An erosion of the DA’s liberal values 2?

by The Editor

InsidePoliticsFEATURE: Two days ago I wrote an opinion piece on the DA and the extent to which collectivist ideas and archetypes – Ubuntu and ‘Africaness’ in particular – were becoming increasingly well-entrenched in its language; that it had failed to define those ideas and that they were in conflict with its core liberal beliefs. That opinion has been met by no official response from the DA, signalling either agreement or a politically expedient silence. To further make my case, a transcript of a radio interview with the national spokesperson adds further weight to my argument. Seeing as the DA is unwilling to debate the matter, cased closed, I would say.

An erosion of the DA’s liberal values 2?

By: Gareth van Onselen

23 January 2013

Two days ago I wrote an opinion piece on the DA, which made following points:

• I argued that, in a recent article, the DA’s national spokesperson advocated on behalf of the party for a series of ideas – Ubuntu and ‘Africaness’ chiefly amongst them – that were both illiberal and ill defined.
• I argued Ubuntu, so far as one is able to discern, elevates the group above the individual; and, if it does not do that, it is redundant, as the best-guess interpretation from liberal-minded people is that it is simply a euphemism for equality or humanity or compassion. ‘Africaness’ constitutes an even more illiberal archetype.
• I argued, as the DA grows, it needs to define ideas like Ubuntu and ‘Africaness’ if it is going to use them, to determine whether or not they are compatible with its core liberal beliefs, or risk sliding into identity politics. I argued such ideas are not compatible.
• I argued ideas such as race, culture and community are important to many people and a real, general impulse on people’s lives and identity, but are not inherent to anyone, universally applicable and people cannot be held-up to such archetypes and “measured” on a moral scale.
• I argued these assumptions were, however, evident in the national spokesperson’s article and, as he spoke on behalf of the party, that was cause for concern.

That article has been met by no official response from the DA. Just silence. That means one of two things: either its silence signals agreement or that it is unwilling to debate such issues publicly. If the latter holds true, that too constitutes an illiberal attitude and is unfortunate, but one not uncommon elsewhere in South Africa.

There have been some personal, ad hominem responses to the article. It is not my purpose on this blog to indulge personal attacks. I am interested in ideas. My initial article dealt exclusively with the ideas put forward by the national spokesperson, it made no reference to his character. And so I shall not be responding to such invective. When you denigrate the author in order to dismiss the argument, you are attempting to shut down debate. That too is an illiberal response, and autocratic in turn.

Below follows a transcript of an exchange from an interview with the DA’s national spokesperson, on 702 Talk Radio last night. I believe it further illustrates my argument – that these ill-defined and illiberal ideas are becoming increasingly well-entrenched in the DA’s language, certainly in the thinking of its national spokesperson, but poorly defined and, ultimately, at odds with its core beliefs.

In it, he strongly defends his position that “nothing can better measure Africaness than one’s commitment to the spirit of Ubuntu”. He states, much like religious faiths, there is something inherently common to Africans and, when pushed, could at best define Ubuntu as no more than a euphemism for equality and the dignity of worth – a well established idea in political philosophy and by no means particular to Ubuntu or ‘Africaness’, whatever they are.

As a consequence of his belief in that idea, I think, he somewhat disturbingly also states that: “part of liberalism means that I must be willing to accept your point of view as much as you will be willing to do mine.” That is, of course, profoundly wrong, and, in fact, illiberal. Freedom of speech demands every person has the space necessary to hold an opinion, but no one is obliged to accept another person’s opinion as a result. Disagreement is essential to debate, and debate to progress.

But, whatever the DA spokesperson’s views, it is quite clear from the transcript he is unable cogently to define ideas like ‘Africaness’ and Ubuntu in and of themselves or in relation to the DA’s core liberal beliefs, how they are in conflict with those beliefs and why that is a problem. This might not be a conversation the DA believes expedient to its political goals, but it is an essential one nonetheless and it is fooling only itself if it thinks it can ‘wing it’ indefinitely.

Here, then, follows the transcript. Case closed, I believe.

