South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has attracted a lot of rancour for its controversial election posters that defend racist assaults on black South Africans by their compatriots of Indian descent. Since its emergence as the main opposition party, the DA has failed to disprove the perception that it is sympathetic to the same racist ideology of the old ruling white elite that oversaw the heinous apartheid regime in South Africa. With the latest blunder, the party has shown, once again, that it poses a great threat to the country’s unity and peace.
In early July 2021, droves of people took to the streets of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng and looted many establishments, ostensibly to force the release of former President Jacob Zuma who had been arrested for contempt of court, after he failed to appear before an inquiry into allegations of corruption during his tenure as president. In the KwaZulu-Natal town of Phoenix, under the pretext of defending their property, Indian South Africans used extrajudicial means to maim and kill black South Africans. The attacks claimed 36 lives. The actions were condemned as racist, and initial reports from News24 established that the pretext that Indian South Africans invoked to target their black compatriots was blatantly false. Unsurprisingly, the DA’s posters, a call for votes leading up to the 1 November, 2021 local government elections read “The ANC called you Racists, the DA calls you Heroes.”
Some have attempted to downplay the significance of the DA’s outrageous gambit, arguing that the DA is not a consciously racist party but one with a thinly concealed bias for white South Africans. Nevertheless, the DA’s subsequent refusal to apologise for these actions removes any doubt as to whether it endorsed the violence visited upon black South-Africans, and its attitude is one of the biggest threats to South Africa’s rickety attempts to build a truly non-racial country.
Evidently, for the DA to frame its campaign posters in a way that it did shows that it is courting voters of a certain racial demographic in phoenix, namely Indian South Africans whom it perceived to be offended as a group by the accusation of racism that stemmed from the killings masterminded by members of the Indian community. For one thing, this racially driven politicking flies directly in the face of the party’s oft-repeated claim of commitment to help bring about a non-racial South Africa.
For another, it has been suggested that while considering the historical atrocities visited on black people, we should in the same breath consider the concerns of other people, including those of perpetrators. Such a suggestion has a disturbing resonance with Donald Trump’s assertion that during the Charlottesville clashes of 2017 in the United States, there “were fine people on both sides,” i.e. among Neo-Nazis who sought to preserve the prominent monuments of confederate generals, and the counter-protesters who sought their removal. It cannot be gainsaid that everyone’s safety is of equal importance, especially in countries that posture themselves as democracies. However, in countries such as South Africa and the US where historical injustices have taken patently racial patterns, prudence and basic humanity dictate that the plight of long-suffering citizens should be clearly highlighted and relief proffered. By so doing, the powers that be make their intent to redress historical injustices visible.
The DA slip-up will also have consequences for the party’s own political fortunes. First, as the country’s second-biggest political party, the DA has failed dismally in its duty as a potential government-in-waiting. Second, the party might also have rent itself asunder because, while after feeble attempts to explain away the latest debacle, the party leader John Steenhuisen issued a half-hearted and qualified apology, other members of the party, such as the Johannesburg mayoral candidate Mpho Phalatse, have urged the party to swallow its pride and apologise.
These internecine disagreements, which are likely to gnaw at the party’s popularity, could signal a decline for a party that has a not-so-bad history. It is noteworthy that the DA’s genesis is traced to the Progressive Party, which was formed in 1959 and, for years, challenged the National Party during the height of apartheid. Against the white supremacist ideology of the National Party, the Progressive Party put a somewhat humane and vocal face on white liberals who were stridently against the open racism of successive apartheid administrations. Unfortunately, the DA, a successor of the Progressive Party, has failed to maintain this identity.
The ANC, on this score, has been very successful in convincing South African voters that the DA is a racist party with sectarian interests at heart. In the last two years, it has also not helped the DA’s cause that the few black South Africans they had placed in powerful positions, including leader in the parliament, have embarked on a highly publicised string of resignations. Its former leader, Mmusi Maimane, and former DA Mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, have gone on to form fledgling political movements of their own and have launched sustained attacks on their former party. Their common stance is that, despite efforts to make the party racially accommodating, the DA is tethered to the interests of the old white ruling class. If, to those who closely follow party ideologies, ANC attacks on the DA have not been sufficiently persuasive, attacks by former DA members and fiascos such as the current elections, are more credible indictments on the DA’s claims of inclusivity. In the long run, the DA, if it continues on this course, will heavily contribute to deepening racial divisions across South Africa.
A responsible political party, in a racially charged political arena, should seek to unite all people regardless of their origins, and not blunder into desperate campaign measures that further divide the country.