Values Charter

‘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. http://www.timeslive.co.za/sundaytimes/opinion/2015/05/17/family-values-often-antithesis-of-liberalism

[ii] Natasha Marrian, ‘Maimane launches new take on DA weekly newsletter’, BD Live, 18 May 2015. http://www.bdlive.co.za/national/politics/2015/05/18/maimane-launches-new-take-on-da-weekly-newsletter

[iii] Democratic Alliance Values Charter. http://www.da.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/DA-Value-Charter.pdf

[iv] Democratic Alliance Values Charter. http://www.da.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/DA-Value-Charter.pdf

[v] Gail Eddy and Lucy Holborn, ‘First Steps to Healing the South African Family’, SAIRR Research Paper, March 2011 p.6. http://irr.org.za/reports-and-publications/occasional-reports/files/first-steps-to-healing-the-south-african-family-final-report-mar-2011.pdf

[vi] Gail Eddy and Lucy Holborn, ‘First Steps to Healing the South African Family’, SAIRR Research Paper, March 2011 p.15. http://irr.org.za/reports-and-publications/occasional-reports/files/first-steps-to-healing-the-south-african-family-final-report-mar-2011.pdf

[vii] Ruth Graham, ‘They do: The scholarly about-face on marriage’, The Boston Globe, 26 April 2015. http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/04/25/scholarly-kiss-for-wedded-bliss/INyenlyr0FIuWzaJDuFWGK/story.html

[viii] See ‘Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study’ website: http://www.fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/research_associates.asp

[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