Helen Zille’s resignation, and hyperbole in political commentary

helen-zilleOn Sunday, we witnessed an atypically shambolic press conference from the Democratic Alliance (DA). Part of the reason for the chaos was presumably the significance of the news, namely Helen Zille’s announcement that she won’t be standing for the position of party leader at their upcoming elective conference.

A journalist contacted me yesterday for comment on whether she “jumped or was pushed”, and it strikes me as unfortunate that the question seems as high on people’s lists of interests as it seems to be. The News24 live feed of the press conference chose “I wasn’t pushed” as their headline, even though the mere idea that she might have been was mentioned only once by Zille, and then once in a speculative tweet by UCT’s Professor Pierre de Vos.

My view is that the distinction is to a large extent a meaningless one, and one that mostly serves to feed a public demand for sensation.

Zille is undoubtedly a strong enough character to have stayed on if that was her preference – so to some extent, it strikes me as absurd to suggest she was “pushed”. But in this discourse, “pushed” is interpreted to mean something closer to “evicted”, or told/asked to go.

If you think of “pushed” in the less hyperbolic sense of being subject to internal pressures, it would be absurd to think that those were not present. For one, there isn’t a political party that has no internal dissent, and second, we also know that Zille has been contemplating stepping down as leader for some time now.

The fact that Zille herself made the possibility of stepping down public knowledge would also mean that anyone who would like to see her do so might have been emboldened to make that suggestion internally more often or openly than before. This wouldn’t amount to being “pushed” in any sense that represents an ousting or a coup, which is what the hyperbolic language suggests – it’s rather part of the ordinary growth and evolution of an organisation.

In this case, I think the timing poor. I of course don’t have access to all the information, and there might well have been compelling reasons why it couldn’t wait. But I think it poor first because it will have the likely effect of eliminating any serious competitors to Mmusi Maimane as Zille’s successor, and second because there isn’t much time for any successor to be confident of full control of the party in time for the upcoming elections in 2016.

The first issue undermines internal democracy, and has the effect of Zille anointing her successor, rather than that successor being chosen by the party. Postponing the federal congress to give other candidates a fair shot would have cost R5m, according to Gareth van Onselen.

On the second issue, a new leader will not only have to get to grips with a broader range of internal interests and pressures, but will also presumably want to put his or her own stamp on things, which means that those they lead will also have to adjust to a new regime. Add those complications to the strong suggestions that the DA will be launching a new “values” platform before the election, and the recipe seems to indicate an incoherent election campaign.

Regarding Maimane himself, I think he’ll struggle with internal and external credibility, at least initially. His rise has been too rapid to establish a track-record that inspires confidence, and beyond being a good rhetorician, we know little about him as leader – his strategic inclinations, his views on policy, and so forth.

Having said that, there’s a wealth of experience in the party that can offer advice during the transition, and I also doubt that Zille would have been as supportive of him as she has been until now if he were not up to the task. She’s also not going anywhere, having committed to seeing out her term as Western Cape Premier.

However it plays out, there are interesting times ahead for watchers of South African politics, same as it ever was.

South Africa (apparently) intends to break the Westminster system

mmusibelieve11871416618143538425242123914580nEarlier today, I tweeted that I didn’t agree with the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) strategy of no longer recognising the Speaker of Parliament. Besides wondering quite how this could be effected, I also suggested that gambits aimed at breaking the Parliamentary process hardly seemed appropriate for an already broken institution.

A friend on Twitter asked what I would suggest as an alternative to what the DA has chosen to do, and this is my answer to him. Well, an answer, and also some reflection on the situation in general.

I’m not going to rehash what happened in Parliament yesterday, and will instead point you to Rebecca Davis’ column, which does a fine job of highlighting what a unfortunate session of Parliament this was for anyone who holds out hope that our nation’s affairs are being governed by reasonable people.

So, in light of those events, Mmusi Maimane (DA Parliamentary Leader) released a statement that begins with:

Events in Parliament yesterday represent a turning point for our democracy and has fundamentally changed the DA’s approach to Parliament. Baleka Mbete lost control of the House and destroyed her credibility as the Speaker. Accordingly, we will cease to recognise her authority as Speaker.

