My head may say DA, but tell that to my heart

Rhodes>Perspective>2014 Archive

The party’s rational, ahistoric approach fails to ’get’ South Africa, writes Eusebius McKaiser in this edited extract from his book.

Do you, as a politician, recognise the history that explains why voters see the world as they do?

ON May 18 2011, I woke up to a beautiful autumn morning in my flat in bohemian Melville, Johannesburg. It was quiet outside; no trace of Mandela’s born-free generation who revel here at night time.

There was another reason, however, for this particular day’s early-morning tranquility. It was a public holiday, and that’s always reason for selfdeclared overworked South Africans to sleep in before turning their attention to the braai.

Or, at least, that was my fear. “Fear” because the public holiday was actually the occasion of the local government election. Commentators had pretended to be sangomas with predictive powers, and many asserted that voter turnout would be low. As I left my apartment to go to vote in Sandton (where I had lived before), the silence that enveloped me outside seemed to vindicate the sceptics. But it was still early.

As it happened, it was a hugely successful election from a voter turnout perspective — some 57.6% of registered voters cast their ballots, in enviable contrast to many democracies around the world that often have local election voter turnouts below 40%. So much for the assumption that dissatisfaction with service delivery would lead to black African voters, in particular, staying away from the polls in nonviolent protest.

I was up early because I had to vote early. I was due to cover the elections for a television station as one of its rotating studio anchors, so would not have time to stand in a voting queue later.

As the cab made its way from Melville through Parktown North, Rosebank, and from there to Sandton via Illovo, a single thought preoccupied my 32-year-old head. Who should I vote for, I wondered? I had still not made up my mind. I had two votes up for grabs — one for the proportional representation candidate from a party in whose ideas I had faith, and one for a directly elected ward candidate (on the basis of the first-pastthe-post yardstick). I had no clue who to vote for. No clue.

For years I found the basic policy positions of the ANC compelling. The party supports the idea of a welfare state, which I am grateful for as a first-generation black graduate who inherited the burden of having to send remittances home to poor family members. I have seen poverty. I have experienced it.

And I have, more importantly, witnessed the social context in which poor people’s agency remains undeveloped. A tough-love approach to poverty just does not sit well with me emotionally. My underperforming siblings did not choose, in any straightforward sense of the word, to drop out of school and to have teen pregnancies.

So I am grateful that a social security system is in place to ensure their kids don’t starve during a month that Uncle Eusebius is unable to top them up. The ANC gets this.

And so, as I was on my way to vote that morning, I found it tempting to reward the ANC for policies and ideologies that resonate deeply with my personal experiences, with my family’s desperate situation back in Grahamstown and with my commitment to liberalism.

And yet I wasn’t sure I could actually get myself to vote for the ANC. Given how endemic corruption has become in the state under successive ANC governments, the gap between the policy ideals and delivery was (and still is) big and growing. Commentators’ predictions of poor voter turnout were not misplaced, even if they turned out to be false: the daily experiences of millions of South Africans remain that of being marginalised and effectively disenfranchised.

Worse, there was ( and is) an unsettling arrogance and political entitlement that too many ANC politicians and ANC-appointed government officials display.

I found myself wondering: “Eusebius, do you really want to reward the arrogance of so many underperforming, ethically wayward ANC politicians? Do you?”

I could not honestly answer in the affirmative. Not with a clear conscience, anyway. After all, as much as I enjoy policy and ideological debates, they are irrelevant if people’s lives don’t really change. Not to mention that, by that time, I had met and engaged plenty of tripartite alliance politicians whose gigantic egos and sense of entitlement had left a bad taste in my mouth.

I contemplated an alternative: vote, perhaps, for the Democratic Alliance? But this thought also left me unsatisfied. On the one hand, there seemed to be decent evidence that where the DA runs municipalities, it does so quite effectively.

DA councillors seem to have a good work ethic and a genuine desire to put grand ideological and policy squabbles aside and simply get on with the practicalities of making communities safer, filling potholes, helping to sort out your billing problems, and so on.

Why would you not want a local government representative who will improve the quality of the life you live in your part of the city? That seemed like a no-brainer — if you didn’t give it any further thought.

As I was wondering whether to take a chance on the biggest opposition party, my cab happened to pass a golf course somewhere in the Parktown North area. And I found myself looking at luscious greens — greens that do not know what it is like to be obscured by the kind of litter that blocks drains in our townships and causes an overflow of unsafe water. The stuff in front of me was an aesthetic feast for hungry eyes.

I noticed a few men playing a round of golf, about five of them. And, not being colour-blind, I noticed that they were white, middle-aged, portly and having a jolly good time chuckling and exchanging banter. There were five other men with them, all of them black and in charge of the white men’s sports gear. They were, of course, the caddies.

That picture made me feel funny, knotty thingies in my tummy. It reminded me of the lingering structural inequalities in South Africa that still make it more likely that a black person ends up being the handlanger (the help) and a white person ends up being baas (the boss).

The DA just does not get this stuff. Most DA supporters, and especially DA leaders, would react to this kind of experience dismissively. Some would rush to explain that whites simply enjoy golf more, just like blacks enjoy soccer more. So they would criticise my visceral reaction as symptomatic of me having a racial problem.

Others would be offended that I even told the story with reference to the skin colour of the two groups of men on that golf course.

Why not, they might ask, simply refer to rich men and poor men? Isn’t golf just an activity that correlates with wealth more so than with skin colour? Many black men who are wealthy now play golf, and surely poor white men on the outskirts of Pretoria would also feel out of place on the golf course? This is the kind of wellrehearsed pushback that I knew would roll off the tongue of a typical DA interlocutor. Or, at least, such has been my experience.

In a narrow academic sense, these are decent jabs. (I won’t answer them here because responses are not salient to the overall point of the story.)

The problem is that all these clever little argumentation moves fail a very different test when it comes to politics: Do you, as a politician, get the heart of the voter? Do you feel them? Do you recognise the history that explains why they see the world as they do? Do you even know, let alone care, how they see the world? And, on this score, too many DA politicians, especially white ones (including the white liberals), simply do not get the black majority. They dismiss our racial identities and lived realities from an ahistoric, colour-blind platform.

Can I really vote for a party that reduces political life to an academic exercise in rational-choice theory? Can I trust this party to understand that my sisters are not self-made losers, but two adults who were caught in a vicious cycle of intergenerational violence, poverty and neglect? I could not trust the DA to get this.

How could I vote for the DA then? By now I had reached the queue at the Sandton Fire Station and was edging closer to the front. And still I had no clue. What a choice: an incumbent political party that has a decent vision but suffers from profound leadership and ethical crises?

Or an opposition party filled with well-meaning, decently skilled, hard-working councillors with a tragically misplaced set of convictions about the impact of the past on the present, about where we are at currently, and about where we should be headed?

South Africa, I realised, was a horrible place to be for a critically minded voter with a deep sense of history.

Picture: TREVOR SAMPSONCOLOUR-BLIND: DA leader Helen Zille flanks a party election poster in Cape Town in 2011.

By: Eusebius McKaiser

Article Source: Sunday Times

McKaiser is a talkshow host and political analyst. ‘Could I Ever Vote for the DA?’ is published by Bookstorm