South Africa Journal: Race Quotas and the Opposition

At a dinner party last night, a black acquaintance ribbed me about my former boss, Tony Leon, who once led the Democratic Alliance (DA) from political obscurity to opposition dominance. Why was Tony involving himself in party affairs, this gentleman wondered, just when new leader Helen Zille (for whom I also worked briefly) had been leading the DA in the “right” direction on black economic empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action?

The controversy to which he referred happened in October and November, when the DA mistakenly supported a bill in the South African Parliament, the Employment Equity Bill, that would seek to enforce racial quotas in the private sector. That prompted criticism from the new media (of course) and ultimately a rebuke from Leon, who published an op-ed excoriating the DA for dropping its fundamental opposition to racism and racial quotas.

The DA has its roots in the Progressive Party, which was the only white party to oppose apartheid, and set itself apart from other opposition parties in the post-apartheid era, among other ways, by standing up against the use of racism to correct past injustices. It argued that doing so enabled corruption and hurt the people it was trying to help by slowing the economy and robbing the public service of skills required to serve the needs of the poor.

While not opposed to affirmative action of any kind, the DA has opposed the use of racial quotas that set targets of demographic “representivity,” i.e. where racial proportions match those of the nation. It has also fought the ruling party’s BEE policy, which aims to encourage black investment but has enriched a small circle of insiders. In Cape Town, the DA actually increased the number of black contractors by adopting a less race-based system.

After the debate over the DA’s stance on the Employment Equity Bill erupted, Zille intervened to withdraw her party’s support for the bill. Yet not everyone in the DA were happy that Zille and Leon were on the same page. And some in the media suggested that the DA had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory–that just when the party had been making headway among black voters, it had reminded them that the DA did not stand for them.

That is the line my acquaintance took yesterday. It is difficult to believe, however, that people who follow that line actually want the DA to succeed. Whether they want the ruling African National Congress (ANC) to win or not (this gentleman had despaired of the ANC doing anything good for the country), they generally back its policies of racial redistribution and state-centered development, and want an opposition party to agree also.

In the United States, there is often similar talk when the Democratic Party and the mainstream media applaud those Republicans who back various Obama administration policy priorities–whether on spending, the Senate’s “comprehensive” immigration bill, or climate change legislation–casting them as a more appropriate opposition than the Tea Party-inflected House Republican caucus, who have often tried to hold the line on these issues.

Yet if the opposition party shares the same basic ideological assumptions as the governing party–in both the ANC and the Democratic Party’s case, an attachment to race and the state–then there is no basis for opposition politics. Either such an opposition party will be eclipsed rapidly by a more aggressive rival, or the democratic system itself will crumble into a kind of soft tyranny, from which recovery may ultimately prove impossible.