Every time she presides over the House, the DA will only send its Chief Whip, Deputy Chief Whip and those members participating in debates.

By “fundamentally changed”, Maimane seems to mean that they intend to read the mandate that many South Africans have given them to represent them in Parliament, vote on bills, hold the Executive to account and so forth, as giving them licence to rather take their toys and go home.

Because instead of a potential 89 (the number of DA representatives in the National Assembly) (NA) voices, there will now only be the handful described in that last paragraph, quoted above, and the 22.2% of South Africans who voted for the DA might as well have “fundamentally changed” their attitudes towards elections also, and not bothered to vote.

Yes, I get that these are tactics of brinkmanship, where the DA might hope that the pared-down Parliament resulting from this move might provoke the ruling party into fearing a loss of perceived legitimacy in respect of the National Assembly. But if what you’re complaining about is a ruling party that you think above the law, and contemptuous of the opposition, how likely do you think a favourable result is?

More important, for me, are some matters of principle. One, as I’ve already noted, is that DA MPs have a job to do, and their Parliamentary Leader is telling them not to do that job.

Second, tactics like walk-outs (and this is basically an extended and generalised walk-out) need to be used sparingly. A walk-out is one of the strongest protest signals the opposition has, and one doesn’t want to use your strongest currency without exhausting all other options. Now, in this case – given that riot police were in Parliament, assaulting MPs and so forth, a walk-out might well be the appropriate action.

Except, they do it all the time – not just the DA, but other parties too. So, instead of provoking as significant a reaction as it should (“What? All the elected officials of party X, paid R1-Million a year to do job Y, have walked out of Parliament? Either there’s a crisis, or they need to explain themselves. Either way, I care.”), one instead thinks of the boy who cried wolf, and what rhetoric Maimane will need next time he wants to lead a walk-out. Which will probably be next week.

Walk-outs can be an abrogation of your responsibilities to the voters. They can also impair credibility, not only because credibility can be impaired inside the NA but also with the electorate, some of whom still associate the DA with negativity and obstructionism.

Credibility is also impaired through what looks like opportunistic application of one principle in one case, and very different principles in another. Compare and contrast Helen Zille defending yesterday’s filibustering tactics with this DA statement (from Dene Smuts) on Ambrosini’s filibustering in 2011:

But we can, and do, object to the fact that he is subjecting the South African Parliament to a political stunt. His actions demean the national legislative authority of the Republic of South Africa.

It’s different when we do it, I guess.

Third, some of our conventions only have moral force through common assent – they’re grounded in a sort of social contract, where they work because we all agree that they should work in a certain way, and are valuable because they often, in fact, do so.

Maimane is dead right that Mbete is a terrible Speaker, who has utterly failed to hide the fact that she’s defending the ruling party’s interests wherever and whenever she can. She’s a disgrace to the position, and needs to be gotten rid of. But, according to the rules, if she tells you to leave the NA, you need to leave the NA.

And when she told Michael Walters (deputy chief whip of the DA) to sit, and then to leave after he refused to sit, it’s the DA who break that social contract. The DA can’t claim a moral high-ground involving Mbete and the ANC provoking the violence of yesterday, without reflecting on the fact that there were various provocations along the way to that – and that some of them involved the DA, and specifically involved the DA ignoring the same set of conventions that they want Mbete censured for ignoring.

There are differences of degree, no question – as I say above, I’m addressing matters of principle alone, and making the point that it’s not only the ANC who is breaking the relevant social contract. If told to leave, you leave, and use the fact that you were capriciously ejected as ammunition for future battles, rather than running the risk of your refusal prompting an even less productive session for your colleagues, and the citizens you represent.

To conclude, and in part-answer to the question that prompted this column, what would I have suggested instead of what Maimane says in his statement? Well, I suspect that I would have written a far more strongly worded letter, which would have made it clear that the party no longer recognised her moral, rather than her literal, authority.

