There’s a light – on the right – over at the Zil­len­stein place

Eye

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - ISSUES - WIL­LIAM SAUN­DER­SON–MEYER Jaun­diced

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.

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