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Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, is widely regarded as a leader whose unshakeable integrity “broke the mould” of the conventional politician. His greatest contribution to humankind was the abolition of slavery in the United States. When his advisers warned him that this decision could cost him the Presidency, he famously replied: “I would rather be right than be President.”
People who have this one-dimensional understanding of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, should watch the 2012 Oscar winning movie, “Lincoln”. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’ insightful biography (Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) it tells the story of how Lincoln managed to achieve what many thought impossible - majority support in the House of Representatives for the 13th Constitutional Amendment that abolished slavery. Abe Lincoln’s political genius was his ability, in the real world, to achieve outcomes he deeply believed in. His story teaches us that the line between principle and pragmatism is often blurred, and even more so between pragmatism and expedience.
These thoughts came to mind as the DA faced a storm over one of our newest members, Thembu King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, who joined the DA last week. We welcome criticism, because it is one of the factors that ensure we are never tempted to erase the fine line between pragmatism and principle. In politics, pragmatism must also have a high price (because principle always does). This helps us walk the tightrope.
When King Dalindyebo took us all by surprise by publicly announcing that he would join the DA, we had two choices: to publicly accept him, or publicly reject him. Responding “below the radar” was never an option because the King had spoken openly about his intentions, and issued a public invitation to us to come to Bumbane Great Place, to sign him up.
Athol Trollip, the DA’s Eastern Cape leader, and I had an in-depth conversation about the King’s announcement/invitation. We decided that Athol would go to Bumbane and give the King a chance to re-consider his decision once he was fully aware of the implications of joining the DA. In a private meeting with the King, Athol unpacked the DA’s commitment to constitutionalism; to a market economy; and to the principles of accountability. Athol explained that if the Appeal Court upholds the King’s criminal conviction, he will lose his DA membership. Athol was unambiguous about our opposition to the unconstitutional clauses in the Traditional Courts Bill and our commitment to equal rights for all. After a two-hour discussion, the King was more enthusiastic to join than ever. So he did. And we welcomed him. After all, we reckoned, no-one else who joins the DA as an ordinary member is subject to an ideology test or a “due diligence” investigation. That hurdle only comes if you wish to become a DA public representative. There is a huge difference.
As I read the critics’ comments, I wondered how we were going to achieve two contradictory imperatives simultaneously: remaining ideologically pure, while growing quickly enough to win elections in time to save SA’s democracy. Getting this balance right is not easy.
Politics involves converting opponents to support your cause, not creating impenetrable barriers to entry. If we were determined to subject every new supporter to an ideological litmus test, we would still be the 1.7% party we were in 1994. In every election we seek votes from people who have never voted for us before, and who have often vehemently opposed us. There is nothing cynical or opportunistic about this. Our core mandate is to win more votes in order to win elections, so that we can implement our policies, to better serve all South Africans.
Of course there is a risk in growing at our current rapid rate. If we become too broad a church we could end up like the ANC - focused exclusively on holding together warring factions, divided on values, principles and policies. Indeed, we have been there before. When we grew too quickly after the merger with the NNP, the party had to split to find its centre again. But, despite the difficulties of rapid growth, we have succeeded in championing the values of the “open, opportunity society for all” and widening the circle of its supporters. And we must keep making this circle bigger.
If we are serious about women’s rights, for example, it makes more sense to convert the King than to bar him.
That is politics in the real world. There is even a word for it: “Realpolitik”.
Time will tell whether we were right or wrong. There are many calculated risks in politics. We did our calculations carefully, not merely in terms of votes, but in terms of our “conversion” model. We were prepared to give the King the benefit of the doubt, and open the door in deep rural South Africa to advancing the values and principles of the ”open, opportunity society for all.” Now that the door is open, we will walk through it.