‘Family Values’: Anatomy of a Straw Man

By Gavin Davis

What sets the Democratic Alliance apart from other parties is the culture of open debate that characterises its internal elections. Rigorous debate is important because it gives Congress delegates an opportunity to get to know the candidates better, increasing the likelihood of the best candidate getting elected.

However, such robust internal campaigning only works if all candidates play by the rules of the game. Candidates cannot, for example, campaign negatively or bring the party into disrepute. And, when the elections are over, all candidates agree to accept the outcome and work with the newly elected leadership team in pursuance of the party’s objectives.

It was therefore strange to read Wilmot James’ critique of the DA’s Values Charter in the Sunday Times, precisely one week after it was adopted at Federal Congress.[i] James repeated this criticism in Business Day yesterday, saying that he intends to “continue the fight he started at the Congress, which is to ensure that the rights of individuals be placed at the centre of the DA’s Values Charter.”[ii]

That fact of the matter is that James had ample opportunity to make this case in the run-up to Congress. As the DA’s former Federal Chairperson, James was involved in the formulation of the Values Charter from its inception, which involved months of consultation across the party. James also made his views known the day before the Charter was to be adopted, at a meeting of the DA’s Federal Council. After finding little support for his position there, he tried again from the Congress floor the following day. Again, he was unable to bring party members around to his point of view.

Having failed to convince the party that the Values Charter is a shift towards social conservatism, it appears that James is now on a mission to persuade the public. To what end, only James will know. But, whatever his intentions, the argument he puts forward cannot go unchallenged.

The public deserves to know that, by willfully misrepresenting the Values Charter, James is building a straw man for his knockdown arguments. Straw men appear convincing on the surface but, when you dig a little deeper, it doesn’t take long to expose them for what they are.

The DA’s Values Charter unambiguously states that the South African people must have “the maximum amount of individual freedom consistent with law and order.”[iii] Where family is mentioned in the document, it is only within the context of promoting individualism – the fundamental tenet of liberal thought. As the Charter states: “Families, however uniquely structured, help build successful individuals and provide them a foundation with which to make sense of the world and to realise their full potential as individuals.”[iv]

The suggestion that stable families are more likely to yield strong individuals is hardly a controversial idea or, for that matter, an illiberal one. Perhaps that is why one of South Africa’s most respected liberal think tanks, the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), has produced a considerable body of research on the topic.

In a 2011 report entitled ‘First Steps to Healing the South African Family’, SAIRR researchers Gail Eddy and Lucy Holborn show the extent to which family breakdown has occurred as a result of poverty, the HIV/Aids pandemic and the legacy of the apartheid migrant labour system.[v] Eddy and Holborn show how family breakdown is an impediment to young people’s prospects of scholastic success and securing employment, and how children from unstable family units are more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviour and perpetrate violent crime. Their conclusion is as follows: “Both local and international research provides evidence that growing up in stable families with both parents present can make a significant difference to the future outcomes of young people.”[vi]

In the United States, it has long been recognised that a focus on family should not be the sole preserve of politicians, policy-makers and academics from a particular side of the ideological spectrum. As an article in the progressive Boston Globe pointed out last month: “A wave of research from think tanks on the right and left, as well as scholars in social sciences like economics and sociology, has made a forceful new defense of the venerable institution.”[vii]

One example is the ‘Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study’ initiated by Princeton Sociologist Sara McLanahan that has produced a wealth of data on the impact of family breakdown on children.[viii] This emerging literature on the family shouldn’t be a no-go area for liberals. On the contrary, we should acknowledge the role that a stable family can play in producing strong individuals capable of thinking for themselves and seizing the opportunities that come their way.

The great liberal thinker John Rawls recognised this in his essay Justice as Fairness. He wrote: “The family is part of the basic structure, the reason being that one of its essential roles is to establish the orderly production and reproduction of society and of its culture from one generation to the next.”[ix] Like all liberals, Rawls was not prescriptive about the form that a family must take: “No particular form of the family (monogamous, heterosexual, or otherwise) is so far required by a political conception of justice so long as it is arranged to fulfill these tasks effectively and does not run afoul of other political values.”[x]

In keeping with Rawls’ liberal conception of the family, the DA’s Values Charter specifically refers to families “however uniquely structured” and “in all their different manifestations.” Nowhere in the Charter does it say that strong individuals cannot emerge from broken families, or that the family should replace the primacy of the individual in our party’s political philosophy. To claim otherwise is a deliberate distortion of both the Values Charter and contemporary literature on the subject.