I would perhaps have embarrassed her with a list of all the ways in which she’s let the NA, and the country, down, and highlighted moments in which she destroyed her credibility – in short, the purpose of the press release would simply be to demonstrate that she’s demonstrably not fit for purpose.

It would have been just on that topic, not about Zuma not attending question and answer sessions, or Lindiwe Zulu attacking an opposition MP, so as to make it clear that as far as you were concerned, this Speaker is contemptible.

Then, I would have told my caucus to get back to work, including respecting the Office of the Speaker, and including obeying instructions that the Speaker gives. If the party thinks they contravene the agreed conventions (and laws), then the people not ejected can make that point, sometimes winning and sometimes losing.

But at least the majority of the MPs will be in the House, able to do some work. Seeing them do that work in a dignified fashion, working within the rules, while simultaneously observing a Speaker making rulings that are biased, arbitrary and perhaps vindictive, might well do more good for both Parliament, and the DA’s share of the vote.

Eusebius McKaiser asks: “Could I vote DA?”

Finding myself in a bookstore with some time to kill, I sat down to read Eusebius McKaiser’s new book, Could I Vote DA?, and am now in a position to recommend that (some of) you do so, too.

Regardless of the book’s title – although the DA (the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s only self-identified liberal party) is the main focus – Eusebius does a fine job of capturing the essence of some key ideas in politics, such as the point and value of a political ideology, what liberalism entails and doesn’t entail, affirmative action, and the strategic and tactical dilemmas faced by those in the political arena.

The book is overtly (even proudly) subjective, and Eusebius’s character is manifest on every page. For some people that will be a negative, but for those of you who can read past an impression of a character that’s not your preference, the personal narrative does, I think, help to bring the ideas to the forefront.

One aspect of the book and its subjectivity that I wasn’t enamoured of was what seemed (at times) to be gratuitous sniping at some former and current DA representatives or employees, in particular their former Executive Director of Communications, Gareth van Onselen (also a friend). They don’t see eye to eye on some things, and neither of them are fond of being told they are wrong, but Eusebius’s account of some recent dealings between van Onselen and people in the DA seemed a little too eager to “school” van Onselen.

(Much of the conversation regarding Gareth van Onselen is in a chapter detailing the disagreement between himself and Mmusi Mainane – the DA’s National Spokesperson and Deputy Federal Chairperson – on the topic of ubuntu, so this is an opportune time to link you to an email conversation Gareth and I had on the topic of ubuntu a couple of years ago.)

The language of the book is very informal, containing many colloquialisms and much slang. In tone and content, I’d think it well-suited to a younger audience – perhaps those “born frees” that will be voting in a National Election for the first time.

Those of you who know your political philosophy won’t learn much by way of theory, but can certainly still enjoy the book not only for how it might get you to think about issues again, even afresh (of value, because our beliefs and views can easily calcify without our realising it), but also for its gossip value – Eusebius gets to hear plenty of interesting stories while hosting his morning show on PowerFM, and in similar gigs prior to that.

The question of what market this was aimed at is an interesting one – the book retails for roughly R230, which might, I fear, place it slightly out of that youth market’s comfort zone. Stephen Grootes recently published SA Politics Unspun for around R185, and while Richard Calland’s The Zuma Years retails for a similar price to Eusebius’s book, Calland’s is research-intensive rather than a piece of reflective political philosophy.

These books aren’t directly comparable, but they do give a sense of what other publishers thought a reasonable price for a book about politics, in a market that we know doesn’t read an awful amount in any case. I hope I’m wrong, and that Eusebius can treat me to a gloating dinner with his royalties later this year.

A final though: the key point, for me, made in Eusebius’s book was regarding the tension between principle and pragmatism, and how difficult it is to strike a balance that both satisfies the electorate while not selling out the values you are ostensibly promoting. The DA has mostly stuck to (an attempted) defence of principle, even while foundering in doing so at various points (to mention just one example, Eusebius highlights the illiberal stance of Helen Zille on HIV/AIDS, something I’ve also previously written about).

