Monday, August 21, 2006

Would it make a difference if Tony Leon was black?

Interesting question. Posed by Cyril Madlana in his Business Day column.

It seems that the Business Day has unwittingly hosted a thread of would the argument be received differently if the person was a different colour columns - which I have consciously picked up on (see my comment on Professor Xolela Mangcu and Professor Anton Harber's articles).

Madlana's commentary is interesting. He quotes Roger Burrow's (head of the Democratic Alliance for KwaZulu-Natal) retirement speech, in which Burrows laments that many followers of his party believed votes would come to them "because our policies and principles are so right." This did not happen.

Madlana says that, "Much has been made of Leon's abrasive and confrontational style of opposition politics and how Africans' sense of respect for authority is violated when he challenges the president, for instance."

Despite Leon's style, Madlana draws attention to the fact that the DA (while remaining small) has grown while many traditionally black opposition parties have struggled.

Madlana ends by saying that, "There are signs that some communities want to be ungovernable again in protest at failure of the authorities to deliver on promises. Would the country rather burn than pause to think whether there is any sense in what a white, DA-supporting Burrows, Leon or Eddie Trent are saying?"

I found the article interesting in light of my recent contact with the DA and Tony Leon in particular. Post a meeting regarding crime, I approached Mr Leon to offer my opinion on the DA performance during the evening. I introduced myself and noted that I had found the experience of the DA statements and comments during the evening an incredibly negative one. The DA national spokesperson on safety and security, Ms. Dianne Kohler-Barnard, had devoted much of her speech to attacking the Minister of Safety and Security, Minister Charles Ngakula, and National Commissioner of Police, Jackie Selebi. I mentioned that I was not a DA supporter for precisely this reason - I disagreed with the DA's style of negative opposition politics. I wondered if the DA might attract more voters like me (young, proudly South African) if they played a more constructive role.

Mr Leon appeared to lose interest and said he thought he had made quite a positive speech. He suggested that I continue to vote for whoever I did.

The lesson in all of this is, I hope, that the manner in which arguments are received is not merely an issue of race. It is one of commonality. When I made my observations known to Mr Leon, I had unwittingly been drawn into the DA style of engagement. Skilled negotiators know that we all tend to be drawn into the dominant style of an interaction. That style might be established through body language, tone of voice or turn of phrase. It takeconsciousious effort not to be drawn into a negative spiral.

As I mentioned in my comment regarding Professor Harber's article, we look for commonality or difference in the characteristics of the person we disagree with. Difference allows us to feel safe in our different point of view.

Tony Leon and the DA have different points of view to the African National Congress. Their style of engagememphasizesises difference and makes no attempt at establishing commonality. The fact that they are largely a white party provides their dominant characteristic to become the notable point of difference.

Commonality then defines the ebbs, flows and ultimately the outcomes of arguments. We look for commonality how others' views are put forward against our own. Failing to see this we look for differences in the critic's character, to justify why we might have a different point of view. And finally, our interaction style follows the dominant style or argument.

I regret that I fell into the trap - it is one that I try to avoid. I regret that my observations made to Mr Leon (and Ms. Kohler-Barnard) came across to them as negative criticism.

It is a failure that characterizesises politics. Mr Madlana's fears are appropriate. We need politicians skilled at building constructive dialogue. Whose views find common ground rather than negative space. Failing this (where the race of the sides is different), arguments deteriorate to the point that race becomes the accepted reason for disagreement.

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