During the past week the Democratic Alliance (DA) appears to have been trying to rewrite history and rehabilitate its past, including a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #KnowYourDA. This has prompted others to use the same hashtag to denounce the DA.
One of the more controversial elements of the campaign was this pamphlet, quoting Nelson Mandela, the leader of the ANC, praising Helen Suzman, one of the leaders of the Progressive Party. The Progressive Party was the great great grandmother of the DA.
If you know anything about family trees you will know that each of your great great grandparents contributes about one sixteenth of your DNA. The pamphlet appears to be trying to tell a different story, with Helen Suzman as Mummy and Nelson Mandela as Daddy of the DA.
It wasn’t like that, and it still isn’t like that.
Check where the other fifteen-sixteenths of the DA’s DNA really came from.
One Tweeter put it in a nutshell when he said:
@Akanirelo 1h #KnowYourDA is failing because instead of crafting a new future @helenzille wants to rewrite history. Epic fail
The Democratic Alliance was formed out of a campaign, led by one of its components, the Democratic Party led by Tony Leon, to unite the white right during and after the 1999 General Election, under the slogan “Fight back”. Their campaign posters were clearly aimed at appealing to those who were “Gatvol” with five years of democracy, and wanted to fight back against it to restore the status quo ante.
After the election the united with the rump of the National Party (the party of apartheid, the former political home of most of the white right), and in order to do so introduced the thoroughly undemocratic practice of “floor-crossing” into parliament. That turned round to bite them when some of the former leaders of the National Party found the Democratic Alliance too right-wing for them, and themselves crossed the floor to join the ANC.
While this effort to whitewash the DA is reprehensible, some of the comments to counter the DA campaign are equally reprehensible. Some people are trying to counter it by attacking Helen Suzman, and trying to show that she was evil.
But Helen Suzman was not responsible for this pamphlet, nor for the misuse of her photograph and the words of Nelson Mandela.
I think Nelson Mandela’s words were sincere and genuinely meant, and for the most part true.
What is bad is the DA’s dishonesty in trying to claim the credit.
I was one of those who voted for Helen Suzman in 1961.
The Progressive Party had broken away from the United Party two years previ0usly, and she was the only one of their MPs to be re-elected. It was not perfect, and it did not have a perfect policy. But after 13 years of apartheid, and the relentless efforts by the National Party to create a race-obsessed society, the Progressive Party opted for a different policy. They switched the focus from race to class. The National Party wanted to ensure that only whites could elect representatives to parliament. They removed black representatives. They were in the process of disenfranchising coloureds, and their aim was to have an electorate defined by skin-colour. Only whites were to be able to vote. The official opposition, the United Party, were lukewarm in opposing this, and so the “progressives” left.
But they did not join any of the several parties and movements that advocated “one man, one vote”. They still wanted a limited franchise, only it was to be limited by class, not race. In their policy, anyone of any race could vote, as long as they were rich and educated. Property, income and education were to be the criteria, rather than race.
But Helen Suzman’s significance was far wider than her party’s restrictive class-based franchise policy. She spoke out against the Natoinal Party’s increasingly totalitarian jackboot rule at a time when few others did (and most of those who did were detained, or banned, or harrassed by the police). And she was the only one who did so in parliament, where she could not be silenced.
But when, after several political marriages of convenience, in which the Progressive Party became the Progressive Reform Party, the Progressive Federal Party and then the Democratic Party, it finally, after the 1994 General Elections, held aloof from joining the Government of National Unity led by Nelson Mandela.
If the DA had joined the GNU, there might just have been a grain of truth in the picture of Nelson Mandela and Helen Suzman together on the DA pamphlet. But as it is, it is lying propaganda, which deserves all the contempt that has been poured upon it.
Instead of trying to reinvent the past, the DA would be better occupied in trying to rebuild the future.
As for me, I’m still waiting for Mamphela Ramphele to bring the train to the station.
Notes and references
 The DA is not the only one to twist history here. In 1960 there were three political parties that stood for “one man one vote” and were also themselves nonracial: the Communist Party (which had been banned since 1950) the Liberal Party, which had been formed in 1953, and the Pan African Congress (which was banned in 1960).
The Congress movement — the African National Congress, the SA Congress of Democrats, the Indian Congress and so on — was made up of racially exclusive bodies. Rica Hodgson, a member of the Congress of Democrats, recently tried to blacken the name of the Liberal Party by saying that it did not allow blacks to join, whereas it was her own organisation, the COD, that was all-white. But whether one tries to blacken the name of other organisations, as Rica Hodgson did, or whitewash one’s own, as Hellen Zille is doing, it is still distorting history.