05 Nov 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
In seeking to offer itself as an agent for redress and to attract a new base, the Democratic Alliance is far too scared of having the antitransformation label stuck on it, writes Tony Leon
GEN Colin Powell achieved some notable firsts in a star-spangled career. He was both the first African-American chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff and later secretary of state. He also offered some singular advice for business and political leaders: "Be prepared to be lonely."
I remember feeling quite lonely in Parliament in August 1998, when the Democratic Party and I went against the African National Congress juggernaut and led the opposition to the Employment Equity Bill. That legislation was the first, and by far the most powerful, signal that the nonracial prospectus of the new South Africa would be undercut by the compulsory race classification by "designated employers" of their workforces on pain of criminal sanction for noncompliance. Other than labour minister Tito Mboweni, who did not use racial invective, most of his caucus dismissed our stance as "antitransformation" and worse.
Shortly after the bill’s approval in Parliament, I received a call from the doyenne of the movement which I then led. It was Helen Suzman, never shy about expressing her approval or disapproval — both privately and publicly — for the party that she supported, often critically. This time she was in staunch support of our position and told me that, in her capacity as a member of the South African Human Rights Commission, she had submitted a minority report opposing the bill on exactly the same grounds as I had articulated in Parliament. The legislation was antiinvestment, racially coercive and fundamentally illiberal. She also advised that she intended to go public in her opposition.
As good as her word, a few days later, on September 6 1998, she was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune. One of the questions she was asked, with reference to her close relationship with Nelson Mandela, was why she did not join the African National Congress (ANC). After offering some kind words about the Democratic Party, her answer was very instructive. "I didn’t join the ANC because of its alliance with the Communist Party and because it introduces bills like the Employment Equity Bill. You don’t sacrifice efficiency, competence and merit."
Last Saturday, at a rally, the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) premier candidate in Gauteng, Mmusi Maimane, invoked the name of Suzman, alone among a pantheon of former ANC and Pan Africanist Congress leaders he cited with approval. Yet, just a few days before, the DA parliamentary caucus voted in favour of a bill that strengthens and increases the original penalties of the Employment Equity Act. The amending bill widens ministerial discretion, ramps up criminal sanctions for noncompliance and leaves unaltered the compulsory racial classification basis of the legislation.
The crisp question is: why has the party of Suzman embraced the very policies that she in her lifetime so resolutely opposed?
It should be added that a far less consistent (in terms of partisan support rather than any slide away on liberal principles) former leader of the party, Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, was even more vehement. In June 2006, he was the keynote speaker at a conference held on "The Revival of Race Classification in Post-Apartheid SA". He offered both a warning and a prescription. On the one hand, he called for South Africa to move away from its "stubborn obsession" with race, and he predicted that "if you make yourself hostage to a racist past, you can bank on a racist future". The intervening years have proven those words eerily prophetic. The solution to the issue of redress, he suggested, was to use the socioeconomic backgrounds of people rather than the blunt instrument of race as the best means of transforming the country. The DA’s flip-flop on employment equity suggests that whatever its other lapses, the ANC now comprehensively dominates the intellectual space and defines terms of the debate within it. This brings to mind an observation of Argentinian strongman Juan Domingo Peron. He said, "Argentinians might belong to different political parties, but at the end of the day we are all Peronists." A weekend DA statement cited no fewer than 10 problems with the legislation which the caucus had just voted in favour of, but added that the party remained committed to the cornerstone of the legislation.
Apparently it will now seek to amend some of its provisions in the National Council of Provinces. This confusing position brings to mind US Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry’s convulsions in 2004, when he tried to explain how his initial vote in favour of the invasion of Iraq was replaced later by his opposition to the war. "He was in favour of the war before he was against it," his Republican opponents pilloried him. The lesson here is: if you make a mistake, own it.
In seeking to offer itself as an agent for redress and to attract a new base, the DA is far too scared of having the race and antitransformation labels stuck on it. Van Zyl Slabbert offered another warning: "You can never out-Mau Mau the Mau Mau.
• Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA