The DA's federal congress has come and gone. It was a gathering of democrats from all over South Africa, from every conceivable background. We discussed policy, we debated constitutional amendments and we chose new leaders.
It must have been an incredibly frustrating weekend for our opponents watching live on television. Our congress showed that we are a truly diverse party with a common purpose. We are doing what no party has achieved in a so-called divided society anywhere in the world: growing our support by appealing to voters on a nonracial ticket.
This is hugely significant, but is missed by journalists who have made it their life's mission to manufacture racial division where there is none. "DA Race War Rages" screamed one headline in the run-up to congress. According to that story, our congress discussion on the proposed "diversity clause" to be added to our constitution would "lift the lid" on "internal racial tensions" in the DA.
To be sure, there was consternation in the party over the way the diversity clause was originally formulated. In our two letters to delegates before congress, Michael Cardo and I argued that the formulation wasn't sufficiently rooted in the liberal tradition that places individual uniqueness and individual freedom at the epicentre of diversity.
In addition, we felt that the wording was too close to the apartheid concept of "representivity" that has been enthusiastically appropriated by the ANC. Finally, we were concerned that it left the door open to manipulation of outcomes through race and gender quotas.
We also didn't think the original formulation did enough to acknowledge our country's painful history. So we suggested adding a line to recognise "the injustices of our past". In addition, we didn't think the proposed formulation was strong enough in its commitment to diversity. The original wording said that the DA would work towards diversity "to the best of its ability". We felt this was too weak, and proposed the following instead: "The party will take active steps to promote and advance diversity."
Our letters to delegates provoked healthy debate and discussion in the party, but no "race war". Yes, there were one or two individuals who twisted our words to drive their own personal agendas. Our KwaZulu-Natal provincial leader, for example, publicly suggested that our views should be rejected because we were "beneficiaries of our past", and made reference to "white colleagues who were denying their privilege".
But this was an isolated view based on that individual's own peculiar prejudice and poor grasp of the proposed amendments we had put forward. Because in general, we received overwhelming support for our proposal – from all over the party and across colour lines. So much so that our proposed formulation was adopted almost word-for-word by the DA's federal council on the Friday before congress. It read:
South Africa is a richly diverse society. Though our people come from different origins, worship in different ways and have different cultures and customs, we are all unique individuals.
Diversity is one of South Africa's greatest assets. The party celebrates diversity and recognises the right of each individual to be who they want to be, free from domination by others.
The party solemnly subscribes to the preamble to the Constitution of South Africa, which recognises the injustices of the past and affirms that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.
The party will continue to take active steps to promote and advance diversity in its own ranks, without recourse to rigid formulae or quotas.
As we filed into the congress arena on Saturday morning, only one sticking point remained – whether or not to explicitly reject quotas in the diversity clause.
We felt it was important to reject quotas, because they are the fundamental difference between the ANC and the DA's approach to redress. The ANC imposes top-down quotas that reduce people to representatives of their race and gender; the DA prefers programmes that tackle prejudice, remove barriers and empower people to compete with each other on equal terms.
Others argued that we didn't need to come out and reject quotas, as long as we didn't explicitly support them. This was a fair point. But we wanted to guard against the temptation to introduce quotas at some point in the future, when it might become expedient to do so.
We silenced our critics who are unable to see outside the prism of race and cannot comprehend a political party debating sensitive matters in a mature and robust manner.
A potential showdown loomed. In the febrile environment of federal congress, rumours began to circulate of a "fight back" campaign against the proposed rejection of quotas. We even heard of a planned attempt to break the quorum and up-end the whole congress, but dismissed this for the fanciful gossip it was.
About an hour before the amendment was to be debated, we got wind of a story to be published in one of the Sunday newspapers. Apparently, the paper wanted to take the angle that Mmusi Maimane was defeated by "conservative" elements inside the party over the diversity clause.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. It was Mmusi who had first proposed the diversity clause, a clause that had now become strengthened through debate and discussion in the party. But consensus doesn't sell newspapers, and the media was clamouring for a "race war" in which one side emerged the victor and the other the vanquished.
In this context, we could not afford a disagreement on the congress floor over whether or not to include a rejection of quotas in the clause. So Mmusi's office called me in. Mmusi explained that Gauteng MPL Makashule Gana had a good proposal to resolve this minor impasse and avoid an unwanted and overblown perception of racial division.
I must admit, I was doubtful. I knew that Makashule had been hurt by reference in our first letter to "real progressives", which he felt was unnecessarily divisive. But I also knew – through a series of interactions with him prior to congress – that he was willing to engage with the substance of the argument. It also helped that we had bonded over a shared love of long-distance running. So we were in with a chance.
With about twenty minutes to go before the congress discussion on the diversity clause, I met with Makashule in the lobby. He made a powerful argument. He said that the "values" section of the constitution was written in the positive – what we will do, instead of what we won't do. For him, a rejection of quotas is something that we won't do, and therefore did not fit into the diversity clause – which was otherwise written in the positive.
We have emerged from congress stronger and more united than ever before.
At one level, I agreed with him. But I was resolute on the need for a rejection of quotas in our party constitution. Fortunately, Makashule had already thought of the solution. He proposed that we move the rejection of quotas from the diversity clause in the "values" section of the constitution to the "principles" section, which would now read (addition in bold):
"The vision of the Democratic Alliance is grounded on the defence, promotion and extension of the following principles:
1.3.2 the rejection of unfair discrimination on any grounds and the redress of past discrimination, without recourse to rigid formulae or quotas."
I liked it. It was an elegant solution, and it committed the party to rejecting quotas in their entirety – not just for the filling of internal positions, but for our redress policies as well. It would ensure that we maintained clear blue water between us and the ANC when it came to our respective approaches to BEE and affirmative action, for example.
I consulted my co-author Michael Cardo, who was sceptical at first. I argued that, if we went with Makashule's suggestion, the rejection of quotas would be more firmly entrenched – since amendments to the "principles" section of the constitution required a four-fifths majority instead of a two-thirds majority.
Michael agreed, but cautioned that this higher threshold might scupper our chances of getting the amendment through on the floor of congress. He was right. It was a risk. Makashule assured us that there would be no significant opposition to amending section 1.3.2 to include a rejection of quotas. So we decided to trust him.
Twenty minutes later, with the debate on the amendments about to start, we met with Makashule next to the stage. He said that all was in hand. We agreed that he and Michael should join each other up on stage and move the necessary amendments together. This is what they did, and the reformulated diversity clause – as well as the rejection of quotas – was unanimously adopted by congress.
In the end, it was a great and historic day for the DA. We silenced our critics who are unable to see outside the prism of race and cannot comprehend a political party debating sensitive matters in a mature and robust manner. Most importantly, we re-affirmed our commitment to the liberal non-racial values on which the party was built. We have emerged from Congress stronger and more united than ever before.
Gavin Davis is a DA Member of Parliament