It is important for the DA to engage in robust internal debate on contentious matters. But we must do so in a way that strengthens the party, not weakens it. So when we debate issues, let’s do so honestly and with the best intentions. And when we lose debates – or internal elections for that matter – let us accept the outcome with good grace.

Davis is a DA Member of Parliament. This article was first published on Politicsweb on 19 May 2015.

[i] ‘Family values often antithesis of liberalism’, Sunday Times, 17 May 2015.

[ii] Natasha Marrian, ‘Maimane launches new take on DA weekly newsletter’, BD Live, 18 May 2015.

[iii] Democratic Alliance Values Charter.

[iv] Democratic Alliance Values Charter.

[v] Gail Eddy and Lucy Holborn, ‘First Steps to Healing the South African Family’, SAIRR Research Paper, March 2011 p.6.

[vi] Gail Eddy and Lucy Holborn, ‘First Steps to Healing the South African Family’, SAIRR Research Paper, March 2011 p.15.

[vii] Ruth Graham, ‘They do: The scholarly about-face on marriage’, The Boston Globe, 26 April 2015.

[viii] See ‘Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study’ website:

[ix] John Rawls, ‘Justice as Fairness: A Restatement’, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001 p.162

[x] John Rawls, ‘Justice as Fairness: A Restatement’, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001 p.163

The anatomy of a hollow liberal mythology

By Gavin Davis

The first thing they teach you at journalism school is that objectivity is an impossible goal, but one you should strive for nonetheless.

Gareth van Onselen is a strident critic of the ANC who also happens to be a former DA staff member. He would lose all credibility if he were to only criticise the ANC, so he makes sure that he balances things out by writing the odd critical piece on the DA.

There is not too much wrong with this, except for one thing. His knowledge of the inner workings of the DA, residual loyalties to certain party insiders and his own unhappy parting of ways with the party mean that he cannot write with any semblance of objectivity when it comes to matters involving the DA.

It is obvious to anybody familiar with the DA that Van Onselen selectively targets certain individuals in the party in his articles. His relentless attacks on Gauteng Premier Candidate Mmusi Maimane, for example, border on the obsessive.

column critical of Helen Zille’s role in the Employment Equity Amendment Bill saga is the latest example of this selective targeting. Zille is singled out for criticism (even though she had the guts to admit the mistake), while those directly responsible for the systems failure that caused the mistake are barely mentioned. Van Onselen argues that the DA’s initial support for the Bill was not due to the systems failure at all, but rather as a result of ideological drift at the centre of the party.

However, this argument quickly falls apart when one considers the correspondence (now in the public domain) which shows that both Zille and myself argued as far back as May that the DA must oppose this Bill on ideological grounds. Our argument to oppose the Employment Equity Amendment Bill was based entirely on long-held values of the DA – a commitment to non-racialism, reconciliation, redress and a priority to grow the economy and create jobs. Indeed, these are the values that underpin the DA’s Green Paper on Economic Inclusion published on 9 September this year. That this policy framework was not used as the basis for the DA’s deliberations on the Bill and subsequent vote in the National Assembly, is inexcusable and inexplicable. But it had nothing to do with ideological drift, as Van Onselen asserts.

I have written previously on the “self-appointed custodians of liberalism” who think they have a monopoly on the DA’s values, and try to shut down anybody who disagrees with them. Perhaps these are the same people that Van Onselen refers to when he writes longingly of a time in recent DA history when:

“A small group of people guarded its principles and values jealously and, more often than not, acted as a bulwark against any fundamental encroachment of the DA’s core political philosophy. As its borders become more porous and as it desperately seeks to better fit into that hostile environment, it has allowed into its ranks a series of people not fundamentally liberal.”

Van Onselen goes on to lament the departure of former party strategist Ryan Coetzee who “understood well that the party must broaden its appeal but never at the expense of its liberal values.”

A closer reading of  party history, however, shows that this notion of past DA liberal purity is more fiction than fact.

