Opposition on the ropes

South Africa’s Democratic Alliance faces an identity crisis. James Hamill explains why

The World Today
4 minute READ

These are perilous times for South Africa’s principal opposition party. The Democratic Alliance should be exploiting the divisions in the ruling African National Congress which are restricting President Cyril Ramaphosa’s capacity to deliver meaningful change.

Instead, it has descended into crippling internecine warfare. In October 2019, this produced the resignations of Mmusi Maimane, elected in 2015 as the alliance’s first black leader, Athol Trollip, the federal chairman, and Herman Mashaba, the alliance’s mayor of Johannesburg. It may yet end with the demise of the party, at least in its existing form.

Opposition politics can often seem a sideshow in a dominant-party system such as South Africa’s, but this is a development with important implications for the health of its democracy.

South Africa needs a more competitive party system to promote accountability and accelerate progress towards a post-liberation politics. The Democratic Alliance’s current troubles are all the more striking as the party has been on an upward electoral curve over the past 25 years, moving from 1.73 per cent of the vote in 1994, to 22.23 per cent in 2014. When added to its impressive performances in municipal elections – it secured 26.9 per cent of the vote in 2016 – the party had real momentum as it approached the national and provincial elections of May 2019 and it was entitled to look ahead with confidence.

Yet in the 2019 election its vote declined to 20.77 per cent, and it lost five seats in the National Assembly. The decline was less than 2 percentage points but it was enough to puncture the belief that it was inexorably progressing while the ANC faced longterm decline.

The principal weakness of the Democratic Alliance, or DA, was its inability to deal with the Ramaphosa factor as the new president appropriated the language of change following the removal of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma.

The various scandals of the Zuma presidency had provided an endless supply of ammunition to use against the ANC. When the ANC recalled Zuma from the presidency in February 2018, replacing him with a more able leader in Ramaphosa, the DA had fewer easy victories. The party was unsure how best to attack a popular Ramaphosa or how to expand its very modest black African vote while shoring up its core support in minority communities.

Ultimately it failed on both counts. The DA itself reported an 18.8 per cent drop in white support since 2014 as thousands of its voters moved to the white right Freedom Front Plus. But it failed to compensate for this by mobilizing significant support in the black electorate where it grew by only 0.4 per cent.

As the first DA leader to preside over a contraction of the party’s vote, Maimane had no reservoir of goodwill to draw on. The first sign that he was now on the back foot was his appointment of a commission of party elders to conduct an analysis of his party’s electoral performance and to make recommendations on the way forward. Such a fundamental review of the party in the aftermath of an election that was disappointing but not calamitous seemed an overreaction. It suggested there were much deeper tensions within the party. When the commission’s report was published these tensions proved uncontainable.

The report criticized Maimane for being ‘indecisive, inconsistent and conflict averse’, for failing to articulate a clear vision and for failing to make the party grow. It recommended his resignation which duly followed on October 23, but he did not go without rancour. In his resignation speech he stated that the party was no longer best placed to champion the vision of ‘one South Africa for all’ and went on to resign from both parliament and party. The commission’s recommendation that the DA should return to ‘its core values’ – individual freedom, a meritocratic society and a repudiation of race-based policies – also suggested a party stepping back into its pre-Maimane past.

This view was strengthened on October 20 by the election of former leader Helen Zille as the chairwoman of the federal council, one of the most powerful positions in the party, an elevation that, given her controversial views, seemed destined to deepen divisions. This was immediately confirmed by Herman Mashaba’s resignation as the DA mayor of Johannesburg, explicitly in protest at Zille’s return.

Race, the elephant in the room

It would be an exaggeration to claim that all of the party’s tensions are attributable to race but it has emerged as its most pronounced fault line and is beginning to define the party. Two camps are currently in dispute over the issue of race and the meaning of liberalism in South Africa.

The first are those, largely whites, who appear to have reasserted their control of the party during the recent upheavals. They view themselves as the natural custodians of the party’s liberal tradition with a philosophy rooted in individual rights and, economically, in the primacy of markets and a diminishing role for the state.

