Monday, 11 May 2015

The vexing issue of family and the DA

On Saturday delegates to the DA Federal Congress in Nelson Mandela Bay deliberated and voted on a number of amendments to the Federal Constitution. The most contentious of these concerned whether the party's recently-finalised vision and values charter, which forms the preamble to the amended constitution, should include a section on family.

The vision and values charter includes the following sentences:

"Strong people and strong social structures such as families, in all their different manifestations, flourish in strong communities.

Family helps build successful individuals and provides them a foundation with which to make sense of the world and to realise their full potential as individuals;

A successful nation must have strong stable family structures, no matter how they are constituted, because no government can replace the role of the family."

Wilmot James, outgoing DA Federal Chairperson who was standing against Mmusi Maimane for the leadership (which he lost), wanted the latter two paragraphs removed and proposed that "strong social structures" in the first sentence be changed to "resilient individuals and resilient social structures flourish in resilient communities."

The DA values charter was crafted from the findings of eleven thousands hours of research on what South Africans care about. This revealed approximately 20% of black South Africans share the DA's values, including an emphasis on family.

James’s point was that individuals are the fundamental unit of society and communities, and by emphasising families the DA was flirting with a form of social engineering which is anathema to the liberal democratic value system underpinning the DA's philosophy.

As I listened to the arguments for and against I was conflicted on which way to vote. My instinct was not to support James’s amendment because I do believe strong families build strong communities.

Is there a conflict between believing in the individual as society's building block and believing in the importance of family?

I grew up in the UK in the 1960s and 70s when family structures were under pressure from an economy drawing more and more women (including my mother) into the workforce. Women who could not stay at home to look after their children outsourced this role to child-minders and day-care centres, leading to the "latchkey" generation of kids who had to fend for themselves after school.

An increasingly vocal progressive minority challenged society's established social mores around sexuality and gender and what constitutes a "family".  Britain gradually became a "permissive society" in which individual choice came first and new ways of doing things were OK.

So the notion of family evolved to include one-parent families, gay families, childless families, working-mother and stay-at-home-father families and other variants which conservatives initially found objectionable.

In 1987 Margaret Thatcher entered the debate with her much-misquoted comment that "there are individual men and women and there are families." This pretty much sums up the prevailing orthodoxy in Britain and most developed countries, which sociologists call "post-modern" societies. Though social conservatives pine for the good old days of the traditional nuclear family, the atomisation of society is irreversible and the multiple-definition family is here to stay.

It is this latter, more nuanced definition of family that the DA values charter includes. But despite its inclusivity does it have a place in the party's constitution?

South Africa is nothing like as homogeneous as the post-modern developed societies in Europe, North America, New Zealand, Australia and parts of Asia and South America. We have elements of modernity in our towns and cities, but our rural areas are distinctly pre-modern in terms of their levels of economic development, cultural mores and social structures.

The irony is that in becoming strong nations, these developed countries saw the destruction of traditional family structures and their replacement by new and often unstable ones. It took a social revolution over two or more generations for new social mores which adjusted to this new reality to become accepted.

South Africa's own path to modernisation was characterised by forced migration which also destroyed family structures. The consequences of this reach as far as Marikana and the appalling conditions found in township hostels today. It is no wonder, in trying to re-build strong social structures left decimated by modernisation and apartheid, there is an emphasis on family.

But something has been forgotten here. Nearly half our people live in rural areas, where traditional values predominate and are entrenched and enforced by kings, chiefs and indunas who demand obeisance from their subjects. The role and rights of women in these communities are at odds with the constitution.

A patriarchal system cannot be said to be supportive of equality for women. 

This is where including family in the DA's values statement is controversial. For some it gives license to the preservation of pre-modern interpretations of family which retard the emancipation of women. It is all too easy for us to adopt a metropolitan and cosmopolitan definition of family and assume people on the whole have accepted this definition. But in rural areas, this is not so.

In rural areas, traditional, pre-modern social structures usurp individuals' rights. These include the communal land ownership system which the DA is firmly against. Traditional leaders' traditionalist definition of family serves to preserve their power base and the social structures that grow up around them.

In my view, it is important to emphasise individual freedoms and the importance of people establishing their personal identities rather than having them imposed upon them. I am pleased Mmusi Maimane took up the issue of identity in his leadership bid manifesto but this could be challenged when set alongside the party's emphasis on family.

Through education and asserting their individual identities, South Africans living in rural areas will gradually escape old and retrogressive ideas which serve the interests of privileged and entrenched elites. We must hope that their families play the role of liberator and not captor in this quest for personal emancipation.


  1. Another way of framing this:

    In the West, the individual is seen as the building block of society, and the challenge is building community... In the East, the family is seen as the building block, and 'individuation' is seen as the challenge.

    I'm with the East. I believe 'family' and community are the bedrock of a healthy world, and that growth as an individual is to fulfill our full role in society - versus everyone 'doing their own thing' which leads to a fragmented society of atomic individuals pursuing their own selfish wins (supported by a "win-win" philosophy, rather than a "we-win" approach).

    If you want to see a superb philosophical exposition of this, it is well worth reading the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray. Tony Blair counted him as one of his greatest formative influences and visited him in his old age.

    Macmurray's two key books are 'The Self as Agent' (we are only fully human when embedded in action - contra Descartes in thought) and "Persons in Relation" (we can only fully understand people as they exist in relation to others - not as isolated atomic units).

    The two books together are also known as 'The Form of the Personal' and you can read summaries and the entire books here:

  2. Thank you Neil for your insightful comment. At the heart of this debate, I believe, is the challenge of marrying the concept of ubuntu, which South Africa shares with many other countries, with the western concept of modernity, which celebrates individuality. It's all about balance. May the discussion continue!