Why I am leaving the DA over Verwoerd

Values, beliefs, opinions — all well and good until they gnaw at you, little by little at first, turning later into greedy gulps at your consciousness, willing you to act on them. I’m a relative newcomer to a life governed by values, beliefs and opinions — conscience, if you like – as you’ll recall from my earlier column on growing up white, Jewish and insulated in apartheid South Africa. In that piece I wrote: “One of the biggest inequities in modern history happened on my doorstep — and I was so immersed in the vagaries of my own insular life that I didn’t question it. As a Jew, especially given my people’s history, I am ashamed of myself.”

Fast forward a few months – that column appeared in the launch issue of the Rand Daily Mail website on November 17 2014 – and I find my conscience calling on me to take a stand. I did so last month when I wrote that as a Jewish South African “we owe it to ourselves to stand up against and speak out about injustice and racism and persecution and the violation of human rights. Even — or especially — when those issues don’t threaten our own lives or dignity.”

The issue then was Mcebo Dlamini’s reference to Hitler’s organisational skills; the issue today is Allister Sparks’s reference to Verwoerd’s ‘smartness’ as a leader.

Why the Sparks flew
Remembering Hendrik Verwoerd as a ‘smart’ leader is like remembering Hitler as a good organiser. The evil these men wrought on entire generations and groups of people, and which lives on in the psyches of their victims and their descendants, disqualifies them from any sort of praise at all. To praise even their handwriting — to borrow from a cliché — is to disrespect the feelings of those who felt the effectiveness of Verwoerd’s ‘smartness’ and Hitler’s ‘organisational skills’. Both men used these so-called skills purely to achieve their hateful aims. There is nothing we should be praising or trying to emulate about these men. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

And, in Sparks’s case, to list the architect of apartheid among people he referred to as ‘smart leaders’ — which list included the two Helens — is both offensive and insensitive. But to do so as an invited guest at a Congress of the DA, a party whose Value Charter includes the line, “Apartheid was an evil system which denied generations of South African citizens the freedom, rights and opportunities to improve their lives and fulfil their potential”, is as thoughtless as it is destructive.
Actually, it’s not so much what he said that has caused my internal tugging ­— as offensive as it is, I have no connection to the man and, having spoken out against his repugnant comment, I can simply file him away in the folder in my head titled “Old school liberals exposed as racists”. But, as a card-carrying member of the DA, the party’s response — or lack thereof — to his pronouncement is what has caused me so much discomfort.

What did I want my party to do?
You don’t have to be a PR or communications expert (I am neither) to see how this could have all been avoided. First prize would have been Helen Zille, speaking after his tribute to her, making it clear that the DA does not admire Verwoerd’s cleverness because he used it to evil ends. She didn’t. Which is strange and sad and a great pity, given that she said the DA “need to reassure people that we recognise how the deep injustices of the past still haunt our present.” And even her later explanations to the media avoided stating outright that the DA, believing Verwoerd was a dangerous racist, do not count him as one of the great leaders of SA.

Failing that, the DA communications machine should have immediately issued a statement

  • distancing the party from the statement and expressing regret that Sparks chose their platform to mention the name Verwoerd in connection with anything other than crimes against humanity.
  • unequivocally making it clear that good leaders are those who use their smartness for the good of all people; emphasising that being smart is not laudable if you use your smartness to morally repugnant ends; confirming that there is no place in a democratic South Africa to use racist and fascist leaders as role models.
  • apologising in an unqualified manner to the millions of South Africans who were hurt, offended or angered by the words — and acknowledging that these feelings are justified in response to such a comment.

So, who said what on Twitter?
Bitterly disappointed by what I saw and heard — and equally by what I didn’t see or hear — I searched Twitter for some indication that the party I belonged to were taking the views of black South Africans seriously. Instead, various members of and spokespersons for the party tweeted vastly different positions in a haphazard, knee-jerk manner, struggling to cope with the sea of negative publicity the party was getting on social media. Most of which, I believe, would have dissipated fairly quickly had they done what I suggested above.

But they didn’t say that. Or anything like that.

