The adoption by the Democratic Alliance (DA) this past weekend of a new policy to effectively redress the continued economic exclusion of 30 million impoverished citizens while simultaneously doing away with continued Apartheid-style racial classification will, in time, come to be seen as one of the definitive acts of political courage of our generation.
Courage was indeed required, for it is no secret that the embrace of non-racialism as a means to ensure true empowerment for all who need it has come under sustained assault in many news publications. With a few important and notable exceptions, editors, commentators and analysts have largely warned that affirming the DA’s animating belief in the fundamental and inherent equality of all human beings was a sign that the party is “regressing” and risks alienating voters.
While the DA already used its policy conference to dispense with this flawed analysis, it is worth briefly exploring the ideological roots of these outcries.
In essence, many members of the commentariat argue that the DA must – like all other political parties in South Africa – embrace the concept of “multiracialism” rather than “non-racialism.” While this may sound like a subtle semantic difference, these two concepts in fact entail two profoundly different understandings of humanity, and history has proven that they lead to two very different outcomes for any society.
Seeking to redress the legacy of racial discrimination through multiracialism, as many commentators suggest, means clinging to the very foundational belief that created all racial discrimination and oppression in the first place, namely that there exists in the world multiple different races – even “subspecies” – of Homo sapiens.
If this sounds dramatic, it’s because it is. As the name suggests, multiracialism implies that South Africa is populated by multiple races of humans who are essentially and fundamentally different in nature from one another.
Multiracialists incorrectly believe that a person’s skin pigmentation determines the very essence of who they are, what they believe, and how they want society to be structured. Most importantly from a political perspective, multiracialists also believe that skin colour tells us exactly what someone’s political beliefs are and that these beliefs are as unchanging as skin colour itself.
As South Africa’s own history shows, the consequences of embracing a multiracial ideology are tragic yet predictable. The false belief in the existence of multiple sub-races of genetically and biologically district groups of human beings is the basis for countless acts of discrimination, eugenics, oppression and genocide committed throughout human history.
In contrast, non-racialism asserts the basic scientific fact that there are no fundamental biological differences in the aptitudes, intelligence, beliefs and interests of human beings as a result of having differing skin tones. Just like whether a person is right-handed or left-handed, it should tell us nothing about their essential nature or beliefs. For a non-racialist, such features are, biologically-speaking, literally skin-deep.
The implications are profound. Unlike multiracialism, non-racialism does not erect artificial yet unchangeable biological barriers between groups of people. Instead, it recognises each person as a wholly equal and unique individual with the agency to form their own beliefs about how society works and should work, and who should have the freedom to associate with any number of group identities of their own choosing.
There are simply no essential or fundamental biological differences that determine the “nature” of, for example, black, white, coloured or Indian people.
But race does live on in the form of a social construct that was carefully invented and refined over thousands of years to classify and divide people. Precisely due to the damage caused to South Africa by the multiracial ideology of Apartheid – which was entirely premised on the belief that skin colour is a marker of essential difference, as well as superiority and inferiority – racial categories like black, white, coloured and Indian live on in our present society as powerful social constructs that profoundly impact the lives of too many citizens.
While rejecting racial essentialism, non-racialism is not blind to the reality that race exists as a social construct. This should not be strange or exceptional. For all around us, the world is populated by powerful manmade social constructs that do not exist in nature but which do directly influence our daily lives.
The example of national borders is an instructive one: we all know that borders between countries influence our daily lives, but we also know that the Limpopo river dividing South Africa from Zimbabwe is physically no different from any other river. It only became a “border” because humans decided to make it so. People conceptually constructed a “border” where nature only had a river. In the same way, people constructed “races” where nature only had humans.
So, how does this all relate to the DA’s new economic justice policy?
First, it means that the DA has chosen to learn the lessons of history by recognising the profound damage caused to our society by the multiracial ideology of Apartheid, and that racial classification based on the false belief in essential differences in nature between people is an evil framework that must be rejected.
By understanding race as a powerful social construct rather than as an essential natural reality, the DA is secondly able to recognise the continued existence of racism premised on the false belief – rooted in multiracialism – of inborn differences between people with differing skin pigmentation, without the need to perpetuate the false belief in racial essentialism.
Finally, a commitment to the simple non-racial truth that all people are created equal means that the party is able to clearly identify how the dangerous ideology of multiracialism has enabled the ANC-connected political elite to use race-based policies as a means not only of perpetuating Apartheid-style racial classification, but also to hijack empowerment opportunities from the 30 million South Africans who live on less than R992 per month.
Flowing from the party’s commitment to both non-racialism and the need for redress that practically works to correct the injustices of the past, the DA was able to reject race-based empowerment policies that have only enriched a small elite while perpetuating Apartheid-era racial classification. The commitment to these principles instead led the DA to adopt a new means-tested empowerment model that will root-out race-based elite capture and directly benefit 30 million impoverished South Africans – 99.8% of whom belong to groups that were discriminated against under Apartheid.
As with most principled commitments that reject the populism of the day, it is possible that the DA’s preference for non-racialism over multiracialism may be ahead of its time for some people. The party has indeed seen some former members resigning out of a combination of their desire to evade accountability for transgressions and their inability to view people of all races as fundamentally equal.
But, as history has taught us, that is certainly no reason to surrender principle. Our world would be a vastly poorer place if leaders like Martin Luther King Junior were persuaded to forego their commitment to the liberal principles of non-racialism and human equality in the face of resistance from opponents wedded to a belief in racial essentialism.
In fact, being ahead of the times for people who cling to a mistaken belief system in no way constitutes proof that the DA is regressing. The exact opposite is true. Taking the lead on issues of fundamental human equality and empowerment that helps the 30 million people still trapped in desperate poverty – and then working relentlessly to persuade more and more people to join this noble cause – is the very definition of courageous and progressive leadership.