I will never forget a DP rally I attended as a student in Booysen’s Park in the Northern Areas of Port Elizabeth back in 1999. The gathering was addressed by party leader Tony Leon who gave a characteristically forceful speech entitled ‘Every Minority Deserves a Place in the Sun’. I vividly recall the audience members decked out in both Democratic Party and National Party T-shirts. When I asked a woman why she was wearing an NP T-shirt at a DP rally, she hesitated for a moment before exclaiming: “Dis dieselfde!” 

Those were the days of the DP’s ‘Fight Back’ campaign – an aggressive election strategy to lure conservative voters away from the New National Party by stoking minority fears. As Tony Leon told an analyst on the campaign trail: “The DP does not care where its support comes from, as long as it obtains it.”[i]

Sadly, this appetite for votes did not extend to townships where the DP was conspicuous by its absence. A long-standing liberal supporter  summed it up at a DP election meeting in Grahamstown when he said that the party “may have the guts to fight back, but it does not have the guts to put up Xhosa posters.”[ii]

The ‘Fight Back’ campaign certainly worked to broaden the DA’s appeal beyond a handful of liberal mostly English-speaking white South Africans. But did it do so without compromising the DP’s liberal values? That is open to debate. To my mind, it is difficult to reconcile a campaign aimed exclusively at minorities with the party’s historical commitment to non-racialism and reconciliation.

The DP’s merger with the National Party a year later in 2000 certainly did compromise the party’s liberal ethos. It was the culmination of a strategy mapped out by Leon when he took over as DP Leader from Zach de Beer back in 1994.

Leon said at the time:

“Victory does not belong to the faint of heart. We must not be too fastidious, precious or prissy. Certainly not if we are to attract the numbers we need to make a difference. And we must make deals and arrangements, even pacts, wherever and whenever it will be to our advantage, and will cause our support to be maximised.”[iii]

Van Onselen might argue that the small group of people at the centre who jealously guarded the party’s liberal values acted as a bulwark against any nationalist encroachment. But this does not stand up to any real scrutiny. The very act of merging with a nationalist party whose ethos informed apartheid was a betrayal of the DP’s values. What is more, a  ‘free vote’ in Parliament on issues of conscience such as abortion, the death penalty and gay marriage (dating from the days of the Progressive Federal Party) meant that the nationalists in the caucus never had to align themselves with the liberal position on these issues.

Ironically, a few years after the break-up of the alliance with the NP, Tony Leon announced his own support for the death penalty at a 2004 election campaign stop in the Free State. The announcement was met with horror by liberal stalwarts and party grandees, including Helen Suzman. Prominent liberal thinker David Welsh accused the DA of a “blatant piece of political opportunism, masquerading behind the fig-leaf of a free vote.” For its part, the National Party was furious that Leon had encroached so far on to its electoral turf. The NP said in a statement that Leon’s “opportunism knew no end” and that he “knows full well that the DA as a party does not support the death penalty.”

One can only wonder where the “small group of people” who jealously guarded the party’s values and principles were on that particular day.

Perhaps the next time Van Onselen writes that “the centre is not as focused on principle as it used to be”, more people will see through the mythology he is intent on trying to create. The truth is that the Progressive Party, the Democratic Party and the Democratic Alliance have never been, to use Tony Leon’s words, a “pristine political priesthood”.

It is certainly strange that Van Onselen is silent about the triumph of pragmatism over principle that characterised the DP’s bid to attract conservative minority voters. And yet, when the DA of today allows a traditional leader to take up membership, or when a DA candidate mentions ubuntu in a speech, Van Onselen decries it as a fundamental breach of the party’s liberal values.

Perhaps it is Van Onselen’s own peculiar prejudice against African culture that causes him to worry more about the party’s growth now than he did in the past.  As he wrote in April this year: “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).”

It is nonsense that African culture and liberalism are fundamentally incompatible. If they were, then the DA might as well shut up shop. Cultures and ideologies are not immutable or single-faceted; they are shaped by ongoing debates and shifting contexts. It is therefore quite conceivable for a person to self-identify as an African and a liberal. Indeed, many people are starting to do so.

As the DA grapples with electoral growth in the context of a plural society, we must be mindful of the balance that needs to be struck between principle and pragmatism. Just as we must never allow expedience to dictate our position on issues, we must never allow ourselves to be held up to a hollow myth of past ideological purity either. If we do, we will fail in our mission to build a liberal, non-racial alternative in South Africa.

