DA awaits diversity evolving

Tony Leon during an interview on April 11, 2013 in Johannesburg.
Tony Leon during an interview on April 11, 2013 in Johannesburg.
Image: The Times / Lauren Mulligan

One of the stand-out features of South African liberalism, the variant so thoroughly embedded in the DA, is its blind obeisance to excessive individualism, its ahistoricity and its loyalty to economics rationalism.

It is on the basis of these that we may understand the DA’s approach to diversity – or the lack thereof.

In its current incarnation, the DA represents something more similar to the smug liberalism of former leader Tony Leon than the liberalism of, say, Thomas Paine, who significantly influenced progressivism in the US during the 18th century.

As a liberal, Paine promoted social security, protection of the poor and the aged.

In his work on agrarian justice he advocated that those persons who were dispossessed had a right to restitution and that this should not be considered a charitable exercise.

In his book, The Age of Reason, Paine was quite scathing of organised religion (he singled out the Abrahamic churches) which, he said, appeared to be “no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit”.

Now imagine the DA being liberal like Paine. Difficult, isn’t it?

Nonetheless, the problem is that this particular brand of liberalism is greased by orthodox economics and herein lies the problem.

We may recall that mainstream economists would typically insist that direct intervention in society is unnecessary, and probably dangerous because “the market” (and the deified invisible hand) will allocate resources, opportunities and benefits naturally or more organically.

So, if you approach diversity in the same way, by not making deliberative changes, you may end up justifying the lack of effective and meaningful social change and transformation, on the basis that it will occur “naturally” or “organically” anyway.

This is where the DA’s ahistoricity and excessive individualism enter.

Orthodox economics is famously ahistorical.

The fact is that much of the structural inequalities in South Africa are the result of purposeful political intervention and shoring up of privilege over several decades.

It is a structural problem with historical origins.

It’s a bit tragic that this has to be repeated over and again.

Many of us still believe that “hard work” is what gave us privileges and advantages.
If that is true, millions of women working in the fields for 10 to 15 hours a day across Africa would be stupendously wealthy.

The fact that these inequalities have endured may be a failure of the first generation of people who assumed leadership in the state, and in institutions across the country, and who lacked the courage to make change.

The DA, it seems, is waiting for diversity to occur naturally, in some meritocratic way.

More on meritocratic nonsense, below.

The belief that change would occur naturally or “organically”, and not by direct intervention, is so embedded in the DA’s liberalism, that meaningful social change and transformation is expected to occur almost by osmosis.

The key is not to upset the feelings of white people.

I should probably retract my dismissal of Leon as a “smug” liberal, as it may hurt his feelings.

Excessive individualism lies at the centre of the DA’s liberalism.

DA MP Gavin Davis last week explained that the party’s liberal tradition placed “individual uniqueness and individual freedom at the epicentre of diversity”.

This seems like the type of “meritocracy” nonsense which would insist that each individual should simply “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, to which Martin Luther King once replied: “What of those persons who may not even have bootstraps?”

In her research, City University of London sociologist Jo Littler found that society was becoming more divided precisely because the wealthy promoted the idea of “meritocracy” while failing to directly address inequality.

The whole idea of a meritocracy, she concluded (as have many critical thinkers), was a myth, in part because the wealthy “hoard opportunities” and handed them out to networks of cronies.

This myth of meritocracy conveniently ignores the fact that very many people remain disadvantaged in various ways, because of their gender, race, location, education and levels of wealth. In sum, the DA’s recent conclusion of its 2018 federal congress – and the wait for diversity to emerge from the ether – reminded me of a passage in The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s epic novel of change in Sicily, and the story of the decline and collapse of the House of Salina.

The novel is about the arrival in Sicily of Guiseppe Garibaldi and his forces in 1860, intent on unifying Italy.

Amid the chaos of impending change, the aristocrat, Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, is confronted by his nephew, Tancredi, who tells his uncle, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

We will have to wait and see how diversity manifests itself in the DA – in the meantime the constellation of power seems to be the same as it ever was.