What is Black Conservatism in South Africa

South African politics remain fertile ground for new orientations: mainly by black conservatives.

The podcaster, Sihle Ngobese, known as “Big Daddy Liberty” and a well known South African black conservative (Youtube screen grab).

The last time South Africans had serious intellectual discussions about black conservatism was in the late 1980s. Various academics and researchers concentrated specifically on the figure of Chief Gatsha Buthelezi and his Inkatha movement as emblematic of black conservatism in the country. Those who identified Inkatha as a black conservative movement include historians Jabulani (Mzala) Nxumalo (1988), Gerhard Maré and Georgina Hamilton (1987), as well as political scientist Shireen Hassim (1988). Hassim in particular honed in specifically on the gendered implications of Buthelezi’s conservatism as a black politician.

Of particular relevance for reviving discussions of black conservatism now is an argument that Hassim makes in relation to Inkatha. She focuses specifically on its centralization of an expressly patriarchal and hierarchical invocation of the traditionalist Zulu family, mobilized in defense of Inkatha’s anti-labor and anti-sanctions or divestment politics at the time. 

Buthelezi’s sociopolitical conservatism stood in stark contrast to the politics of black liberation—which he claimed nonetheless. In fact, we take it for granted that in the apartheid era, to be a black politician and public intellectual meant being situated someplace on the left-liberal spectrum. However, a figure such as Buthelezi put that assumption into question, along with a large number of black male intellectuals who were part of the apartheid government’s 1980s reforms which focused on creating a new black middle class with a stake in preserving rather than overthrowing this system. Fast-forward to the postapartheid period and 21st-century South Africa, and we can observe how the fruits of the 1980s project begin to take prominent shape in the greater push for expanding the middle class—especially the black middle class. 

It should be acknowledged, however, that to speak of a homogenous black middle class in South Africa is problematic, especially given the lack of clarity as to how one measures middle class identity (as academics like Ronel Burger, Cindy Lee Steenekamp, Servaas van der Berg, Asmus Zoch, Geoffrey Modisha, and Roger Southall show). Despite such warnings, the black middle class constitutes an important identity to which we should pay attention in studies of modern-day South Africa. 

Sociologist Roger Southall sees value in focusing on the black middle class in South Africa; “while the black middle class may indeed play an important role in furthering democracy,” he writes, “its political orientations and behavior cannot be assumed to be inherently progressive.” In other words, as part of a global class that has been labeled as preoccupied with consumption and status, Southall notes that the middle class’s significance in contemporary South Africa “revolves overwhelmingly around the extent and consequences of black upward social mobility.” Consequently, the interests of this class are likely to align with conservative modes of self-preservation rather than plebeian politics. To this end, middle-class buy-in to conservative right economic discourse does not need much defending—the issue of diversity of interests within this class notwithstanding.

This means that despite its rich history of left politics, South Africa is not shielded from the rise of the type of black conservatism ripping through the United States (but also England, Canada, and parts of northern Europe). In the United States, the names of Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas, and Ben Carson are just a few of the personalities associated with black conservatism. In South Africa, Herman Mashaba (the former Democratic Alliance mayor of Johannesburg) and Sihle Ngobese (a podcaster known as “Big Daddy Liberty”) are certainly newer reflections of this phenomenon in postapartheid South Africa. 

Writing on Ngobese, for example, political scientist Christopher McMichael describes “a black online media personality who styles himself on black American political operatives like Candace Owens [identified with Donald Trump and the American far right] reinforcing white conservatives’ beliefs that structural racism does not exist because a black person says so and that they are under siege from creeping socialism.” What Ngobese and, in particular, Mashaba represent (as the most vocal and public faces of the rising black conservatism) is a view that is in line with traditional New Right discourse, namely that “the decline of values such as patience, hard work, deferred gratification and self-reliance have resulted in the high crime rates, the increasing number of unwed mothers, and the relatively uncompetitive academic performances of black youth,” as black American philosopher Cornel West described in 1986

What this alignment means is that the black South African middle class’s attack on programs aimed at redress, undertaken in pursuit of “middle-class respectability based on merit rather than politics,”  can easily sideline the poor among them and further the Afrophobia against Africans from elsewhere on the continent. For example, Herman Mashaba, while mayor of Johannesburg, promoted these ideas under the guise of protecting South Africa from so-called criminal elements. 

