May the liberal force be with you today, KZN Democrats

I was bound to be disappointed, I suppose, but I didn’t expect to be shocked.

That I am. The unhappiness in the DA in Kwa-Zulu Natal is palpable and not without due cause.

I told my readers I’d report back on the debates taking place ahead of the Provincial Congress happening today, if members took me up on my offer to contact me with any concerns.

Many have. While I knew that factions exist in KZN and that some people positively loathe each other, the test was to establish if these had spilled over into the campaigns for individual leadership positions being contested at Congress, as they had in Gauteng and the Western Cape.

They have … and then some.

It is beyond belief that delegates in the same organisation see fit to boo candidates, rather than listen to all contenders and make their decision based on what they’ve heard.

It is difficult to come to terms with campaign messages from desperate candidates that exhort delegates to vote for leaders who support Mmusi Maimane over Cyril Ramaphosa, thereby implying that their opponents don’t. That’s not just playing dirty, folks. That’s messing with the minds of DA voters out there.

This intolerance is meant to intimidate candidates and their supporters, just as it does in the ANC. Except we are not the ANC. We don’t shut down debate by shouting the loudest or throwing chairs at people we don’t agree with.

Before I provide details, let me repeat my oft-stated mission, which is to help make my party – the Democratic Alliance – the very best it can be. So I don’t write these things with any pleasure whatsoever, but rather with the intent to force action to be taken where it is woefully absent.

As in instances that I’ve blogged about before, the cold, hard truth of the matter is that the national leadership of the DA has been “looking the other way” in respect of KZN’s problems, probably in the hopes that if a matter goes unaddressed long enough, it will simply disappear.

While I don’t believe for one moment that our federal leader and management team are actively working with one faction against another, it seems that once again, political correctness is the order of the day.

Put simply, if you’re expendable and found guilty of any transgression or of bad behaviour, boy oh boy, discipline is dispensed adroitly. However, if you’re found guilty and punishing you would elicit a media uproar for any reason and raise the risk of losing DA support among black voters specifically, the wheels of justice grind slower than a civil servant on a Friday.

Given what I’ve told you, I’m not going to dwell too much on the opinions of those who called me to say that “their” candidates won the debates hands down. It was never my intention to reach conclusions along those lines.

Rather, I’m more interested in how delegates viewed the overall campaigns of the candidates and whether or not the party’s democratic processes are ensuring free and fair elections.

And that’s where the stumbling blocks are already apparent. The people who chair the debates are senior public representatives brought in from other provinces. This is supposed to provide delegates with the confidence that the debates will be run with sound, independent judgement, affording the candidates equal opportunity to present themselves and answer questions from those who will be casting their votes for their leadership today.

In all four debates, delegates were not permitted to put up their hands and ask their questions from the floor. Delegates wishing to ask questions were instructed to write them down on paper and send them up to the chairpersons, who took a “lucky dip” from a box of questions and then read them out to the candidates to whom they were addressed.

This has meant that very serious questions have not been put to candidates. The most critical of these is around charges laid by the IFP against the incumbent provincial leader, Zwakele Mcwango, in respect of his company allegedly “winning” a lease tender in the Nombolo Municipality.

This story has hit the front pages of the media in Kwa-Zulu Natal, so it would not be unreasonable for delegates to expect an explanation of sorts, given that the party is being brought into disrepute by a story that may or may not be true about a person seeking re-election as their leader.

I am about to state the obvious, so please bear with me.

Why would the DA not be proactively and openly investigating allegations such as this one to give Mcwango the chance to clear his name, given that he is standing for election to a vital leadership position, ostensibly with a clear conscience and nothing to hide? Keep in mind that by virtue of the positions they hold, all provincial leaders have a seat on the small, but powerful Federal Executive of the DA.

Why?

Fact is, candidates in the Democratic Alliance are required to state on their nomination acceptance forms whether or not they have criminal records or if they know of anything that could embarrass the party should they be elected. So answering a question at a debate – whether meant mischievously or not – should be a matter of merely answering the question in the same way they filled in their forms.

Insofar as this matter, which involves Mcwango allegedly benefiting illegally by an amount of R3 million, is concerned, I would venture to say that it is absolutely vital for him to firmly deny the allegations and put paid to any rumour mongering (if that is all it is).  I would go further and say that if I was him and I was standing for re-election as leader of the DA in Kwa-Zulu Natal, I would VOLUNTEER the correct information upfront in my speech to delegates – not only at the debates, but at congress itself – in order to ensure that misinformation was NOT influencing delegates to vote against me. I would clear up any falsehoods being spread about me MYSELF, let alone avoid questions that allowed me to do so.