But when they try to make a case for something that’s about more than only principle – or when they make a case for a principle in a way that’s designed to appeal to more people than only their liberal base (if that is still their base at all, as I questioned when writing about the Maimane vs. van Onselen thing, their message seldom seems both co-ordinated and coherent. Last year’s BBBEE confusion was the most striking example of this, and these examples all speak of a party that knows it needs to change it’s manner of engaging our voting population, rather than the voting population that can be found in textbooks.

Eusebius makes this case very well, and very thoughtfully, and his book is a welcome contribution to South Africa’s political debate, especially with an election less than three months away.

Liberalism, the Democratic Alliance and identity

Mmusi-MaimaneThere’s perhaps an argument for saying this about any election, but to my mind, the upcoming national elections in 2014 will be South Africa’s most interesting since our first (democratic) election in 1994. Various factors align to make it so – the ANC’s corrupt leadership, and President Zuma’s apparent inability or unwillingness to do anything but enrich himself; the untested effects of Ramaphosa’s re-emergence as a political force; the reaction of a nation to scandals (Limpopo textbooks) and murderous police (Marikana); and whether these (and other) factors will lead to mass apathy and a low voter turnout, or to more votes being cast for the official opposition.

And that’s where another complication can be introduced – one that I intend to be the topic of this post – namely the identity of the Democratic Alliance, and whether liberalism can accommodate concepts like ubuntu, or be sympathetic to “African-ness” (whatever either of those terms might mean). In her Sunday column for the City Press, Carien du Plessis asked:

Rather than splitting hairs on whether its leaders are true blue liberals or not, the party would do well to think about how its version of liberalism could include rather than reject Africanness and concepts that are a hot sell among a South African electorate craving some feel-good ubuntu.

Otherwise the DA could be wandering in an elitist wilderness forever.

The “splitting hairs” she refers to is contained in a sequence of op-ed’s and blog posts by Mmusi Maimane (DA national spokesperson), Gareth van Onselen (previously communications head at the DA, then executive director for innovation and projects, and now resigned from party leadership) and Gavin Davis (current communications director for the DA, but writing in his personal capacity). If you want to read them, go here, here and here.

I don’t think it’s splitting hairs to contest whether or not leaders are true blue liberals, if we believe that there’s something important about being one, and can agree on what liberalism is. Van Onselen has strong views on what liberalism is, and on how the DA should compete for the flourishing of liberal ideas in South African politics. Du Plessis, in saying that the party should think about how it could include African-ness and ubuntu, is making the implicit claim that liberalism can include those concepts. Well, the DA’s “version” of liberalism can, at least – and it’s exactly what this version should be that van Onselen is concerned with, arguing that these are essentially illiberal ideas.

So, I think a legitimate case can be made that if we were to foreground (or “include”, however we end up defining that) these concepts, this would involve some sort of betrayal of classical liberal values. For some, that would be a good thing, for others a bad one. And we can argue about whether that makes the party no longer liberal, or liberal-lite, or whatever.

But let’s be careful of thinking this a crucial step in defining the nature of the party, or rather, let’s acknowledge the fact that the party hasn’t been a classically liberal one for quite some time now. To pick only some recent examples, some would say that a liberal party should not bow to religious pressure and act as a respondent in a court case aimed at the revocation of a liquor license on the grounds that booze would be sold next to a mosque. Some would say that our provincial transport MEC didn’t sound very liberal when threatening to confiscate the car keys of sleepy drivers, and when asked if this was legal, saying “I have no idea, but I don’t care either”. There was Helen Zille’s suggestion that she’d like to make the wearing of condoms law in non-monogamous sexual intercourse, or Jack Bloom’s claim that “maybe if we all prayed more the social change we desire will happen” – which, while not obviously illiberal, certainly makes human agency and freedom seem subservient to some powerful force in the clouds.

So in summary, this might in the end be hair-splitting, because the party might have stopped being liberal a while back now. And perhaps van Onselen knows this, and is now saying things (at least, publicly) that he’s been thinking for some time. And, maybe, we can understand his concern at what Maimane had to say, in that Maimane is likely to be an increasingly influential force within the party, and thus serves as a bellwether for the ideological stance of the party in 2014 and beyond, where the party might start openly embracing illiberal ideas, rather than having to suffer through occasional bouts of illiberality from one of more of its leaders.