They opposed the party’s direction under Maimane which they considered an incoherent attempt to fuse liberalism, social democracy and nationalism at the expense of authentically liberal policies. They felt Maimane was too inclined to follow the lead of the ANC on policies such as affirmative action, race quotas and redress for apartheid, thus the dismissive references to his DA as ‘ANC lite’.

This group was also unhappy with what they felt was the fast-tracking of black South Africans to senior leadership positions within the DA for which they were supposedly unprepared. For this group, the removal of Maimane coupled with an ideological reset were part of the process of returning liberal values to the front of DA politics.

This position is contested by others within the party who view the politics of those who have re-established their dominance as nominally non-racial but in practice laden with racialized assumptions and behaviour which works to reinforce existing privileges. This is evident on two levels: first, in their understanding of South African society and, second, in their approach to internal party matters.

In both areas, it is argued, there is a hostility to transformation and an inability to empathize with black South Africans in favour of more self-serving notions of ‘meritocracy’, which make little sense against the backdrop of centuries of structural racism.

In contending that race is not a proxy for disadvantage, they reveal a disconnect with the country in which they live. Despite the emergence of a small black middle class, South Africa is still characterized by grotesque levels of absolute poverty and largely race-based inequalities. Black South Africans remain acutely disadvantaged compared with their white compatriots when it comes to access to sanitation and clean water, formal housing, education and employment, and in rates of infant mortality, HIV/Aids and life expectancy.

What now for the DA?

There is also an unwillingness to recognize that, with 17 million people reliant upon state social grants for survival, poorer black Africans will inevitably be suspicious of parties advocating laissez-faire economics and a diminishing state.

Critics of the liberal position argue that within the party there is an instinctive paternalism and racial condescension that has always been a strand of white South African liberalism. Blacks are assigned to junior positions by a white hierarchy which grants itself a ‘gatekeeping’ role in which it determines ‘suitability’ and ‘merit’, when and if black Africans might rise up the party hierarchy and, if they do, how long they might remain there.

Thus, Mmusi Maimane must own the election setback of 2019 – though not the successes of 2016 – and pay for it with his job.

Simultaneously, Helen Zille is elected to one of the highest positions in the party despite a series of deliberately provocative tweets about the virtues of colonialism knowing it would destabilize Maimane’s attempt to expand the black vote. Both were culpable in the failure of 2019, but one has been removed from the leadership while the other has returned to the summit of the party despite post-election tweets bemoaning ‘black privilege’ and ‘victimhood’. Such racialized messaging from the highest levels of a supposedly nonracial party highlights a wilful blindness to how it is perceived by South Africans.

These differences are so fundamental it is hard to see how they can be resolved. While all South African parties are coalitions to some degree, the DA risks becoming a pantomime horse being pulled in different directions.

The removal of Maimane and the reassertion of ‘liberal principles’ smacks of a campaign to ‘get our party back’ by its white leadership group. That, in turn, strengthens the long-standing narrative of both the ANC and Economic Freedom Fighters that the Democratic Alliance is essentially a white-run party with token black representation which is unreconciled to the new South Africa.

Some of this is unfair caricaturing, but they are also perceptions which the Democratic Alliance itself has helped to entrench. Its two most senior positions are now held by white South Africans, Helen Zille as chairwoman of the federal executive and John Steenhuisen as the new interim party leader.

Indeed, as the former party speechwriter, Jon Cayzer, notes, the DA appears to be consciously returning to its comfort zone by downgrading both the importance of winning black votes and by trying to make the party look more like the country it aspires to govern. Instead, it appears to be focusing its energies on ring fencing its liberal ideological purity and consolidating its status as a party of minorities.

Implicit to this is an acceptance that it is largely a provincial Western Cape party with some enclaves of support elsewhere in the country, principally Gauteng. Such a position may create an opening for a new party, based around individuals such as Maimane and Mashaba, directly targeting the growing middle-class black vote beyond the DA’s reach. Whatever the precise turn of events, it is difficult to envisage a vibrant, rejuvenated and unified Democratic Alliance emerging from the wreckage.