The Tragedy of Helen Zille

By Jane Duncan · 5 May 2011

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Picture: Democratic Alliance
Picture: Democratic Alliance

In a few weeks time, South Africans will go to the polls to vote in the local government elections. It is almost a foregone conclusion that the Democratic Alliance (DA) will increase its support during these elections.

The DA under the leadership of Helen Zille is a political phenomenon. It is winning more hearts and minds, including in working class communities that had previously shunned the party. Many people are desperate for an electoral alternative to the ANC. But as tempting as it may be, South Africans must be wary of adopting an ‘opposition at all costs’ approach.

While tons of ink have been spilled analysing the social justice content of ANC’s policies and practices, very little serious attention has been paid to what the post-fight back DA actually stands for, and what the long term implications are of its growing popularity. The media’s focus on the touchy-feely aspects of Zille’s campaign has also obscured more substantive questions.

What type of society does the DA want to build? The core concept of Zille’s DA is one of an ‘open opportunity society for all,’ which it counter poses to the ANC’s ‘closed crony society for some’ where a clique rules to accumulate wealth. For the DA, a competitive job-creating economy, supported by an efficient education system, are the main drivers of this society.

The DA is not the originator of the open opportunity society concept; it has a long historical pedigree in political theory and practice. This society is a meritocracy, where government enables individual advancement on the basis of supposedly inherent talents and industriousness, measured usually through academic credentials, rather than on characteristics such as race, gender or political affiliation.

Open opportunity proponents proceed from the assumption that society should consist of hierarchies of achievers and non-achievers: so, they do not reject the notion of social hierarchy per se.

The open opportunity society is based on a conservative political philosophy, as it provides an ideological defence of the capitalist system. The children of the historically advantaged invariably have a head start in realising inherent talent. This society attributes an individual’s lack of success to individual weaknesses, not the system.

Britain’s New Labour party, under Tony Blair, also adopted the open opportunity society as the ideological counterpart to its neoliberal restructuring of the economy and society. As a result, inequality grew more rapidly than it did under John Major’s conservative government. The capacity of those on the higher rungs to reproduce their privileged positions increased, with no evidence of downward mobility if their offspring were less talented. In contrast to the stated intention, Blair’s open opportunity society became, in Alex Callinicos’ words, “entrenched inequalities of opportunity.”

The DA does acknowledge that the enjoyment of opportunity and choice has been heavily affected by apartheid. But its proposals for redress are inadequate, and are likely to be overshadowed by its broader societal framework, which is much more out rightly neoliberal than the ANC’s: a sort of Growth, Employment and Redistribution Plan (GEAR) on steroids.

The party advocates public sector rollback in the direct delivery of services as a backlash against the ANC’s strong developmental state. Rather, government should facilitate service delivery, mainly by the private sector, in the classic neoliberal mode.

The DA aims to provide what it refers to as a framework for choice of goods and services, such as schools. The party bases their conception of choice on trickle-down economics; so, as global competitiveness drives economic growth and society becomes richer, its members will be able to exercise the rights and choices for services.

Choice was an often-heard slogan of the Blair administration as well, where it was used to justify the marketisation of social services like housing to create more choice, leading to those with access to capital being unfairly advantaged. In his critique of Blair’s housing policy Peter Malpass argued, “choice is a weasel word, a seductive device concealing that what is really afoot in the opportunity society is promotion of the interests of the better off and toleration of wider social inequality, to the further disadvantage of the poor.”

The DA’s economic policy is business friendly in the main, as it advocates the cutting of corporate tax and the reviewing of labour legislation to make it easier to hire and fire workers. Infrastructure rollout should be privatised through public-private partnerships, as should public health care provision, where possible. These proposals are to the right even of the ANC’s GEAR plan.

Government should devolve as much power as possible to schools, universities, hospitals and local governments to manage their own affairs. The danger with this approach is that it will entrench pockets of privilege, where dominant social groups contract themselves out of the national agenda under the guise of ‘self-government’.

The DA’s education policy subscribes to human capital theory, which considers the purpose of education to be the production of skills for the market, and the raising of productivity and hence economic growth. Tellingly, its policy is silent on the role of education in producing a critical citizenry.