Maimane’s comments do matter, as do any prominent DA official’s comments on topics like these, because they indicate not only ideological direction, but also the extent to which a party is willing to compromise, and how honestly it’s willing to do so. For instance, Maimane could have chosen to say: “liberalism cannot include collectivist ideas like ubuntu, and in this respect, I consider liberalism flawed”. Or, he could argue that this version (to go back to du Plessis’ suggestion) of liberalism is more suited to a people who do have strong collectivist tendencies – or even that freedom has to include the freedom to be part of a collective, even if that seems counterintuitive to some.

But van Onselen is right in pointing out that Maimane does himself seem to believe in the idea that “being African” means something, and he also seems to think it should mean something – not just to him, but to “Africans”. And that is illiberal, because if Maimane restricted himself to the purely descriptive claim that “many people in Africa seem to believe X” or the more personal “I happen to believe or feel X” there would be less of an issue, in that self-identification is part of what liberalism is about. Prescribing versions of identity, or (at least) presenting them as normative, runs counter to self-identification, and thus to liberalism.

The problem, though, is that as much as you’d be free to think of yourself as an African, or to subscribe to something like ubuntu (on Inside Politics, van Onselen and I have previously discussed what that concept means) within a broad liberal framework, the DA don’t create the impression of welcoming those sorts of self-identification – and this is the real problem, and has been since the party came into existence (and before – I remember having the same debates at PFP Youth meetings in the 1980’s, and I’m sure they were discussed long before then too).

(An aside: on Twitter, van Onselen stated that the “ideas themselves are illiberal“, so he’d presumably dispute the paragraph above. I’d argue that whether African-ness was illiberal or not would depend entirely on what it meant, for you, seeing as we’re now talking about self-identification rather than someone else’s label. If African-ness means some sort of sentimental attachment to the continent, for example, calling that illiberal seems to me as false as it would be to call my identification as a Manchester United fan illiberal”.)

As I was saying, these debates have gone on for some time. To my mind, this is the same debate that Ryan Coetzee (former and current all sorts of things, but at the time, writing as CEO of the DA) was talking about in a 2006 strategy document where he noted (in a passage explicitly framed as generalisation) that:

all South Africans don’t share the same concerns about what might be called “identity issues” … white South Africans don’t have the same attachment to the cultural heritage of black South Africans – indeed black South Africans have always felt that their culture is regarded as inferior by whites, and that by extension they themselves are regarded as inferior.

The DA in 2013 looks vastly different to the DA of 2006, partly because it has taken the lead on initiatives (street renaming) and policy (basic income grant) that demonstrate a commitment to redressing history’s injustices rather than reinforcing some “neoliberal” caricature of wiping the slate clean, and letting people compete in some Darwinian pure market economy.

But if we say things like “ubuntu and African-ness are illiberal”, or  that Mmusi Maimane is being unfaithful to the tenets of liberalism in trying to define those concepts, an impression of hostility to that “cultural heritage” would be created. You might think it wrong that people perceive it as hostile – perhaps preferring that the argument be had on the facts, rather than on the emotive impact of pointing out those facts – and I would agree that it’s not ideal that we can’t dispassionately consider the merits of these competing views.

Unfortunately, humans – and politics – have never been only about the facts, or about rationality. Many of you might think the facts have even less to do with political argument than rhetoric does, and I’d be reluctant to disagree. So, when we ask if liberalism can “accommodate” these concepts, even if the answer turns out to be “no”, we should be concerned about how we get to that answer.

Asserting that it is the correct answer in a way that dismisses competing views as a nonsense can do little but feed in to a stereotype about liberals and liberalism, namely that they are and it is un-African. The concept is flawed, and it’s to my mind a nonsense, especially when prescribed to others.

But nobody will listen to your arguments as to why that might be the case if they think you’re insulting them, or even worse, telling them what they should believe – or ironically, even perhaps who they should be.