There is the well-known joke about a foreign tourist lost in the mists of the Irish country side. He asks one of the locals for directions to Dublin. The Irishman replies, “Well sir, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.”
If you localised the characters, doubtless the squadron of South African politically correct virtue-signallers would shout ‘racist’, but fortunately the Irish have, generally, a good sense of irony.
But “I wouldn’t start from here” is a good fit for what the inner circle of the Democratic Alliance leadership must be thinking right now, just six months before the sixth democratic national elections in South Africa.
Before diagnosing the challenging political map the party needs to navigate, two disclaimers, one personal and the other political:
First, I had the privilege of leading the Democratic Alliance and its predecessor party for thirteen years between 1994 and 2007. I therefore closely understand the multiple challenges faced by current leader Mmusi Maimane and I fully empathise with some of the difficulties required in balancing often competing choices and strategic dilemmas.
Second, I believe that the politics of this country and the flowering of its often fragile democratic tree would be irreparably harmed were a party which advocates a multiracial broad South Africanism and rejects tribal politics to suffer a major electoral reversal. And while the DA faces some major head winds it can rightly claim a distinctiveness in this regard.
Opposition parties generally need to offer both hope to a future constituency and reassurance to existing supporters, and then capitalise on government failure; finally, and crucially, mobilise on voting day to maximise prospects.
Precisely this combination worked wonders for the DA back in 2016 in the local government elections. It garnered just shy of 27% of the national vote (by wards), held the ANC to an historic low of under 55% and snatched the mayoralties in four of the five major metros.
Of course back then the ANC was led by the massively unpopular Jacob Zuma, its key municipalities in Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay were riven by vicious infighting and even the rancid politics of the EFF were seen by many as the necessary antidote to the wayward corruption.
But the political environment has massively altered in the intervening period.
Quite what the Ramaphosa effect will be on the election remains to be seen, but it will likely be profound.
Internally, the DA has suffered grievously from its enervating and incompetent efforts to rid itself of Patricia de Lille from the mayoralty of Cape Town. Her exit passage has left huge scars on the party claims to competence and good management.
But ultimately, the holy grail of all our politics remains, sadly but inevitably, race. And here the DA, doing what no other party attempts, has to look two ways at once: hang on and mobilise its existing constituency (largely, but not entirely, the minorities) and try to extend its footprint among the majority voting bloc.
These are the key factors which complicate the electoral map for the DA. But the strategic dilemmas confronting the party are, if anything, more daunting.
Its messages to date for the electorate are reducible to three core offerings: Vote to bring the ANC below the 50% threshold, support the DA as a lynchpin of a new governing coalition (which will as a minimum govern the provinces of Western Cape, Gauteng and Northern Cape) and support the party which offers the prospect of “One South Africa for All.”
However, in the rush of recent events, the first two offers actually pose a clear and future danger to the DA hopes of improving its poll result from the 22.3 % achieved in 2014 and certainly the 27% local election results in 2016.
Many suburbanites are truly terrified of the prospect of Ramaphosa losing ground either externally to the EFF and internally to the Zuma faction in his own party. The president might be an equivocator, he certainly remained silent during the excess delinquencies of his predecessor and he moves with chameleonic caution against the worst and most corrupt elements of both his party and the state (and there is little distinction between the two). However, given the hope of enlightened change in the future under Ramaphosa and a date with disaster with an EFF element in a new government and DD Mabuza at the helm of it, for example, the suburbanites will flee into the embrace of Ramaphosa.
So every time the DA calls for the ANC to be brought under the 50% mark, it probably terrifies more of the party’s traditional supporters than advances the party in new constituencies.
Second, assuming some polling experts in the DA can offset my largely anecdotal and politically experienced nose on the above, then the core question is whom will the DA coalesce with in the event of bringing the ruling party below 50%, either nationally or provincially?
With only 30% of the Gauteng vote and 24% of the Northern Cape poll in 2014, any DA prospect of governing in either place will require a coalition partner or a number of them. And the only other party with any significant support outside the ANC and the DA is the EFF.
Objectively and certainly on the DA script is, front and centre, state capture. Witness for the prosecution in this regard is the impeccably struggle credentialed Barbara Hogan. Her extraordinary testimony this week to the Zondo Commission extended the net of liability and complicity in a R500bn state sanctioned corruption scheme, way beyond the ‘usual suspects’ of Zuma and the Guptas. She implicated as accessories Jeff Radebe, Gwede Mantashe, Jesse Duarte et al. These senior figures sit at the very heart of the Ramaphosa government and party.
Other than power for its own sake, it is almost impossible to believe the DA could co-govern with the ANC and this assumes, a huge and unlikely assumption, that the ANC would ever do governing business with the DA.
Julius Malema, the pot of poison in the toxicity of all local politics, struck some sort of ‘arrangement’ in 2016 with the DA allowing it to govern Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg. But that down payment has proven mightily expensive for the DA and virtually cost-free for the EFF. The utter unscrupulous opportunism and naked racism of the EFF has seen the collapse of the Athol Trollip mayoralty in Port Elizabeth and threatens the tenuous rule of the DA in Pretoria.
But the larger question in this coalition of incompatibles is this: what profits it for a party of liberalism to be at the mercy of the most racist and divisive party in the country?
No coherent answer has been provided on this by the DA. But incoherent as this current misalignment might be, it boggles credibility to imagine post May 2019 that ‘the party of racists’ (Malema’s description of the DA) could conceivably enter into another arrangement with the ‘the VBS looters’ (DA description of the EFF).
With all these roadblocks standing in the forward path of the DA, does it have a road to electoral success next May and renewed relevance afterward?
In my view, there is path, perhaps narrowing, to this attainment.
The DA needs to spend a lot less time being a party of everything-to-anyone. When it entertained hopes of a quick push into the Union Buildings there might have been some practical purpose to soft-peddling core principles and watering down policies to submerge its differences with electoral competitors rather than highlight its distinctiveness.
It certainly does not apply today in the vastly altered landscape of local politics. The party and its leaders need to rediscover their core offer and take out into the thick of the election fight.
I saw a very good summary of those principles at a lecture in Cape Town last week. A banner read “We stand for classical liberalism: an effective way to defeat poverty and tyranny through a system of limited government, a market economy, private enterprise, freedom of speech, property rights, and the rule of law.”
I am wary of label sticking such as ‘classical liberalism’ and the banner in fact belongs to the SA Institute of Race Relations. And perhaps on occasion the DA hammers home its support for that essential list. But it is inconsistently done and often contradicted on the ground where the party actually governs. But that list is ‘worth the fighting for’.
The next six months will determine the relevance of the Democratic Alliance for the future beyond the next election. And often when your back is against the wall, the only way to move is forward.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London.
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