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Steenhuisen steaks his well-done claim to DA leadership

Opinionista • Paul Hoffman • 29 October 2019

The essence of the difficulty facing the DA is that it is the lone representative of the liberal ideal in the politics of South Africa. It will have to make clear its stance on affirmative action.

The new DA acting leader of the opposition in Parliament, John Steenhuisen, used the opportunity of addressing the Cape Town Press Club to announce that he would be putting his hat in the ring for the leadership of the DA nationally. He also used his time at the microphone to explain the state of his party and the plans he has to make it work for a country in which there is safety, a job and a better life for one’s children. In essence, Steenhuisen brought steak to the menu at the Press Club. Members, predominantly white and wrinkly, lapped up everything he had to say. If he had been selling encyclopaedias he would have been inundated with orders, judging by the applause he was able to generate.

The “keep calm and carry on” air he was able to generate with his personable style and carefully crafted presentation ensured that he was spared too many difficult questions, even when the not-so-white-and-wrinkled press corps got hold of him, especially on camera after the formal proceedings had ended. The essence of the difficulty facing the DA in the current political scenario in South Africa is that it is the lone representative of the liberal ideal in the politics of the nation. It is true that liberalism is the oldest of the traditions in our politics and that it has a long and honourable history in the Cape. However, the results of the elections reveal that there are four main streams in SA politics. These are the social democrat adherents to the “‘national democratic revolution” of African nationalists (represented by the ANC) the Afrikaner nationalists (represented by the Freedom Front Plus), the Marxist and racist Africanists (represented by the EFF) and the liberals with some smaller parties who are in essence African nationalists without their subscribing to the national democratic revolution and its questionable ideology.

It is ironic that SA should have a liberal Constitution when it is plain that the two major contestants at Codesa were Afrikaner nationalists and African nationalists. The flag-bearer for liberalism has always been the DA and its antecedents. In recent times it tended toward becoming “ANC lite” with policy positions on racial redress and affirmative action which echoed those of the ANC itself. The Constitution is unashamedly non-racial in its outlook. It does not recognise race as a pretext for affirmative action. The only basis for resorting to measures designed to promote the achievement of equality in SA that the Constitution actually countenances is disadvantage. There is no other way to read section 9(2) of the Bill of Rights.

This sensible stance is not countenanced by African nationalists. Race has been used as a proxy for disadvantage in affirmative action measures, the BEE and BBBEE laws and the mangling of the Bill of Rights that has been allowed by the policies of the ANC and its alliance partners. And indeed by the courts of the land. The Solidarity trade union is currently litigating this abomination.

If disadvantage, regardless of race, had been used as the criterion for affirmative action, there could and would be no liberal cavilling at the notion. But, introducing race as the basis of these measures has had the effect of re-introducing apartheid-era race classification as the means of working out who should be advantaged by the affirmative action measures and who should be left behind, with no whites being regarded as candidates for BEE points, irrespective of their opposition to apartheid, their suffering during its excesses and their current impoverishment.

Large white squatter camps exist around Pretoria; none of the inhabitants qualifies for the type of affirmative action sanctioned by the ANC. Only the clearly non-racial social security net saves them from oblivion. They derive cold comfort from the fact that squatters of all races are not often beneficiaries of the type of affirmative measures the ANC has put in place.

So, when Michael Reitz, a descendant of the famous Deneys Reitz, asked the all-important question: “Does the DA stand for race-based BEE, BBBEE and affirmative action, yes or no?” he did not get a yes or no answer, from Steenhuisen. This is unfortunate.

It is clear that the affirmative action measures put in place by the ANC have not worked as they should. The Gini coefficient of SA has grown, not shrunk, during the period that the ANC has been the government. The opposite is required if the purpose of affirmative action is to be achieved. The idea is to achieve equality. The practice has been to promote the politically connected elite at the expense of the disadvantaged.

The new black middle class is littered with examples of people who can claim no serious disadvantage but who have been given considerable advantage by the system of laws, codes, regulations, policies and practices put in place by the ANC. It is a huge crony network. It is one which leaves the poor, the rural dwellers and women far behind those whom they are designed to benefit. This is so irrespective of the race of those left behind. Oliver Tambo must be spinning in his grave as he is acknowledged as the father of the Bill of Rights. He was a great advocate of non-racialism.

Steenhuisen, who gave an otherwise unblemished display of his understanding of the liberal ethos, dropped the ball on this aspect of the input he gave the Press Club. He is going to have to revisit section 9 (2) of the Bill of Rights and he is also going to have to recognise that going soft on this aspect of policy is where the DA ran on to the rocks, the uncharted rocks, of becoming ANC lite.

It is true that most beneficiaries of the type of affirmative action which the Constitution contemplates will be black or at least not white (to use the odious apartheid-era nomenclature). However, that is not the criterion laid down for affirmative action. Nor could it ever be so in a country with a liberal democratic dispensation in which non-racialism and non-sexism are articles of faith.

The ANC will say that non-racialism is achieved when there is “demographic representivity”. This involves bean-counting of the most demeaning kind imaginable. The DA ought to say, in the best of liberal traditions, that there will be non-racialism when the content of character rather than the colour of the skin is decisive.

Identity politics, crude racial nationalism and the cronyism inherent in the current practices have no place in the liberal constitutional order that the DA ought to advocate. Steenhuisen needs to be clear on this. While it is right and perfectly conceivable that the majority of the beneficiaries of properly conceived affirmative action measures that promote the achievement of equality will be black, it is their disadvantaged status that qualifies them for affirmation, not the colour of their skins.

A non-racial order in SA will see a country in which the colour of the skin of an individual will not count for anything when jobs, contracts, positions in government, sports teams and all other opportunities are considered. This happy state is the nemesis of racial nationalism and the EFF style of populism. It is the achievement of the goals of the liberal project which the DA ought to champion in its capacity as flag-bearer of progressive values in SA.

The best available affirmative action measures are those that concentrate on decent education, proper training, the imparting of skills in technically oriented occupations and the mentoring of those who need the proverbial “leg up”. Land redistribution and entrepreneurial support can also be based on disadvantage.

Let’s hope for steak and clarity when Helen Zille addresses the club on Thursday, 31 October. DM

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