An erosion of the DA’s liberal values: A response

by The Editor

InsidePoliticsFEATURE: Some two months ago I argued that an article by the DA’s national spokesperson, advocating for Ubuntu and ‘Africaness’, was illiberal and worrisome, with regards to the party’s ideological direction. Although the DA itself has not responded, a number of other people have. Below is a summation of those responses and the reasons why the majority are both wrong and wrongheaded.

An erosion of the DA’s liberal values: A response

By: Gareth van Onselen

17 April 2013

“No rational argument will have a rational effect on a man who does not want to adopt a rational attitude.” [Karl Popper, Oracular Philosophy and the Revolt against Reason.]


There have been several responses to my initial piece on the Democratic Alliance, Ubuntu and ‘Africaness’ (see here and here). The party itself, however, has provided no formal reply. This is perhaps a concession of sorts. Significantly, I notice it has not used the word since. Nevertheless, I felt it necessary to respond to those various rebuttals that were put forward, as the majority misunderstood the nature of the problem.

Those responses I am aware of follow below, in no particular order. I apologise if I have overlooked any. These are published argument; I have not included Facebook responses or Twitter opinion (‘opinion’ being a generous description).

For Liberalism to Succeed we must Dispense with Dogma
We Should Not Dodge the Tough Questions, We Must Give Tough Answers
The unAfrican liberal
Liberalism, the Democratic Alliance and Identity
The Liberal Project and DA Discontent
Why Ubuntu is a Liberal Value
Ideology and its Relevance – The Trade Off
Liberalism and Ubuntu: Better Together
What’s Behind Liberalism’s Unseemly Attack On Ubuntu?
Meer as Blote Pietersielie

The three schools

Essentially all the various replies can be divided into three schools of thought:

• Those that believe Ubuntu is accompanied by a full and comprehensive explanation of its meaning and purpose; that it is a liberal idea in nature; and that it is an important and necessary addition to democracy and liberal thought, constituting a valid political philosophy and universally applicable moral code.

• Those that are hesitant about Ubuntu; who believe it is ill-defined and potentially problematic, but who think it can be interpreted or re-interpreted in a liberal fashion and, in this way, constitutes a good and necessary thing in the manner described above. If not, then it represents no threat, merely a harmless anecdote.

• Those who believe Ubuntu suffers no coherent definition, which renders it meaningless or all-meaning, both equally problematic; that what general understanding can be discerned about the idea, especially in a nationalistic environment, represents a threat to freedom and, thus, that it cannot be reconciled with liberal thought.

The problems inherent to each school

The first two groups suggested the DA’s liberalism can and should accommodate the idea of Ubuntu, the third argues otherwise.

The first group is generally the weakest, and offered no real defense at all, merely a reconstitution of the problem. As a definition, they simply rehashed the vague – ‘you are you are through other people’ – sentiment, and made no attempt to apply the idea to any philosophical test (in other words, how and why it might constitute a moral code). In turn, they failed to examine in detail anything more than the platitude itself, or to interrogate its practical implications.

They could not, for example, tell you what Ubuntu’s position on abortion or freedom of speech is (no doubt because it is simply not possible), rather they pretended it enjoys the same veracity as any other philosophy by citing generalities about its good intentions. Significantly, they ignored the prevalent nationalist culture that defines the South African context, as if the idea is entirely unrelated to it. Read any piece by this group and, sure enough, you shall not encounter the word nationalism anywhere.

The second group is the most politically correct. They desperately want to reconcile Ubuntu and liberalism for fear of causing offence if they cannot and a desire to seem open to and accepting of African culture by doing so. The biggest threat to such people is being labeled ‘Eurocentric’ and so they diluted the integrity of their analysis to an acceptable middle way in response, thereby compromising its veracity. They used the vagueness of the idea to their advantage and confused liberal thought with the nature of a liberal society.

In short, they argued: liberalism allows for many contrasting ideas to flourish, so if you speak out against Ubuntu you are being illiberal. Instead, it should be respected and accommodated as an idea.

