The Democratic Alliance’s new parliamentary leader, John Steenhuisen, is polite, reasonable, open to persuasion and likeable. He is a gentleman.
These are obviously subjective judgments on my part, and many would both agree and disagree with me.
Helen Zille, the DA’s federal council chairperson, is less polite, less reasonable, less open to persuasion and less likeable.
Again, I am listing my subjective impressions of her, which are not shared universally.
Steenhuisen benefits from these shallow, aesthetic and tonal differences between him and Zille. While some observers do not care to distinguish between DA politicians, those who do would say, whatever criticisms they may or not have about Steenhuisen, he is not in the same WhatsApp group as Zille. He is a different political animal. But I think this would be a very hasty conclusion to reach.
Zille and Steenhuisen share deep similarities in their politics that will not serve the DA nor the country well. It is important to set aside such traits as having a polite manner, and drill down into the political thought of a politician. When we did so with Mmusi Maimane, the former leader of the DA, we found political vacuity, lack of decisiveness and a genial manner that had to have an inherent political expiry date built into it.
When we listen to Steenhuisen closely on key questions of redress and race, we quickly realise that he and Zille have identical core political convictions and only their communication styles differ. This is bad news for the official opposition.
First, I asked Steenhuisen this past week on The Eusebius McKaiser Show whether he agrees with Makashule Gana, who is competing with him for the interim leadership position, that race should or can be a morally and politically defensible tie-breaker between two candidates who are both technically more than qualified for a particular post, including that of leader of the DA.
We then explored, in quite some detail, the implications of this. Steenhuisen argued that “we have become far too obsessed about race” as a country and that “[racial] representivity” should not matter in decisions such as who the leader of an organisation is.
When one radio listener, Dumisani, challenged him by suggesting that the gender analogy is instructive, and that if we were a company run by men trying to expand our brand into a consumer base dominated by women — women who do not in large numbers flock to our products and offering — that a representation of women in our public leadership would be rational, Steenhuisen disagreed. He persisted with the straw person view that anyone holding Gana’s or Dumisani’s opinion is a “racial nationalist”.
Zille and Steenhuisen have the exact same view on race. Neither think that race matters. Neither think that race-based redress policies should be formulated and implemented. Both think that recognising racial difference can only — and has only — led to corruption and economic theft by a few politically connected black folk.
The only difference between Zille and Steenhuisen is rhetorical. Steenhuisen, mindful of how thoroughly divisive Zille has become in recent years, will toss out phrases such as not being “from the Helen Zille school of politics” to indicate some political discomfort with her position in our political landscape.
But if you pressure-test Steenhuisen’s thinking, then he reveals his most deeply held convictions on race and identity. He genuinely believes, as does Zille, that anyone who thinks that race is a proxy for disadvantage in South Africa is a “racial nationalist”. But this is a silly misdescription of what many black people experience and think, and what some white allies sensibly understand.
Obviously reducing any and all social and political discourse to the concept or even the experience of race won’t get you very far. Race is a social construct and not a biological essence. Race isn’t the only identity trait (real or constructed) through which our lives are structured: gender, class and other markers intersect powerfully and in irreducibly complex ways with race to jointly inform life in South Africa.
But I do not know one critic of Zille’s or Steenhuisen’s view who “reduced” life to race. They frame the position of their critics lazily, because a misdescription of a textured articulation of how race does still matter is a reality they cannot or do not want to deal with. The motive for the straw person descriptions is plain: any honest recognition that race matters requires a white progressive person to deal with their white privilege and that is apparently too much of a burden for a senior white politician in the DA to do.
It is far easier to waspishly dismiss a critic, to say that critics hate the DA or to assert that critics do not speak for all black people. It is trite that not one single person, including social science researchers, speak for every member of a socially constructed group. That is a cheap high school debating move to make in race discourse in South Africa. Finding me a few black people who agree with you does not win the argument.
The honest question to pose, if you want to lead the DA successfully, is: “Why, despite the monumental fuckups of the ANC, is the DA unattractive to the black majority of voters in the country?”
The reason is few black voters are quirky libertarians. Most of us have deep memory of anti-black racism that we carry in the cells of our bodies on a daily basis. Dismissing race is the worst way to signal that you would do a better job than the useless ANC to improve the lot of millions of black people who do not vote for you.
Steenhuisen mimics Zille in other ways. He tells me that “the best proxy for disadvantage is disadvantage”. This is one of the least informative sentences in the English language that can make an appearance in a serious policy debate about how to address past racial injustices. If the phrase sounds familiar to you, it is, because Zille has been mouthing it many times over the past month. The victims of racism are black — Steenhuisen himself tells me that probably “99% of people who are poor are black” — and yet he, like Zille, does not want to describe who the targets of redress policies are. They are black people, dude.
What you, as Steenhuisen need to grapple with, is why it is so triggering for you to talk race? Why is it galling or threatening to describe the victims and survivors of apartheid racially? Again, the political thought of Zille and Steenhuisen here are exactly the same.
Steenhuisen will, as a slightly more careful communicator, briefly sound more progressive by saying something like “I am committed to non-racialism” and “diversity is important”. But these statements ring hollow when your deepest convictions jump out under pressure.
If you think we are a “race obsessed” country then you are not seriously committed to an anti-racist society. You have to take the phenomenology of race seriously, and not misdescribe the place of race in contemporary South Africa by lumping everyone together who is not colour-blind as simply being a “professional black”, to quote Zille when she insulted musician Simphiwe Dana.
I do not judge a white progressive politician by declarations of a commitment to non-racialism and diversity. I want to know what you mean by non-racialism and whether you get that non-racialism, properly understood, is a revolutionary concept in service of racial justice, which is why some of us prefer the more accurate alternative concept of anti-racism.
Similarly, talk of diversity means nothing to me if you are scared, when you unpack “diversity”, to look racism squarely in the eye.
It is likely that Steenhuisen will become the next leader of the DA. I think some people who do not like Zille do like Steenhuisen. But if Steenhuisen does not rethink and re-examine some of his views about race and redress, the group of people who distinguish between tone-deaf Zille and the more “reasonable” Steenhuisen will quickly realise that they are of the same ideological bent.
That will make it hard for a Steenhuisen-led DA to stop the decline of the share of the DA’s vote in the next national elections. The party’s policy conference in early 2020 presents an opportunity to correct the short-sightedness of Zille and Steenhuisen’s race-blind political agenda.
But I don’t fancy the chances of those who disagree with them winning the argument because of the tight nexus between money, libertarian thinking and the powerful old guard in the DA.