for more info.

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Why there’s not much hope for Cope

This op-ed was written on the eve of South Africa’s elections in April.

When Mosiuoa ‘Terror’ Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa announced they were “serving divorce papers” on the African National Congress (ANC), their political home, there was a frenzy of speculation that this would result in a tectonic shift in South Africa’s political and electoral landscape. As the marriage broke down irretrievably with the SA National Convention, an anti-Zuma fest in Sandton, and the subsequent official launch of an opposition breakaway party in Bloemfontein just over a month later, pundits were hailing these developments as marking the end of ANC’s political hegemony.

Dreams of a breakaway party’s ability to chastise ANC arrogance and curb the party’s overwhelming electoral might weren’t the only things discussed amongst the chattering classes. Many were seduced by Lekota’s pro-constitutional rhetoric, calls for a constituency-based parliamentary system and for the president to be directly elected. They saw this as promising greater engagement and accountability between political parties and the people – an antidote to the Mbeki era’s alienation of the electorate and the erosion of parliament’s prestige and “people power”.

Now, as the April 22 election date looms dizzyingly closer, the body politic is in a very different mood. A Markinor poll estimates that the Congress of the People (Cope) will receive between eight and 12 percent of the vote, with this buttressed by the DA’s tracking poll results which show support for the breakaway hovering between six and eight percent. Both percentages are paltry compared to the optimistic figures bandied about in the early days of Cope’s creation. It appears that come April, Cope will little more than dent the ANC’s electoral dominance – far from cutting the ruling party down to size as so many initially expected.

There are a number of reasons for this. The initial media frenzy and fuzzy euphoria that surrounded Cope’s pro-constitutional democracy pronouncements soon faded as more and more personalities closely associated with Mbeki’s ruling cabal defected to the party.

Nosimo Balindlela, the erstwhile premier of the Eastern Cape, was welcomed by the breakaway with open arms, despite having led a provincial administration plagued by corruption, ineptitude and service delivery failures.

Smuts Ngonyama, another influential member in the new party, hardly represents democratic values – having been Machiavellian Mbeki’s spin-doctor-in-chief and head of the presidency. With Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, the former deputy president, jumping aboard too, Cope seemed to increasingly resemble a collective of has-beens sidelined after backing the wrong horse at the ANC’s landmark Polokwane conference in December 2007.

The party’s leadership also suffered a credibility crisis. While Terror Lekota has been lauded for being “his own man” and something of a firebrand, many sceptics pointed to the administrative collapse of the defence department while he was its political head. People were also left wondering where Lekota’s apparent commitment to the Constitution was while he was a member of Mbeki’s cabinet. After all, he seemed quite happy to toe the party line when it came to Aids, the Arms Deal, Zimbabwe and other issues.

Cope has struggled to define its identity. While it has claimed to be a fresh and new alternative to the ANC it has been unable to differentiate itself from the ruling party, thanks to the plethora of Mbeki-ites in its ranks and a “cut and paste” election manifesto startlingly similar to the ANC’s. Volunteer-in-chief Mbhazima Shilowa didn’t help matters by claiming Cope “reveres” Mbeki: an autocrat whose tenure was marked by the suppression of debate, demonisation of critics, racialisation, lacklustre service delivery and rampant corruption.

Cope’s failure to make a clean break with Mbeki’s reign has continued with the appointment of Mvume Dandala as the party’s presidential candidate. While some hailed the appointment as a masterstroke – after all, the political neophyte was supposedly untainted by the scandals and intrigue of the Mbeki era – the strategy backfired. Not only is Dandala relatively obscure — most South Africans haven’t heard of him until now – but journalists soon discovered that Mbeki has described the former head of the Methodist church as his favourite cleric. Dandala incidentally officiated at his presidential inauguration in 2004. Unlike most other senior religious figures he refused to criticise even the president’s most horrifying policies – most notably Aids denialism and the implicit support of Mugabe’s oppressive regime. Dandala reinforced notions of loyalty to Mbeki and his Aids-denialist agenda when he was unable to categorically state to a journalist that HIV causes Aids. It’s perhaps unsurprising that some have even gone as far as to accuse him of being a Mbeki puppet, acting as a proxy for the disgraced former president to reign in the influence of Lekota and Shilowa within the new party.

A deterioration in the generally favourable attitudes towards Cope in the mainstream South African media can be attributed to the quietening down of pro-constitutional sentiment, with the splinter party instead dependent on high-profile defections to maintain news momentum. But even this tactic backfired when several people, including the ANC MP Dennis Bloem, were included in both the ANC and Cope electoral lists in early March. It appeared that these principled specimens were hedging their bets, worried they were to be purged by the post-Polokwane faction in power at Luthuli House. The electoral list fiasco also sparked reports of fierce battles for power and positions within Cope. With the party’s foot soldiers fighting it out for top spots on the electoral list, focus on the real battle – the election campaign – has been lost. Shilowa, Lekota and Dandala’s wobbly and uncertain leadership exacerbated the situation, creating the perception amongst potential voters that Cope is rudderless, running aground on the quicksands of self-interest and organisational anarchy.