In the long term, individual advancement and competitiveness will be incentivised through a voucher system aimed at giving learners from low income households an opportunity to receive better education, thereby increasing their choice of schools. Schools achieving outstanding results will also receive incentives. Underlying these proposals is the assumption that competition produces efficiencies in the delivery of services.

The voucher system has evoked controversy internationally for draining public money away from already-underfunded public schools, which is then used to cross-subsidise private schooling: a sort of privatisation by stealth.

The DA sees higher education as a gateway for social mobility, where students are encouraged to hold the tragically impoverished view that personal growth amounts to advancement in professional markets. The party invokes the technocratic discourse of ‘innovation’ - where companies seeking competitive advantage over their competitors use universities as knowledge factories – to promote greater private sector involvement in the higher education sector. The negative implications for academic freedom should be self-evident.

The DA also advocates differentiation in higher education, where Colleges of Higher Education develop skills for the market, universities provide teaching, and Centres of Excellence (which the DA intends to be elite institutions) provide cutting edge research.

Such differentiation is pedagogically questionable, as it will artificially strip off teaching from research, impoverishing both teaching and research. Clearly the DA wants the education system to produce subjects, not citizens.

In addition, differentiation will probably lead to the lion’s share of public resources being directed to the most likely candidates for Centres of Excellence, the former historically advantaged universities, which are still populated largely by the sons and daughters of the powerful and privileged. This ‘aristocracy of merit’ will dominate knowledge-generation, which is likely to lead to a society that is unable or unwilling to resolve its most pressing problems.

The DA’s communication policy argues for light-touch regulation in the era of convergence, which will pave the way for the dominance of the post-digital migration airwaves by media monopolies. Its policy is completely silent on the future of the most popular and accessible medium in the country, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, suggesting that the broadcaster’s future may be precarious under a DA government.

This is not to say that the DA does not recognise the need for redress or the social wage. The party argues for the universalisation of the old age grant, as well as the adoption of the basic income grant. But these proposals will do nothing to correct the structural distortions in the economy that create vulnerability.

The tent pole of the DA’s strategy for local government elections is to use Cape Town as a model for good governance, and to capitalise on the ANC’s many failings at local government level. Certainly there are indications that the DA has done better administratively than the ANC.

But the roots of the near-collapse of many local governments need to be understood, as the problems are deeper than poor administration. With the onset of GEAR, national government transfers to local government were drastically reduced, forcing local governments into self-sufficiency that many could simply not afford.

The DA policies suggest that the party will drive local governments even further down the road of self-sufficiency, further disadvantaging poorer municipalities outside the wealthier Western Cape.

In view of South Africa’s liberation history, it is a tragedy that that the second biggest political party in the country is to the right of the ANC. It creates space for a shift to the right in South Africa’s politics generally, which in turn provides a basis for the ANC to continue its centrist shift as well.

If this shift takes place, then mass unemployment, service-delivery cut-offs and inequality generally are likely to intensify. But then these problems will be blamed on the lack of industriousness of the individual, not on the policies. Mass despondency is likely to set in.  The insufferable white arrogance that is such a strong feature of life in the Western Cape is likely to spread further afield.

In campaigning against the ANC’s rocky performance at local government level, Zille has portrayed herself as a champion of social justice, even invoking the names of Nelson Mandela and Chris Hani. Yet Zille’s open opportunity society is a clear and present danger to the social justice agenda.

The more the political debate revolves around a centre-right axis, the more impossible it will become to achieve, or even imagine, the conditions for true human emancipation. And therein lies the tragedy of Helen Zille.

Duncan is a Professor of Journalism at the University of Johannesburg.

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4 May


"Mass despondency is likely to set in. The insufferable white arrogance that is such a strong feature of life in the Western Cape is likely to spread further afield."

God forbid.

How am I supposed to take Duncan seriously when she says borderline-racist things like this? Replace 'white arrogance' with 'black arrogance' and you've got yourself a date with the HRC.

Her ego-driven distaste for the DA, clearly still considered a 'white' party, has coloured (no pun intended) her view of this entire situation.

The bottom line is that regardless of ideology, people on the ground are putting their faith increasingly in the DA because THEY DELIVER, as opposed to the ANC, who can spew all the utopian socialist crap they want, but still spend most of their time abusing funds, avoiding calls, and acting like seven year olds in Parliament. Mass despondency set in a long time ago, when people started realizing ANC was all talk and no action. Deal with it, Duncan.

