The fractures in the Democratic Alliance (DA) over racial justice and redistribution have reached a crisis point, putting the future of South Africa’s main opposition party in jeopardy. In a matter of days, its top leadership has been decimated. Blowhard xenophobic populist Herman Mashaba resigned as mayor of Joburg after the shock return of Helen Zille as federal chair, followed by party leader Mmusi Maimane and former Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip.
Zille is surely relishing her success in orchestrating a palace coup. She is now the face of a conservative, overtly white faction in the DA that blames Maimane for losing votes to the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) in the May general election.
The campaign to unseat the party leader was partly organised through the highly conservative South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR). Ironically, considering its hysterical anti-communism, the IRR sees itself as a kind of rightwing version of a Leninist vanguard, saving the party from itself. It wants a pure DA, purged of any talk of black empowerment or redistribution. The IRR and its allies and funders imagine themselves as heroes of a true liberalism and, in a particularly farcical move, restoring “non-racialism”.
This putsch reinforces the perception that the party is controlled by a clique of racist, smug bullies who cannot abide black people in power and cynically misuse the idea of non-racialism to prevent discussion of racism and action against racism.
It reveals utter contempt for the black voters who have been instrumental in growing the party, and an arrogant refusal to listen to black pain. It denies the blatantly obvious reality that the brutality of apartheid and racial capitalism continues to deform society.
They have walled themselves into a hallucinatory security estate of the psyche, where they can pretend that race suddenly doesn’t matter in South Africa. From the psychic comfort of this hallucination they reassure themselves that their privilege is somehow not connected to the unresolved horrors of this country’s tragic history.
Alienating black voters
These private-school Machiavellians have probably scored a spectacular own goal. It’s difficult to see how brazenly alienating the majority of black voters is going to translate to electoral success. It’s most likely that the party will rebrand itself as an Anglo version of the FF+, pandering to white self-pity and paranoia under the guise of freedom and property rights.
This is no endorsement of Maimane or Mashaba. The former party leader was himself an insipid figure, mostly concerned with platitudes.
If Maimane was underwhelming, Mashaba is a train wreck. As Johannesburg mayor, he seemed to make the real issues affecting South Africa’s largest city – pending bankruptcy, embedded corruption, dysfunctional services, pervasive violence and horrendous forms of economic and spatial inequality – worse. His main focus was on inflaming xenophobic hatred, regularly using inflammatory speech against migrants and directly contributing to this year’s violence.
Mashaba is cynically presenting himself as a brave figure standing up to reactionaries. But his politics are fundamentally Trumpian – he is a rich man telling the public that the grim reality of life for the majority in 2019 is caused by impoverished migrants.
Snakepit of backstabbers
The DA’s record in power in the Western Cape is dismal. As former DA councillor Brett Herron has revealed, the organisation is a snakepit of backstabbing opportunists whose primarily loyalties lie with property developers and party financiers.
The DA’s rule in Cape Town has been characterised by the criminalisation of the poor, the incompetent handling of the water crisis and an inability to address horrific levels of violence on the Cape Flats. The DA runs the city like a theme park for the rich and for tourists, disguising the true extent of social dysfunction.
The party’s struggles also map on to a broader ideological shift, where resentful white conservatives in South Africa are aligning with the hard right internationally under the banner of liberty and freedom. The South African media often takes the IRR at its word, repeating that it is just a humble group of concerned citizens who care about individual freedom.
But why, then, have they taken money from white nationalist groups like Afriforum? Why does their head, Frans Cronje, go cap in hand to Washington to visit rightwing think-tanks that belong to the extremist Koch brothers network? Why do they give a platform to cranks and apartheid apologists such as Rian Malan, Anthea Jeffery and that entirely miserable excuse for a satirist, David Bullard? Why do all their papers and articles speak the same stagnant language of austerity, tax breaks for the super-rich, reduced worker rights and climate change denial?
Their work doesn’t just exist in some rarefied intellectual space. It’s plugged into a toxic online echo chamber where boilerplate conservatives, white nationalists, the alt-right and libertarians reinforce each others’ regressive and delusory beliefs. The DA is now effectively announcing itself as an ethno-nationalist organisation, in which white identity politics is pursued under the guise of individual rights.
While the DA has positioned itself as an alternative to the kleptocratic and incompetent ANC, it has failed to offer a vision of individual freedom that speaks to the realities of South African life. The party, whether under Zille or Maimane, has deeply imbibed the neoliberal orthodoxy that believes that strengthening the power of capitalism in everyday life leads to greater individual freedom.
The woes of neoliberalism
In reality the neoliberal system is cracking under the weight of economic stagnation and ecological collapse. Neoliberalism has certainly made life freer for elites, but for the vast majority it has made life more restrictive through greater inequality, reduced social support nets, overwork, surveillance, violent policing, anxiety, depression and precarity.
In the wake of this failure, a new Right is emerging that promises individual freedom and prosperity – but only for specific ethnic or national groups. While this is connected to a broader history of racism and elitism in liberal intellectual and political history, it is now motivated by a new sense of scarcity. The Zilles and the Mashabas of the world are effectively saying this: you need to retreat to a laager and keep the spoils for your own kind, and screw everyone else.
At the same time, neoliberal orthodoxy is being challenged as never before. In recent days there has been open revolt on the streets of Chile, Ecuador, Haiti and Lebanon. And from the reinvigorated interest in democratic socialism in Europe and America, to radical democratic experiments in Latin America and Rojava, to impressive new forms of popular organisation here in South Africa, there is a thirst for politics that combines socioeconomic justice with expanded individual liberty.
It should be remembered that the civil liberties which liberals accept as common sense, from the universal franchise to LGBTQIA+ rights, and even the weekend, were won by radical, grassroots struggles, often led by the left. There are undoubtedly authoritarian, patriarchal and Stalinist elements within the broadly constructed Left. But equally, there are radical and emancipatory currents including feminism, democratic forms of Marxism, anarchism, radical ecology and queer, indigenous and postcolonial projects that offer rich insights into how socioeconomic redistribution, racial justice and individual flourishing and autonomy can be mutually supportive.
The “freedom” being promoted by the new DA will only contribute to the Balkanisation of our society, and offers no viable means to address the shocking levels of poverty, violence and general hopelessness that plagues us. Not only must we question what Zille and her ilk mean by rights and individualism, we also need to reject their paranoid conception of the left, acknowledge the profound ways in which racial capitalism has shaped our society and offer a more sophisticated and emancipatory concept of individual freedom. There are no easy answers to the interlinked problems of racial, class and gender domination in South Africa, but it’s clear that the DA and its now former leaders have no worthwhile vision of how to address these.