702 Talk Radio
22 January 2013

Eusebius McKaiser: At the heart of liberalism is the idea that individuals makes their own identity and that you then live in a society where there is maximum space to give individuals… to fashion out the kind of identity that they freely choose. The idea of Ubuntu and communal identity is in tension with liberal individualism which is why he [Gareth van Onselen] is trying to fight for a different kind of liberalism for the DA than what he saw you arguing for in the Sunday Times.
Mmusi Maimane: You see, I am not convinced of that argument and, and that’s what I am saying. You know, the first common reality, I mean if we had to take it, let’s take a historical backdrop that says black South Africans were, were, in the main, victims of what apartheid system did. It wasn’t a diversity it was a community of people, it was regardless of where you come from, the fact of your race gave you a particular identity and particular standpoint in society. Surely, when we trying to address critical issues in this country we must try to think about certain communal aspects of that nature. But furthermore, where I don’t disagree with Gavin [Gareth] is the fact that people, in the long run, in the future, must be able to choose an identity they choose, what I am trying to simply say, is to say, that identity cannot be connected, in the long run, with your, with your class. So we can’t… in your… in the… in years to come argue that all blacks must be poor and all whites must be rich, we must find ourselves a society where those tenets, those things, are unhinged from own psyche so that people can then have the freedom to choose…
EM: No, we get that Mmusi, but let me ask you two final questions then I must take a break. I mean you said, and I quote, “nothing can better measure Africaness than one’s commitment to the spirit of Ubuntu”? Now I can understand why someone has beef with that because if I hate Ubuntu, in fact I personally – this is a sincere view Mmusi – I think Ubuntu is incoherent, it depends on what you had for breakfast, I don’t even know what it means. Does that mean I am less African than Mmusi who mouths the words ‘I love Ubuntu’?
MM: I think there is enough writing and enough thinking that speaks to Ubuntu and, you know, partly, is to say that, you… and part of liberalism means that I must be willing to accept your point of view as much as you will be willing to do mine….
EM: But, but my question was specifically about African identity and ‘Africaness’. If you say, in your own wording, that ‘Africaness’ is particularly measured in terms of one’s commitment to the spirit of Ubuntu…
MM: …Yes!…
EM: …And I tell you ‘I reject the spirit of Ubuntu, Mmusi’, does that make me less African than you?
MM: But what I am saying is that you can’t take one slice of an argument and say, because that was one tenet I put forward, there are many others that I put forward…
EM: … So you want to repudiate that sentence now, do you?
MM: No, I am not repudiating it. I am just simply saying, what defines… let’s take a faith, let’s talk about Christians, for arguments sake, that will probably be the easiest, now there are Mormons who are Christians, there are Catholics who are Christians, they may hold on to certain tenets that they hold together, and then they hold some that are completely different, but does that change the fact that they are Christians? And in the same way that I might look at certain tenets of what it means to be African, and pick some, does it mean that when you and I disagree on one of the tenets, that now I must dispute the fact that you are African? I may very well argue the fact that ‘African’ can simply be, just a, a common geographical understanding that simply says I was born in a continent called Africa, therefore I am African?
EM: …that sounds like a…
MM: …That is one of the tenets, then surely, if I accept that and if you accept that, it is one of the variable that we put into the discussion…
EM: That sounds like a very, very elaborate way of saying, “Eusebius I concede, you can be a full-blooded African, even if you reject Ubuntu, despite that sentence, where I overwrote my viewpoint?”
MM: No! And I think, in the ultimate long run, there are certain aspects of Ubuntu that we must talk about, and understand as Africans and what they mean. And so, Ubuntu is such a broad concept, that is inclusive of so many ideas, that, for, for, I would have to sit down with you and you would have to clarify for me what aspect of that do you reject but there is some beautiful about that practice that says us as human beings, we have a sense of common, of, of just a sense of humanity, and I think there is something beautiful about that…
EM: …Ok..
MM: … you may hate it, but it doesn’t disqualify you.
EM: Well I think this is a conversation that will be ongoing. I am just going to ask you one last question because my controller here is loving it but telling me to love on, and my question to you is: you know, I reject it not because I think it is a bad idea, I reject it for a more simple reason – I don’t actually know what it means. When you say Ubuntu to me Mmusi, you may as well say, blahblahblah, because if you take other ethical values like, say Utilitarianism, I know what you are saying, you are saying maximize happiness for the greatest number of people, I can work with that, it prescribes action and it helps me decide between right and wrong, when you say Eusebius, act in a manner consistent with Ubuntu, what are you telling me?
MM: I am asking you to say, a fellow human being, “people are people through other people” [said in Tswana], if I can use the Tswana saying, to say that a fellow human being has a quality and stature before you. But that is just one tenet of the issue, there are many others, but at least principally for me is to say, another human being has equal and concerted value as I am and my existence is not isolated to just simply that.

  • Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.

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