Of course a liberal society does indeed allows space for different ideas to coexist, that is its great virtue; liberal thought, however, does not. If it did, it would simply be a mish-mash of all worldviews from socialism through fascism. In truth, liberal ideas and principles are well defined and you can quite rightly argue what is a liberal idea and what is not.

Some people in this group went further still and argued that the DA’s liberalism is itself liberal. In other words, they suggested the party’s ideology is a fluid, heady mix of all-encompassing romantic idealism (even nationalism). No doubt that is a comforting thought for the fragile soul. It’s not true though. The DA’s liberalism has clear, principled boundaries that define its nature. Anyone in doubt should attend a DA Young Leaders’ course, or perhaps get the reading pack. One can debate no-end how those principles are best applied in practice, in theory though they are well set.

This group also ignored the nationalist context responsible for the idea’s prominence and assumed everyone’s first inclination was to interpret it from a liberal perspective, as opposed to from a collectivist view; the latter being the dominant ideological and culture impulse in South Africa. In doing so they failed to see how patronising their assumption: that African culture has invented a great liberal tradition, only us African liberals need to explain to them how it works, so it doesn’t become a messy, nationalist threat. Mbeki, for one, would tell them to take their condescension elsewhere.

Noticeably, many people from this group are not originally from the DA and so are threatened by any definition of liberalism that is too prescriptive. They wish to believe its parameters far more porous, thereby legitimating Ubuntu and their own ideological uncertainty.

The third group represents my view and, as I have set it out in some detail elsewhere, I shall not repeat it here.

By way of introspection, I will say this: this position does suffer the problem of the idea not being well defined. Interpreted merely as an observation, with no philosophical consequences, it is axiomatic that we are indeed social creatures that live in and are influenced by society. That is an entirely inoffensive position. However, if one argues this influence defining and inescapable or the idea represents a moral code of some sort and should thus be applied to policy and practice, indeed that it constitutes a component of ‘African’ identity, it immediately transforms into a threat to individual liberty, which is where my concern lies.

Some general concerns

Many of the responses, unable to muster a strong intellectual argument, resorted to ad hominem attack, which ranged from the bizarre to the desperate. One such attack went so far as to suggest I was threatening physical violence and bloodshed by defining the DA’s liberalism. This is lamentable, a petty attempt at pettifoggery.

There are some traits particular to all responses.

For one, the suggestion that the DA’s brand of liberalism was somehow ill-defined and open to interpretation. It is telling that not a single response made reference to the DA’s constitution, which actually sets out very clearly its general philosophical approach. This suggests to me either those people who responded had not read the DA’s constitution or simply assumed the party’s fundamentals were there to be reinterpreted as they saw fit, a rather egotistical attitude.

Indeed, the DA’s own constitution is very helpful on this subject. It contains the following “founding political principle”:

That the party will defend and promote the “…rights of individuals and the communities they create through free association”.

For the DA the individual is primary and the communities “they create”, as a consequence of their associations, secondary.

The DA’s constitution does not mention Ubuntu, nor does it suggest communities and groups are primary – in other words, that we each are a product of some communal force that precedes us. For the DA the agent is the individual, not the community. Ubuntu, of course, suggests an equal relationship; if not, that the group is elevated above the individual.

The DA’s position is in contrast to other political parties. The IFP’s constitution, for example, opens with the following:

“EMBRACING the principles of African humanism otherwise known as Ubuntu…”

One should always be careful of any description that qualifies a principle with a geographic tag. What, you might ask, is the difference between ‘African’ humanism and humanism itself? Just as one might ask, what is the difference between Ubuntu and compassion? (Another question no one addressed: interpreted ‘liberally’, what value or principle does Ubuntu encapsulate that our Bill of Human Rights does not?) But I digress. The point is: the DA’s constitution contains no such commitment. No one seemed to ask why that is. It’s because the DA is not the IFP.