What reflects as middle-class pursuit in the postapartheid context is more akin to conservative New Right ideology (complete with its moral regeneration campaign) than it is to the liberal narrative of the pursuit of equality and freedom for all. In the case of South Africa, it is arguable that the latest national election results in 2019 reflect a general trend towards such middle-class economic conservatism. 

In fact, in the 2019 South African general elections, the Inkatha Freedom Party drew support nationally, as well as in the two major provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal (where, at the time of writing this piece, pro-Zuma protests in response to his imprisonment were underway). Furthermore, the newly formed church-based party, the African Transformation Movement (ATM), with its “South Africans First” motto, managed to secure an eighth position in the elections nationally on its first try. ATM claims to follow the philosophies of humanism and ubuntu, but a closer reading of its policies reveals that ATM believes in the return of capital punishment, building a “society founded on Divine-based Values,” promoting “Moral Regeneration,” and reinvigorating the role of traditional leadership in governance. As is clear from this list, ATM espouses ideas commonly found in conservative and New Right discourse as imported from the United States. In fact, in expanding the reach of ATM’s discourse beyond the black block, we can observe that its discourse aligns very well with the Democratic Alliance’s conservative stances and policies on immigration, crime, and rights of sexual minorities. This points to a broader conservative alliance between the white right-centered bloc and the black middle class. Interestingly enough, ATM’s economic principles are more in line with the Economic Freedom Fighters’ nationalization of the economy, including the reserve (or central) Bank. It remains to be seen how it balances this “socialist” economic outlook with its moral conservatism. 

Another conservative Christian organization also garnered enough votes for a sixth place finish in the 2019 elections: the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP), founded in 1993. While its electoral performance has basically remained flat, this party has nonetheless remained competitive in all elections since 1994, failing to acquire any national seats in only one election (1994). Its highly positive 2019 elections performance indicates its continued relevance, especially in light of the argument of this piece regarding the rise of black conservatism. In fact, the ACDP performed well in the three major provinces of Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and the Western Cape. 

Led by Reverend Kenneth Moshoe, the ACDP promises a fresh start based on Christian and family values: in its own words, “The ACDP promotes, upholds and defends Christian family values”  Moreover, the ACDP proclaims: “We adhere to a moral philosophy that is based upon the Word of God, and measure the interpretation of our policies against the prerequisites of biblical standards.” More importantly, the ACDP economic policy foregrounds traditional right economic principles. It does so by advocating for a commitment to “reducing government debt and spending; job creation and economic growth through an open-market policy with as little government interference as possible; becoming competitive in the global economy and global markets; lowering inflation; state enterprises operating in open competition with private providers; and doing away with complicated tax forms, laws and expensive monitoring.” In other words, there is much conservatism to be found in the specifically evangelical Christian orientation of this organization, including the fact of their black constituency.

Although the focus here is only on a few organizations, the point is to illustrate the very eclectic nature of what constitutes black conservatism in present-day South Africa. This eclecticism means that there seem to be two distinct conservative currents at work: one that is more traditional and the other that is a more populist-styled current. The first current, embodied by Herman Mashaba and Sihle Ngobese, embraces free-market economics and self-improvement ethics. The second, more populist-styled current is embodied by parties or movements like ATM (which does embrace some outwardly left-wing policies like nationalization). 

This raises questions of viability and appeal. One, which of these strains of black conservatism is most viable in the current political context? Two, can the strains be further demarcated along the urban black middle class versus working class line? In fact, in making a case for why the 2019 elections mattered and doing so in a way that highlights the key aspect of black conservatism, we can note how the rise of this aspect is tied to a number of challenges usually associated with conservative backlash. Both conservative strains address aspects of the challenges related to the economy, education, morality, national identity, and sexuality. This raises the question of how our democracy will respond to these challenges, a question that leaves open the possibility that South African politics remain fertile ground for new orientations, albeit mainly conservatively black in my estimation. To which eish is not a sufficient response from the left.

Further Reading

Renouncing the Rhino

My beef with rhinos is more of a beef with white South Africa as a whole, who are all for saving rhinos but largely silent about inequality, poverty and institutional racism.

The Uprising

An interview with Dylan Valley, one of the co-directors of a film revisiting the violent events of September 2010 when municipal police invaded a favela in Hout Bay, a touristy part of Cape Town.