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Loudly South African
4 May

Abuse of Freedom of Expression

This strategic deployee is typical of the heavy Goebbelesian campaign the ANC is using as it panics over loss of voter support.

Duncan, a professor at Rhodes, clearly does not believe in researching her subject or else is deliberately confusing the "Open Society" with the "Open OPPORTUNITY society". (I trust that Duncan, in her love of a "critical citizenry", will accept MY critique of HER propaganda stuk). I mention in passing, that Duncan was one of those who went apoplexic when the DA took a hostile so-called journalist off their mailing list (cry censorship) but has remained silent over the ANC-Guptarian New Age firing their Free State bureau chief for (fie!) giving too much coverage to the ANC's political competitors.

The former policy (which was proposed, amongst others, by Steve Biko) is what Ducan describes: a Darwinina survival of the fittest. The "opportunity" bit of the DA proposal means ensuring that, for instance, ALL scholars have the same opportunity to reach their potential. This may involve an element of what affirmative action is meant to be (before the term was bastardised by the ANC and leftists like Duncan), such as providing transport, mentoring, extra lessons & nutrition by those who are currently handicapped through no fault of their own - allowing those WITHOUT the head start to flourish.

While all ideologically blinded leftists are obliged to sneer at productive-sector friendly policies, what escapes Duncan is that with 40% - 60% un- and under-employment, the statist model they favour cannot cure the structural recession that has been a feature of the last 17 years. The DA has shown that its SMME-friendly polices have created jobs (against the national trend), attracted foreign & local investment and empowered hundreds of SMMEs - many of them black. Oops! These are the hated petit bourgeoisie and holders of wealth (capital) - skande. One wonders if the idea of converting universities to centres of excellence is what's behind Duncan's hysteria. Of course, the idea, in a society still struggling to catch up the massive structural backlogs of apartheid and ANC fiscal myopia ("balancing the books" by underspending on infrastructure, including roads, Eskom & schools) we need more artisan skills - electricians vs engineers, bookkeepers vs accountants & MBAs, bricklayers & plumbers vs architects, teachers vs strikers...

Outside of the ivory tower, real-world skills are in demand. While politically correct and in keeping with Duncan's elitist ideas, the US phenomenon of PhDs in social studies driving taxis - alongside fourth-generation mothers on drugs and welfare will not contribute to poverty alleviation. As for the working class, Cde Mantashe (SACP chair & ANC secretary-general) reported at an ANC congress that they were supporting the DA in the W Cape (including Cosatu & ANC members) and the no-shows at Ehrenreich's Mayday mass rally speak (so to speak) for themselves.

Sadly, Duncan's support for the ANC is in line with the complete role reversal. It is now the ANC which has become the "fight back" party of opposition at all costs, though the DA never descended to the dishonesty and dirty tricks the ANC finds acceptable. The only good news is that the ANC is likely to adopt a "stop Zuma" campaign after the elections.

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5 May

Give Me a Break!

Capitalism explained in this article, which works very well for tha USA, Europe and Australia. People who find this appealing are probably lazy. It's about time a manager can fire someone if they don't perform, especially those lazy asses in government.

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5 May

Oh Come On!

All this "rightest" "centrist" "leftist" goobledegook means very little to those outside the hallowed halls of academia.

The DA a threat to social justice? Please spare us the sophomoric handwringing.

The ANC have been mostly rubbish (with pockets of excellence) and deserve a kicking at the ballot box.

That is how democracy works.

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6 May

The Facts of the Zille Tragedy

Duncan's comments are apt in directing us to what the DA claims to offer, rather than what the ANC does not, which has been the centre of the DA's campaign.

In other words the downfall of the ANC is of its own doing, than as a result of the DA's par excellence in itself.

The city of Cape Town demonstrates the entrenching of inequality in a very systematic way, which Duncan suggests. In this sense, it is by no means exemplary of a model city. In fact any suggestion therof is in keeping with the colonial image of Cape Town as the mother-city from which other metropoles were to be modelled across Africa.

