There’s a light – on the right – over at the Zillenstein place
THE USUALLY smug and steady DA has over the past month metamorphosised into South Africa’s political equivalent of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The dizzying plunge through a Verwoerdian time warp was triggered by the Employment Equity Amendment Bill, which prescribes swingeing penalties for private sector companies that don’t meet the government’s rigid new targets for racial and gender representativeness.
In “just a jump to the left”, the official opposition, hoping to make inroads on the black vote next year and arguing that the bill was “completely compatible” with its policies, joined the ANC to vote it through the National Assembly.
Over the next weeks all hell was let loose by the DA’s old guard liberals. Leading the charge was James Myburgh, a former DA researcher who now runs the influential Politicsweb site, Institute of Race Relations analyst Anthea Jeffery, and political commentator RW Johnson.
The language was emotive, claiming the perfidious abandonment of sacred principles. Myburgh wrote of the “racial marginalisation” of minorities and of the DA leadership betraying “its supporters, its history, its principles and, indeed, the future of South Africa itself ”.
Former DA leader Tony Leon restrained himself momentarily, and then with a joyful shudder of schadenfreude over the predicament of Helen Zille, who had replaced him as leader, joined the fray. In a consummately subtle Business Day column he, without once mentioning Zille by name, compared her “flipflop” performance unfavourably with those of previous steadfast DA leaders such as Helen Suzman, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert and himself.
Leon’s praise of Slabbert’s liberal fortitude would have stung particularly. Slabbert was long reviled in liberal circles for almost destroying the Progressive Federal Party, a predecessor of the DA, when in 1986 he resigned as leader because he felt Parliament had become irrelevant.
Through this storm of Transylvanian proportions, the DA leadership initially laid low. Then came “the step to the right” when the pressure became too much. After a fiery caucus meeting Zille emerged to announce the DA’s withdrawal of support for the suddenly “Verwoerdian” Bill.
It was the parliamentary team that had “dropped the ball”, explained Zille, without a blush. There had been “deficiencies… sequential errors”, and ultimately a “plane crash”.
Although Zille’s disingenuous attempt to blame the parliamentary DA – she is after all the national leader and her alter ego Lindiwe Mazibuko is parliamentary leader – was shabby, it worked. Zille and Mazibuko emerged blameless and two deputy shadow ministers were shafted instead.
Any sense of victory on the part of the old liberals was short-lived. At last weekend’s DA federal council meeting – talked up by commenta- tors as a battle between the “old guard” and the “black caucus” – it was yet again “a jump to the left”, with perhaps a concessionary little bum wiggle to the right. The DA’s final word, for the moment, is that “race remains a legitimate measure of disadvantage”.
The sop to the DA’s minoritygroup supporters was Mazibuko stressing that race was not a “permanent proxy for disadvantage” but a “horizon” of which the limits would depend on how successful broad-based black economic empowerment measures were.
Judging by public and media reaction, Zille has emerged from this mad whirl with her reputation a little ragged. But it’s not as simple as that.
Although it has taken some messy zigzagging, it is something of a personal triumph for Zille that she has dragged the DA into a new political dimension. The DA has been fundamentally changed. For the first time its policy is based on the fact that in South Africa race defines disadvantage and consequently, restorative action is a necessity.
There is irony in all this. While it is true that the 2013 equity bill is disastrously unworkable and Zille should never have supported it, by this new articulation of DA policy Leon should never have opposed the 1998 act in the first place.
Liberalism, of all ideologies, is not an unchanging religious creed. While remaining anchored in individual rights and freedoms, it has to adapt as best able to an ever-changing political terrain. Zille dropped the ball, but recovered to score a try.