Now, it is common cause that there exist other variations of liberalism throughout the world and one can pontificate about them to one’s heart’s content but the DA’s particular, liberal philosophical framework is well defined. And it is that framework one must engage with if you want to determine whether the idea is compatible with its liberalism or not – for the DA was the subject of my criticism.

A second general oversight was the failure to acknowledge or engage with the document I cited at the end of my critique: a piece by Ryan Coetzee in which he sets out in some detail a powerful liberal response, from a DA perspective, to the problem at hand. That article speaks to the need for compassion for one’s fellow man, acknowledges that communities are a powerful way through which people self-identify – South Africans in particular – and that the dignity of self-worth is an idea well grounded and expounded upon by liberal thought and not the soul vestige of collectivists.

In short, it appears to me a solution to the problem – a description of the relationship between the group and the individual and where the boundaries between the two lie, without any reference to Ubuntu but warning against the problems inherent to this kind of group think.

Indeed, Coetzee’s piece deals with another non-point made by a few: the suggestion that Ubuntu is a form of social liberalism and I was representing some kind of dogmatic classical, economic liberalism from the 1900s. This view, not to put too fine a point on it, is pretentious nonsense. First, if it is your view that Ubuntu is responsible for uncovering some great, as yet unknown truth – that we are not atomised individuals but social beings – well, the Greeks had that covered. Liberalism today, in almost all of its mainstream forms (bar perhaps the cold work of Ayn Rand) takes that for granted. So well done for stating the obvious. Even at its most ‘liberal’, Ubuntu offers nothing new there. Second, and more to the point, you cannot conveniently detach Ubuntu from African nationalism: Ubuntu  is an expression of African nationalism, not social liberalism. To argue otherwise is ignorant.

Coetzee’s piece, which dealt with all of this, seemed to most people to be an annoyance, best ignored rather than engaged with for fear it might interfere with their posturing.

So, why the need for any debate on Ubuntu at all when the answer is so well defined?

I am under the impression, and based on most of those responses received, that for many this was an exercise in political correctness and reputation management: a chance to demonstrate their patriotism and the degree to which they truly are ‘African’ liberals, non-judgmental and blindly accepting of whatever ‘African’ cultural practice enjoys hegemonic legitimacy. That is a rather sad state of affairs and suggests dependent rather than independent minds.

The test of a political philosophy

What are the tests a political philosophy must pass, to register as a coherent ideology? I believe the following applies:

• First, it must serve as a moral code. It must be able to tell one how best to lead the good life; not in abstract, but in particular. In other words, based on its principles, it must be able to provide you with a moral position on practical circumstance. Ubuntu fails fundamentally this test. Liberalism passes. Should we allow pornography? I can give you a liberal response. What is the Ubuntu response, I wonder?

• Second, and following on from the above, it must necessitate a set of accompanying principles that reflect its core belief. Liberalism has such principles: freedom of speech, curtailed by the harm principle; a small state, defined by a free market economy; maximum choice and opportunity; the protection of civil liberties, a separation of powers, and so on. Again, Ubuntu fails this test. Indeed, its vague, general nature means even its primary belief is difficult to define precisely. But you can be sure, the community, not the individual, would be at its centre.

• Third, it must stand up to scrutiny – conjecture and refutation. Ubuntu falls at this hurdle too. The very fact that its core premise is so ill-defined means it cannot actually be scrutinized, and so it can never fail. That it generates so many disparate definitions, legal, social, political, cultural, even spiritual proves not disproves my point.

No doubt there are other tests, these represent some of the more fundamental ones and Ubuntu fails each one fundamentally.

Nationalism: the core problem

So, what of the Ubuntu we can define?

For one, we know it exists in a certain context. African culture in general and South African culture in particular is a nationalist one – it has at its heart group identity, in various different guises (race through ethnicity). The suggestion that the idea of Ubuntu was born of some hidden liberal impulse, divorced from this reality is absurd; and to ignore it is shortsighted. Were those who argued this way simply hoping to wish nationalism away? To pretend it didn’t exist, that this might free them of some harsh judgement? It is real, its influence pervasive and its effect illiberal. It is the bedrock on which Ubuntu rests.