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6 May

Reaction on All Sides

The utterly vacuous criticisms levelled against the author

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mpimpi Verified user
7 May

Duncan The Professor of Media Studies

I think Duncan should stick to her regular job and leave political commentating to those who have the ability to do so. This confusing drivel does not in anyway teach us anything both about the DA and South African political framework. As an academic, she should have researched her story or comment properly looking at all sides rather than be biased against the DA and being prejudicial to Hellen. She mistakenly and incorrectly says th ANC is forging a Developmental State and now.

Come on Duncan where have you been?

Are you not aware that 15million South Africans are on welfare as we speak and that is not developmental but welfarism which is actually taking back this country 10-years. The ANC is actually perpetuating this Welfare State to balance out the corruption laced tenderpreneurship and BEE that is reserved for those connected to the ANC and its president. Maybe you have your little cup from the gravy train hence you are so blinded in your arguments.

If I did not know you, I would have questioned whether you are for real. In fact you have disgraced yourself by your partisan approach and myopic view of such an important topic in our political discourse. You lack vision and sense of perception and your piece/article is a far cry from a work by an academic and a so-called scholar.

Goodbye Duncan, go back to teaching newspaper work. No wonder why journalists these days are so minimal in approach!!!

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7 May

The Return of the Land of Milk and Honey

I not only agree with what the professor is saying, I also aim to prove this at a local level where I live in a previously disadvantaged and underdeveloped community in Cape Town. Under the DA administration the cost of our white soccer elephant went from a conservative R1.6 billion to the ultra-right of centre R4 Billion! Two wrongs don

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7 May

Duncan The Professor of Media Studies

Maybe Duncan should stick to media studies or whatever she is doing at Rhodes and leave political commentry to political scientists. I have not, in a long time, read such gibberish potrayed as commentry. She is clearly misguided in her findings and completely of tangent when she says the ANC is pushing for a developmental state.

If she cares to look closely she will notice that there are 15million people on social grants in SA and that is far from developmental but rather Welfarism that is intended to win votes for the ANC. the ANC is ensuring to keep more people on Social grants as possible so they can get these people to rely heavily on the State for sustainance. The money the State is spending on Social Grants could be fruitfully utilized for Cognitive Skills Training and development, equiping the masses to acquire skills and also promote the training for scarce skills. South Africa under the ANC is doing nothing but retrogresses in development, Gear she is referring to is almost non-existent, economic development is replaced by BEE that benefits the connected former struggle cadres, leaving out the rest including the skilled whites. BEE is of no benefit to the development of this country for the fact that it is debt based and is strengthening and deepening the effects of Capitalism that sees the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, while the corrupt elite and tenderpreneurs continue to plunder the economy, loot the State coffers.

Her support for the ANC is blatant and pathetic as she attempts to demonize Zille in the light of the corrupt cadres and directionless Luthuli house which is actually running this country rather than the stooges (Zuma and his cabinet) that we see as brainless speech readers rather than opinionated leaders. South africa is messing up in the UN because of lack of political direction and leadership. Where have you seen a herd boy who is also illeterate, run a sophisticated country and economic system that we have in SA.

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Mark Verified user
7 May

The Tragedy of Jane Duncan

It's been a while since I read such drivel. I won't repeat the comments above but most are dead on the money! Is this "academic" for real? The DA and its predecessors' record speaks for itself. Usually in extremely trying circumstances. Without this, the only real opposition in SA - and the only one to advance sensible alternatives - what are we left with. JZ's corruption, nepotism and failure. Please can we have some sensible debate?

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Jaco Slabbert
9 May

Good Heavens, How It Smells of Ignorance in these Comments

The tragedy of these comments is a sad reflection of our position as the voting public. I'm a 25 year old white, middle class male, an Entrepreneur and an activist for social justice. I am neither lazy, as Johan so elegantly suggested, nor an ANC supporter as many of the other conservatives expect. I am, however, someone that has been working in the social sector for over 5 years, seeing the tragedy of the poor in the Western Cape and *trying* very hard to work with Government (Local and Provincial) to no avail. I can assure you that the six projects we've put to the DA have all run aground in the personal agendas and red tape. All of those projects were piloted, without the help of ProvGov, funded and implemented by ourselves at grassroots level (I can supply supporting information if you like).