Gavin Davis is Director of Communications at the Democratic Alliance. This article was first published on Politicsweb on 13 November 2013


[i] South African Election Update, Electoral Institute of South Africa, November 1998 – June 1999.

[ii] Unpublished report on a Democratic Party meeting by Megan Addis, 7 April 1999 St George’s Hall, Grahamstown.

[iii] Tony Leon, ‘Acceptance Speech as DP leader: charting a new course and keeping faith with values’, Durban 23 October 1994

For liberalism to succeed we must dispense with dogma

By Gavin Davis

Democratic Alliance insiders have long identified a serious threat to our project: the proliferation of DA members whose own values are fundamentally at odds with the party.

We must be wary of those who see the DA merely as a platform for publicity or a path to power. There is no point winning elections if we cannot implement a programme of action grounded in our vision of an open, opportunity society for all.

At the same time we must be aware of those who use the spectre of ‘illiberal tendencies’ to shut down legitimate debate and discredit people. Such bullying tactics are the hallmark of authoritarianism, not liberalism.

Alan Paton once described liberalism as “a generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness…” His point was that, besides a commitment to the rule of law and individual freedom, liberalism is about empathy, mutual respect and the ability to see other people’s points of view.

For liberals, this means dispensing with the dogma and grappling with some of the great questions we face, such as: what does it mean to be a liberal in Africa? Is there a place for notions of community within the liberal framework? Are liberalism and religion compatible? The list is endless.

The DA’s National Spokesperson Mmusi Maimane attempted to tackle one such question in an opinion piece published in the Sunday Times this week. In it, he interrogated the concept of ‘Africanness’ and its place in our democratic discourse following Jackson Mthembu’s attack on Lindiwe Mazibuko.

Maimane argued that nobody has the right to unilaterally decide or prescribe what is or what isn’t African. Furthermore, traditions and cultures are constantly evolving and, as such, are open to the interpretation of each individual.

Maimane went on to say that his identity as an African comes from a sense of shared history and an emotional connection to the continent. He argued that, for him, the idea of Ubuntu sums up his Africanness and that, in his view, being African means being part of a community.

That is how Mmusi Maimane chooses to self-identify as an African. He was not forcing his identity on anybody else; he was stating what Africanness means to him.

When Barack Obama talks about something “inherent in the American spirit”, nobody accuses him of being illiberal. Likewise, when Nick Clegg talks of inculcating an inclusive, positive British identity, his liberal credentials are not questioned.

And yet a former DA staffer suggested in his blog yesterday that Maimane’s column signalled the erosion of the DA’s liberal values on the grounds that:

  1. Maimane suggested that ‘Africanness’ was a uniform, immutable concept
  2. There is no such thing as Ubuntu and, if there was, it would be anathema to liberalism
  3. There is no such thing as community, that it is an artificial abstraction incompatible with liberalism

The first argument is intellectually dubious because Maimane explicitly rails against uniform notions of Africanness, asking: “What right does Mthembu or anyone else have to prescribe identity to others?” Maimane’s intention was to describe what Africanness means to him without being prescriptive. To suggest otherwise is dishonest.

The second argument is worth having. It is true that the concept of Ubuntu is ill-defined. But, because of this, it is difficult to ascertain whether it is compatible with liberalism or not. Since both concepts are open to contestation (even if liberalism is far better defined), it is feasible for a person to self-identify as a liberal who believes in Ubuntu.

The third argument was the subject of fierce academic debate between communitarians and liberals in the 1980s. It fizzled out when somebody made the point that one could be an individual in the context of a defined community – as long as group rights were not permitted to override individual rights.

Like Africanness, liberalism cannot be defined and prescribed by any one individual because – for one thing – it is not static. Liberalism is constantly evolving, particularly as it is applied in new contexts on our continent and across the world.

This is something that liberals should celebrate and not feel threatened by. Pluralism gives rise to debate and introspection. It brings a freshness and energy that invigorates our project.

We must guard against self-appointed custodians of liberalism unilaterally deciding what liberalism is and what it isn’t, and who is in and who is out. If we do not, you can be sure that authoritarianism will follow.

Gavin Davis is Communications Director at the Democratic Alliance. This article appeared in Politicsweb on 22 January 2013.