The former Premier of the Western Cape and Democratic Alliance (DA) member, Helen Zille, caused outrage on Twitter recently with her comments about black privilege.
Speaking on this matter amongst others, DA leader Mmusi Maimane said that he had personally spoken to Zille about what she had said, and that “appropriate steps have been taken in this regard.” I don’t think it’d be too far of a stretch to read “appropriate” as “disciplinary”. Zille has once again stepped way over the party line, and she will be reined in accordingly. For those of us who still hoped that there would be a liberal renaissance in the DA, the way in which Maimane is handling what Zille said indicates that the DA wants to place liberalism firmly behind it.
By adopting the view that race is a proxy for disadvantage, the DA thought it would curry favour with black voters before the May 2019 elections. This factor, along with a few others, contributed to its dismal electoral showing. And I don’t think it’s hyperbole to describe their showing as ‘dismal.’ Years of African National Congress (ANC) ineptitude and corruption could have handed the official opposition many voters, yet support for the DA dwindled.
When one party, the ANC, presents the socialist option (replete with the language of oppression, race, class, and group-think), how could the DA have truly set itself apart? By committing to the liberal principles of, among others, free speech, free markets, and individual agency. Unfortunately the DA tried to out-ANC the ANC, to play the game of victimhood and big government, and it lost.
At some point in the future, if anyone representing the DA says the party supports free speech, bear in mind that this comes with a very substantial caveat. It supports free speech for those members in its ranks who support the greater party line. Free speech means very little philosophically if you make it conditional. Zille is either free to speak her mind on whatever matters she wants and not be punished for it, or she is not. There cannot be half measures when it comes to free speech. By placing conditions on what one may or may not say, you bring it into people’s minds that they must remember not to say x, so as to not offend y, and in so doing you undermine what they would have said as free individuals.
The DA’s unpredictable relationship with freedom of speech is replicated in other areas of the party’s policies. The collectivist thinking that the party has adopted when it comes to race in South Africa is particularly relevant. On the one hand, the party wishes to mold some its actions and policies based on the concept that people have or do not have advantage (or privilege) based on the colour of one’s skin. On the other hand, party leaders and higher-ups talk about individual freedom and free markets. When it comes to principles, attempts to marry two opposing concepts in the name of progress and compromise leads to the eventual abandoning of one principle in favour of the other. We have witnessed this play out in the DA.
If you adopt the principle of collectivism, that you can ascribe a characteristic to people based on the colour of their skin, or their economic class, or the length of their arms, then you become bound by that principle whenever you attempt to provide commentary on social, political, and economic issues. So, for example, to state that white privilege is real, that all white people enjoy it to at least some degree, is to open the door for the counter-charge that black privilege is real. When you adopt collectivist language and concepts and use them to reinforce your arguments, you cannot be surprised when that same line of thinking is used by your opponents. Collectivist thinking on one side breeds collectivist thinking on the other side.
For all the insults hurled by both sides toward each other in this privilege debate, there is a central element which I think both are missing: The role of the state.
The Apartheid state, by virtue of its racist, socialist philosophy, tried to help white people, particularly white Afrikaners, to the detriment of black and coloured South Africans. The current state tries to privilege black South Africans. Both states saw, and see, people as worthy of attention only insofar as they are part of a certain racial group. For the liberal, each of us is free to decide whom we want to help, and indeed if we wish to help others. The state should be so small that it doesn’t matter who wields the power. For as long as you have one group trying to control the state for its own goals, we will see the strife that is currently so endemic in South Africa.
The privilege debate in general is greatly upsetting. The appeal to privilege removes the individual’s agency from the equation. No matter the difficult (or easy) circumstances in which a white or black child grew up, their achievements will have an asterisk next to them, for all time. The view that some people have privilege based on the colour of their skin assigns to them something they may have gotten based only on an accident of birth. The idea that someone’s character and moral worth is affected, and to some determined, by the skin in which they were born is deeply flawed, and gratuitously immoral.
South Africa will make no progress if we continue to judge people based on the colour of their skin, and not their actions. Perhaps it is simply too difficult for us to attempt to judge people based on how they act every day, as that would imply that we each have responsibility for our actions, and for some that is a terrifying thought. I think the ship has sailed for the DA: It will continue down a path of collectivist philosophy. I can only hope that time proves me wrong.