Cope’s already fragile credibility has also suffered from its lack of discernment around new recruits which include corrupt former pastor Allan Boesak and other politically irrelevant opportunists like David Dalling and Peter Marais, both of whom have been members of several different parties. (In a farcical twist, the latter has subsequently defected to the ANC.) To make matters worse, Cope’s election strategist Mlungisi Hlongwane rejoined the ANC in late March. Compounding this strategic instability are rumours that despite the backing of BEE billionaire Saki Macozama, Cope has run out of money.

Analysts have said much about Cope’s potential impact on other opposition parties, with some even claiming that the breakaway would unseat the Democratic Alliance (DA) as the official opposition. Although Cope has been campaigning in opposition strongholds and its Western Cape premier candidate Allan Boesak has desperately rubbished the service delivery record of the DA-led coalition running the city of Cape Town, it is unlikely that either will have much effect. This is supported by Cape Town’s two recent by-elections: the DA won both by a landslide, with support for Cope barely registering as a blip on the electoral radar.

Cope’s dire financial situation, combined with its lack of strategy and chaotic organisational structure, is up against the DA’s relatively well-funded and slickly operated election machine and therefore will not be capturing much of the opposition vote.

On voting day Cope can count on the support of Mbeki loyalists as well as a sizeable portion of the nascent black middleclass, the beneficiaries of Mbeki’s Black Economic Empowerment and affirmative action programme. There aren’t, of course, that many of either – a direct consequence of the nature of both the man and the policies he imposed.

Like the authoritarian and aloof figure that haunts it, Cope has failed to connect with the rural voters and urban poor that make up the bulk of the ANC’s support base. In contrast, this is a demographic that ANC president Jacob Zuma, with his populist charisma and empathetic warmth, has energised and inspired. The disillusioned frustration stemming from the service delivery failures, unemployment and continuing poverty that characterised Mbeki’s rule has shifted to a hopeful optimism that the messianic Msholozi will deliver. In the face of this, splutterings about Zuma’s corruption charges are powerless and largely irrelevant. In trying to seriously challenge the Zuma-led ANC, Cope has put itself at an even greater disadvantage through its incoherent leadership, uninspired election manifesto and its chronic credibility crisis.

It is clear that Cope’s formation will not fundamentally realign South African politics as some have hoped. While that realignment is indeed inevitable, it is also an incremental process. We still have a long way to go.

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ANC will savage any opposition to its bid for perpetual rule

Leaked plans by the ANC to destabilise and distract from opposition leader Helen Zille from fulfilling her duties as premier of the Western Cape shows the contempt that our ruling party has for democracy.

After several years of the ANC’s chaotic mismanagement and paltry delivery, the Western Cape’s voters decisively elected the DA to run the province. In moves startlingly reminiscent to its repeated attempts to topple the DA-led Cape Town council, it is clear that the ANC simply cannot accept that its totalitarian agenda has been thwarted by Zille.

The ANC clearly isn’t interested in creating “a better life for all” as its slogan cynically claims. This is because the planned attempts to disrupt Zille’s administration will hurt the poor hardest. Zille has emphasised that service delivery and the practical obligations of her party’s much vaunted “open opportunity society” are her key priorities. Should she be prevented by the ANC from fulfilling this, then the poor – who would be the most significantly affected by her programme of action – will suffer.

Blinded by its elite’s relentless pursuit for power and privilege, the ANC’s track record local and provincial government – especially in strongholds like the Eastern Cape – has been that of abysmal incompetence and corruption, with the poor remaining shackled by apartheid’s legacy. Little wonder that the party cannot bear to be shown up by a principled, effective white woman who gets things done and actually genuinely cares about the plight of the impoverished.

When the MK Veterans Association threatened to make the Western Cape ungovernable after Helen Zille dared to exercise her right to free speech (even if she displayed unseemly insensitivity in the process), there was not even a whisper of condemnation from the ANC for this brazen, illegal incitement to violence. Making a province ungovernable is tantamount to rejecting the rule of law, and the constitution that underpins it. But this implicit endorsement of violent intolerance is not surprising. As we shall doubtless see in the months to come, the ANC will use its attack dogs – whether they be a semiliterate Youth League or washed-up war veterans – to brutally undermine any opposition that stands in the way of its bid for perpetual rule.


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