Zakhele Mbhele, DA MP and the party’s former media liaison officer, tried to get me to accept that I simply did not understand Sparks’s subtle wit. His patronising words were: “Well then, we’ll have to disagree. It was subtle wit. I try not to get into a tizz whenever someone makes a joke that bombs.” He also said we were being “cajoled into a bashing exercise of a man who naively made a political faux pas.” There’s a huge difference between a naive faux pas (unlikely in one as experienced as Sparks) and subtle wit (there is nothing subtle or funny about apartheid) — neither of which actually apply to this situation or absolve the DA from its responsibility to speak out against the statement. Mbhele’s vastly different excuses show clearly the party’s lack of decisive communications strategy.

Especially because Sparks himself later told the media that he stood by what he said. His exact words: “What am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to say he was dumb or stupid? He wasn’t stupid.”

Do you really need me to tell you what you should have said about Verwoerd, Mr Sparks? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

One of the DA’s national spokespersons, Marius Redelinhuys, had very little to say on the subject, preferring to retweet references to “manufactured outrage”, the fact that Sparks wasn’t actually a racist and how wrong those tweeting #DAshame were. He didn’t send one tweet of his own denouncing the implications of Sparks’s statement.

The other spokesperson, Phumzile Van Damme, fired off three tweets, hours after the sparks began to fly:

  • “Right. The DA’s views on Allister Sparks’s comment at #DAcongress on Verwoerd which has been grossly misconstrued will follow in 2 tweets.”
  • “Allister Sparks has spent his life fighting the evil system of Apartheid and said in his speech today it was a crime against humanity.1/2”
  • “Point Sparks made today about Verwoerd is being used to shed a negative light on a #DAcongress that had a positive message about SA 2/2”

She then deflected any attempts at engagement by referring people to Sparks himself.

What’s disappointing about this tardy response — which I assume is the official response as she is the spokesperson ­— is that the last two tweets do not express the DA’s views on Sparks’s comment, as promised in the first. The tweets skirt around the issue without actually saying that the DA does not agree that Verwoerd was a great leader or that Sparks was out of place saying so on a DA stage. They are typical examples of political obfuscation pussyfooting around an issue.

After that, nothing else from the official spokespersons but a retweet of Mike Moriarty, DA Chief Whip in Gauteng Provincial Legislature, whose tweets included the patronising (and misguided): “Objective observers of #DACongress judge on speeches of party leaders, not a remark by a visitor re mental agility of an apartheid leader”. He also confirmed that that the DA would only disagree if it were actually admiration, which Sparks himself told the media it was.

The first and only outright condemnation I found came from a man I respect greatly, Solly Malatsi (shadow minister for sport and recreation): “No Mr Sparks, there’s nothing to admire in Verwoerd who perpetuated the discrimination of black people #NotinourDA”. But his was a lonely voice.

The clean-up operation?
So the first day of the congress ended with the blue brigade full of the joys of being part of what looked like a well-organised and spirited congress. But many of the rest of us, including those DA members not at the congress and those who’d been considering voting DA in 2016, were hurt, angry and confused.

Day 2 dawned and once again the attendees were on a high as they voted for their new leader. It must have been obvious to them, as it was to the rest of us, that Mmusi Maimane would emerge victorious. And so he (or they?) included in his acceptance speech a reference to the fact that the DA did not think Verwoerd was a good leader coupled with an acknowledgment of the evils of apartheid.

It was Robin Carlisle — the man some call the most honest politician they know­ — speaking before Maimane, who first used the stage to call Verwoerd a racist and a bigot.

But it was all far too little — and 24 hours too late for me. I was left feeling like a child who first realises their parents are human and fallible: uneasy, insecure and unsure of my place.

In a misguided attempt not to offend their guest – for this is the only reason I can come up with for their failure to deal decisively with the issue as it arose, the people I’ve admired and supported for so long instead offended the vast majority of their actual and potential support base. They let it go, dealing with those who voiced their outrage in a patronising and dismissive manner, hoping that the inevitable announcement of Maimane as the first black leader of the opposition in South Africa would extinguish the Sparks. They were so immersed in their own blue world that they failed to see what was going on around them and just how much damage their actions — or inaction, in this case — was causing.
As a Jew, I will never be able to erase Mcebo Dlamini’s words and how they made me feel. And similarly, as a South African, no amount of political band standing can wipe away how I and millions of others felt when Sparks lauded the architect of apartheid at the DA congress – with impunity.

Outspoken DA supporter, Sihle Ngobese, put my thoughts into words when he tweeted: “I find those preoccupied by Allister Sparks funny…the political ground has shifted beneath their feet, and they’re distracted!”

No, Sihle, I’m afraid it’s you who’ve been distracted. #NotInMyName