It is beyond me why the very fine people who have been brought in to oversee these debates would think any differently from me, unless they had received instructions from above to stop spontaneity at these debates. And if that is the case, the WHY becomes an even more imperative question.

I’m told that in fact one of the MPs chairing one of the debates brought delegates haranguing Macpherson to order, because he was being quizzed about an episode a couple of years ago during which he resigned as the chief whip of the DA’s caucus in Ethekwini.

Now you could say, given that Mcwanqo and Macpherson are in opposing factions, that however inappropriate this “censorship” during debates is, it proves that at least there is some even-handedness. Except I say that no candidate should be protected from questions and that, in this case, all news reports about this issue point to the fact that Macpherson resigned on a matter of principle and that the question, designed to embarrass him, would have actually reflected him in a very good light. (Briefly, Macpherson resigned because he and his caucus leader at the time disagreed on whether or not the DA should reveal the contents of a damning report on the ANC-led Council’s finances, taking into account that the report was deemed confidential. Macpherson believed the ratepayers of Ethekwini deserved to know about corruption or mismanagement involving public money, even if it meant breaching the confidentiality clause, while his caucus leader did not, being quoted at the time as saying “nothing was worth losing my job over”).

So there you have it. The DA’s moral high ground becomes more slippery by the day.

The louder you can shout “Amandla”, the more deficiencies you can cover up. You discover that ruling your band of supporters in your branch and your constituency by fear or favour actually works, so you do it some more. You learn quickly that you can bend the rules pretty much unchallenged if you can sell the notion that your sparkling personality wins over black voters (or coloured or Indian, depending).

Then you realise that if you’re anything but white AND you’re an incumbent, you wield actual power. So, safe in the knowledge that your word is law, you announce publicly that the DA in KZN will observe November 2017 as Oliver Tambo Month, despite the fact that this very month marked the 100th birthday of the Mother of the DA, one Helen Suzman.

You take to social media, writing, supporting and “liking” damaging statements about whites in South Africa, mocking fellow public representatives to your heart’s content. There are no repercussions.

There’s no fear that your winning ticket will expire. You are invincible. You and your boeties just arrange stuff and it happens. You select specific people to attend coveted party leadership programmes. You put friends and family forward for key jobs and positions and voila! It works. There’s dissension in the ranks? Or a cheeky member of the provincial executive committee requests that you actually do the job to which you were elected? No problem. Call them out as racists (or coconuts, depending). That shuts them up nicely.

And so it goes.

Genuinely concerned activists, of all races, are reconsidering their participation. One elderly gentleman whose name I won’t reveal told me this week that he joined the DA because he’d hated the in-house intrigue in the ANC and wanted to be part of a truly united political family. Now, nine years on and he feels his “family” is falling apart.

Another party veteran who shall remain anonymous, said it’s all very well to insist that every public representative and member signs a Pledge Against Racism. One would think in a liberal party that such a promise would not be necessary, given that signing up to the DA in the first instance is a commitment in itself against discrimination of any kind. It’s common cause and should go without saying. But, says this member, what is very necessary now is an Ethos Pledge – one that commits every signatory to our own Ten Commandments. Such as: I will not steal. I will not lie. I will promote my party’s proud history, its policies and principles, including the rule of law. I will stand shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Democrats unless and if they break the DA Ethos. I will abide by the party’s constitutions, its rules and processes. And so on …

The DA is parked at a crossroad and there is a decision about direction that we need to make. Even if it means backtracking to pick up the valuables we dropped in our haste. Certainly we need to lose the dodgy passengers and back seat drivers we’ve collected along the way. And then we need to identify the High Road and set forth.

If we don’t, very soon voters won’t be able to tell the difference between us and the ANC. If social media is anything to go by, it’s already happening.

And I say to those members who will do almost anything for personal gain – this party is not your toy thing. It belongs to me and hundreds of other stalwarts who helped build it to what it is today. We will not stand by and allow you to break it down through dirty tricks and tacky games.

All members in the DA were created equal. No-one is royal game. No group is protected above another. These are the very tenets on which our party was built way back in the 50s by Suzman and other brave liberal heroes.

We would do well to remember them.

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