OPINION: The politics of race

Norman McFarlane

What are we to make of the brouhaha that has erupted since Helen Zille was elected chairperson of the DA federal council?

Her assurances, shortly after her election, that she would “stay in her lane”, were greeted with derision, and the dire predictions that the DA could no longer be considered a credible government-in-waiting, as it has of late positioned itself in our political milleu – that it would become nothing more than a regional player, centred largely in the Western Cape.
Ms Zille also noted that the DA would, at its upcoming policy conference, debate whether or not race would remain an overt policy focus in the DA. Then came the resignations.
The fury that followed the departures of Herman Mashaba, Mmusi Maimane and Athol Trollip, was largely directed at Ms Zille, as if she had single-handedly engineered her election as federal chairperson and consequently, the reversion of the DA to a party focused on minority interests.
Bizarrely, the media seems to be taking it it as a personal affront that the DA has reverted to its classic liberal roots, if the extent of the blatant editorialising by television news and anchors has radio talk shows is anything to go by.
For the record, newly elected DA parliamentary leader, John Steenhuisen, affirmed his party’s return to classic liberalism on Monday morning in a talk radio interview.
Using the term “progressive liberalism” to describe the DA’s policy platform, he noted that it and its predecessors, had over the past few decades remained steadfast in its upholding of these values.
Although he did note that the DA must have an “honest conversation” with itself about race, he effectively poured water on the notion that the party will, in the future, elevate race as a defining focus of its policy platform.
But a good deal of this happened before the rash of high profile resignations from the party, so who is really to blame for what?
The mere fact that Ms Zille made herself available for the post, did not in any way guarantee that she would be elected. That fell on the electoral college of the federal council which, between federal congress, is the supreme decision-making body of the DA. It elected Ms Zille. She didn’t elect herself.
In much the same way that the membership of the ANC dictates the party’s policy trajectory  through the mechanism of its five-year policy and elective conferences, so too does the DA.
This reversion to its roots, if it does not meet with the approval of the broader DA membership, will surely be overturned at its upcoming policy conference, when the question of race and its place in the DA policy platform will be debated, and decided upon.
But the DA is faced with an irreconcilable choice; remain true to its roots and espouse a non-racial meritocracy with a solid social safety net, or continue on its recent path of attempting to beat the ANC at its own game.
Race has been at the centre of ANC policy for as long as the party has had a policy framework, and for good reason. Before the playing fields in our society could be levelled, it had to be titled in the opposite direction, until the inequality imposed by apartheid had been eradicated.
Question is, for how long should the playing field remain titled in the opposite direction?
Opinions vary from one generation (the 25 years of ANC hegemony) to until the inequality of the past are completely eradicated, to eternity.
But here’s the thing, race-focused policy platforms the world over have largely failed to deliver the anticipated change, and the ANC in South Africa is no different.
Yes, we have seen significant improvements in the distribution of, and access to, primary healthcare, sanitation, water, education, electricity, but aside from the relatively lucky few who work in government and public enterprises, access to economic opportunities remain elusive despite the ANC government’s BBBEE, affirmative action, employment equity, and other race-based policy narratives.
We now live in a society that is dramatically more unequal, and more polarised around race, than it was when we embarked upon our great democratic journey.
Is this so because race has become central to our discourse as a nation, or because of those who have, the privileged few, choose to ignore race?
Perhaps the assertion of one political analyst, speaking on national television after Herman Mashaba resigned from the DA, puts the confusion over race in perspective: “Of course we want to live in a non-racial society, but we cannot ignore race while we build a non-racial society.”