Here is the key point: Ubuntu, whatever its true nature, serves a racial nationalist agenda, not a social liberal or social democratic one. To suggest otherwise is, ironically, to see the African context through a ‘European’ lens. True, this is a pragmatic point but it cannot be separated from an understanding of the idea. If anything, it should constitute the first principles basis from which any attempt at understanding is made.

Did it not occur to anyone as odd that Ubuntu is inevitably and almost always accompanied by the idea of ‘Africaness’ and what it is to be ‘African’? (Another point almost no one addressed.) The two concepts are joined at the hip – to be African is to embrace Ubuntu. But what is an ‘African’? It is circular logic at its best – a fixed identity determines a fixed attitude, which determines a fixed identity. But that is clearly another, politically incorrect dilemma any full retort must address thus best ignored for the sake of expediency. And so few interrogated what it is to be an ‘African’, its relationship to Ubuntu, and the consequences for liberalism.

Ubuntu: an illiberal and collectivist idea

On a principled level, from what one is able to determine about the idea, it has inherent to it a majoritarian impulse, regardless of its context: that individuals are inextricably dependent on and shaped by the community in which they reside. There is some truth to this. But it is not a defining truth. It is case specific: Some people rebel against a community and its norms and standards; others start new communities; others change the norms and standards of the community; others still seek out solitude. Group identity is a choice, as the DA’s constitution makes clear.

Put simply, there are many people who are who they are in spite of other people, not because of them.

Liberalism caters for that, Ubuntu does not.

I have recently finished reading ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, a quite excellent if not harrowing account of Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl’s experience in Nazi Germany’s various concentration camps. In it, Frankl writes:

“…do the prisoner’s reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in such circumstances? We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show us that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of physic and physical stress.”

Central to his defense of man’s inner freedom is that, always, we have choice:

“…there are always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers that threaten to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the play thing of circumstance…”

We can make always decisions, however limited; always we can choose.

Choice: the final test

A final test worth applying to Ubuntu, then, is its effect on choice – does it maximize choice, as liberalism demands, or does it constrain it, as nationalism seeks to do? How does the sentiment ‘you are who you are through other people’ maximize choice? And the idea that you are ‘unAfrican’ if you reject it? It appears determining to me: a description of the definitive effect of a certain set of communal values.

And here one must distinguish influence from prescription. Ubuntu does not suggest that communities have an influence on you, which you can choose to accept or reject; it suggests communities are defining, that your environment determines your character. That sentiment is anathema to choice.

Individuals create communities. Communities influence individuals, but the agent is the individual, not the community. And the minute you subvert that, or raise both factors to an equal footing, you subvert liberal thought and, I would argue, the truth.

To those that might argue that I am an individual because of others, well, you can’t have your cake and eat it. Either you are an agent, with free will, able to determine your own identity, or you are a victim of circumstance. And saying my choices are informed by my context is only to elevate the same dichotomy one level up. Either they are your choices or they are not. Informing a choice is merely to influence it, it is not to determine it.

So take solace all you fragile ideological souls, you needn’t damn communities and communal values as irrelevant. Ubuntu and liberalism are not mutually exclusive in that way. Your politically correct status can remain in tact. Only they are ours to control, not to be controlled by.


Ubuntu holds powerful emotional sway over those eager to legitimate all cultural practices but rationally it is supported by little more than hot air. It might be politically palatable and unthreatening to cower in the face of a nationalist culture that says otherwise, the fact of the matter is that the DA in particular and liberal thought in general advocates otherwise or, at least, it should.

If the DA wants to change its “fundamental liberal ideals”, as one response suggested, go right ahead but then it must discard any pretense it is liberal and be open and upfront about its intentions. Recently it has started wooing nationalism’s affections by flattering its ideas – sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes purposefully; without some introspection and honesty soon enough it will be in love.

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

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