Unfortunately, so many of the mules, sorry I mean slaves, sorry I mean supporters of the "dream" of the DA fail to see the obvious future problems we are creating with this privatised, capitalist form of governance. Umm, Johan, in case you were under a rock the last few years, take notice of the "biggest economic meltdown" in history which we're still fighting...I don't see this capitalist model working very well mate.

So bicker amongst yourselves and bathe in the fallacy of the "Dream of Freedom." The ANC can't deliver for all because they're crap at managing the country, the DA won't deliver for all because it's not profitable (yet...although with recent developments in Bottom of the Pyramid Markets - read exploiting the poor with cheap iPhones and the capitalist dream - it has become more profitable).

Simply put, their simple intention is to keep propagating a broken economic system. They are privatising your human rights. And you're falling for it because "at least they pick up the trash in my leafy white suburb."

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clive david may
9 May

Helen Zille - Premier Western Cape

Thank you.

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Everywoman Verified user
9 May

Rare and Insightful Commentary

I feel this is rare and insightful commentary on DA policies and an important contribution to the political debate in the run-up to the local government election. Sadly, it's no surprise to see a reactionary response from readers who feel that the ANC is fair game, but that the DA is above analysis and criticism.

As an active member of an civil society advocacy group working in the City of Joburg, the DA's failings are as evident to me as those of the ANC.

More importantly, what Duncan explores here are the implications of a knee-jerk vote for the DA based simply on a desire for more efficient service delivery. There is more at stake here. Those whom we vote into office at local government level today may become our national leaders tomorrow, with all of the policy ramifications that will imply.

I agree with Jaco that we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the capitalist system came close to collapse just a few brief years ago, and would have imploded if it weren't for massive central government intervention in countries all around the world. Not only is it a structurally bankrupt system but, it could be argued, a morally bankrupt one too.

So at this stage in history, isn't it time that we started moving towards a more direct, people-centred democracy that puts political power into the hands of the people rather than allowing it to stay in the hands of political parties? As I see it, unless we start defining a new way of governing, a way that allows for direct citizen oversight and a model of governance that is effectively a partnership between government and the people, our democrcay will continue to falter - no matter whether the ANC or the DA is in power.

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11 May

Viva Duncan

It is so sad that the majority of SA citizens have no access to information such as this. Thank you Duncan for this important info. I would ignore most of these commentetors if I were you. I am not going to waste my time by responding to them; they are being personal and not sober minded. Viva Duncan!

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13 May

Running Down Democracy?

I am very sorry to see Prof Jane Duncan running down the concept of an "Open Society", or open opportunity society, coming as she does from the Freedom of Expression Institute.

Just as there can be no democracy without free and fair competition of ideas, values and beliefs, so there cannot be economic justice without free and fair competition for excellence in the provision of goods and services.

Where historic disadvantages militate against equal opportunity and economic justice, legitimate interventions are desirable. And the DA should be lambasted if it denied such intervention.

But Prof Duncan's blatantly one-sided article utterly ignores the ANC's authoritarian populism which currently calls for nationalisation and for the racist dispossession of whites and foreign investors, by greedy politicians who have betrayed their electorate by overwhelming corruption and brazen theft (e.g. arms deals and Chancellor House, not to mention the rape, pillage and plunder of most if not all government services and municipalities).

If I was Prof Duncan, I would avoid the impression of feathering a nest for myself in that den of thieves.

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13 May

Super Stuff

This is one of the most important articles that SACSIS has yet published. The ANC is failing because tenderism has rotted the organisation from the inside. The DA is more effective. But more effective at what? At promoting the interests of the rich!

This groundswell of support for the DA in poor black communities is not taking us forward.

The Glenn Ashton piece is very good too.

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18 May

Prof Trotsky

While Duncan is a Professor at Rhodes, she is also a long-time Trotskyist, subscribing to the ideology of a small and not so distinguished communist splinter group.

In exposing the ideological tradition within which the DA exists, problematical as it is, Duncan's own academic credentials should not be allowed to mask the instrumental way her own political tradition has historically related to black nationalist aspirations. This is as a useful source of discontent on the part of yet undeveloped blacks on the way to permanent revolution led by an intellectual vanguard.

Once more, the blacks (voting for the DA) are undeveloped. So DAted.

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