Why Zille should ignore Tony Leon
Date Released: Tue, 12 November 2013 09:05 +0200
DA leader Helen Zille helps Dianne Minnies at the Heinz Park, Cape Town, registration station as Lorna Erasmus looks on at the weekend. The DA lacks intellectual rigour when it comes to dealing with critics, says the writer. Picture: Leon Lestrade
Critics inside and outside the DA who try to imply that it is illiberal to support BEE and BBBEE are wrong, says Eusebius McKaiser.
Johannesburg - The DA faces interesting pressures as it grows in size. From some, there is pressure on the party to be more inclusive in its identity. It has to be attractive to people whose fundamental principles, values and lifestyles are not liberal.
From others, the party is made to feel guilty whenever it attempts to speak the language of South Africans who aren’t liberal. What should the party do then? Grow and ignore criticism of pragmatism over principle? Or remain liberal and accept stunted growth?
Actually, the choices are not really this stark, and a full analysis of these philosophical migraines is included in my forthcoming book on the DA.
But I want, in this column entry, to offer a pointed response to some misplaced criticism the DA recently came under from its former leader, Tony Leon, and a couple of others who think they have a monopoly on the party’s ideological discussions.
Their criticism was so effective, however, that Helen Zille, the DA’s current leader, unnecessarily apologised for supporting legislation related to BEE, including in that apology an unsubtle, but needless, rejection of race realism.
So here’s the backstory. Some people, like Leon, are under the impression that if you support policies that make references to racial categories, then you are abandoning liberalism.
This is why, for these critics, a DA that even flirts with black economic empowerment is illiberal. They want the party to be colour-blind, and their main way of keeping the party in check is to accuse it of no longer being thoroughly liberal.
But this is analytic rubbish.
First, there is nothing intrinsic to liberalism that suggests only colour-blind policies should be enacted in a liberal society.
Effectively, these critics are defining liberalism as colour-blind, and not making the case for why liberal values and principles entail colour-blindness.
The burden these critics have to discharge, however, is to explain why someone committed to liberalism has to be committed to colour-blindness.
You cannot simply assert that liberalism doesn’t allow at all for colour-coded policy language.
Second, the DA is hamstrung by a lack of intellectual rigour when it comes to dealing with these critics. The current leadership just doesn’t have the skill, it seems, to push back ideologically.
Ironically, by the way, despite the party’s dissing of the ANC every other second, the ANC contains more intellectuals capable of these kinds of discussion than the DA does.
Hence the awkward silence from almost all current senior DA leaders when someone like Leon, or grumpy former insiders, write colourful (pardon the pun) letters to the press or column entries bemoaning the death of liberalism.
The more complex response should point out that there are different strands of liberalism, and some can accommodate the social justice project lying at the heart of our constitution.
For example, if you are a liberal egalitarian, you place deep value on substantive equality, rather than a narrower obsession with equality-as-sameness-of-treatment.
Some DA old-timers, however, assume that liberalism implies only a commitment to formal notions of equality. That is simply not true, as even a mere scan of the literature on liberalism shows.
Liberalism starts from a fundamental recognition that individuals are best placed to make key decisions about their lives, and that maximum freedom to pursue individual projects should be afforded by the state.
You can then add much meat to the bones and disagree – as liberals – about many aspects of liberalism. But, at the very core of any liberal project, is a basic commitment to individualism and a healthy disdain for a state that is too keen to interfere in our lives.
But here’s the crucial bit: A society that values individualism doesn’t have to be a society that is colour-blind, nor does it have to be a society that places zero value on group identity.
And that brings me, then, back to BEE, and any legislation that makes references to groups, including racial categories. Precisely because, as a liberal egalitarian, you value substantive equality deeply, you can champion redress policies in the name of liberalism.
And those redress policies, in turn, can include references to racial and other group identities, in the service of achieving substantive equality.
Last, I am not here defending BEE as effective. Far from it. BEE has been abused and has not transformed the economy into a more democratic economy.
In fact, let me be blunter still. Both BEE, and BBBEE, suck.
But critics inside and outside the DA who try to imply that it is illiberal to support, in principle, BEE and BBBEE laws are just wrong here. In reality, these critics do not understand liberalism, despite having been part of the DA themselves, or still being influential, ordinary members of the DA.
Zille should have rejected their criticism. But she didn’t, because the party’s current brains trust isn’t always brainy.
* McKaiser is the host of Power Talk With Eusebius McKaiser on Power 98.7, weekdays 9am to noon.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.