DA victories only a preview of coming realignment
The realignment of politics has been underway for over a decade. The process will accelerate significantly during the years ahead.
Its outcome will be a two-party system in South Africa, where power can change hands peacefully through the ballot box, and politicians can be held to account, because voters understand the power of their vote.
The nucleus of one of the two major parties is the Democratic Alliance. The other is the ANC. And discernibly, at an accelerating pace, power is shifting from the latter to the former.
Sometimes realignment happens in big steps - such as a split in the ANC or the merger of two opposition parties, such as the DA and the Independent Democrats.
Sometimes it occurs in tiny steps that are imperceptible to most voters. But cumulatively, over time, we reach a tipping point, and the ruling party is beaten in an election. This has already happened in many municipalities in South Africa, and in the Western Cape Province.
As the process accelerates, it is useful to join the dots, to see the pattern emerging.
Three prominent "dots" appeared in very different parts of South Africa, where by-elections were held last week: in Thaba Chweu, Mpumalanga; in Thembelihle in Hopetown, Northern Cape, and the third in QwaQwa. Just six months ago, in the local government elections, all three wards were comfortably won by the ANC. Now other parties control all three.
For the first time in our democracy the DA won Ward 10, Thaba Chweu, polling 52.63% of the vote, compared to the ANC's 47.37%. The percentage poll (the proportion of people on the voters roll) was almost the same in the by-election as it was in the general election of May this year. This means that the decline in the ANC's support is particularly significant. It means people who voted for the ANC in May, voted for the DA last week.
The DA's support in this area has been steadily growing; from 15.06% in 2009, to 33.60% in May, and now to 52.63%. At the same time the ANC has steadily declined; from 74.64% in 2009 to 47.37% in this by-election.
Then there is Thembelihle in Hopetown, another ANC stronghold which was comfortably taken by an Independent candidate (and previous ANC ward Councillor), who won 52% of the vote in a percentage poll of 67% - which is high for a by-election and marginally lower than it was in May.
In QwaQwa, a traditionally safe ANC seat, the ANC did not even field a candidate, and the ward was taken comfortably by the Dikwankwetla Party, that beat Cope on a low 20% poll.
And in Cape Town, ward 71, a safe DA seat, the DA's support went up from 87% to 93% and we won the Westlake voting district for the first time since 1994.
As someone asked me on Twitter, so what? What difference does a by-election make? Many people have asked me what a by-election is, and why it is held between elections.
The explanation is this: All local governments comprise wards, where councillors are directly elected by the voters. If one of these ward councillors vacates a seat, for whatever reason, a by-election must be held in that ward. By-elections can show trends in voter support, and overtime, a by-election trend can gather momentum until it becomes a torrent. This is what happened in the 1990s, for example, when the Democratic Party began to win by-elections against the former New National Party.
These by-elections - the last of 2011 - will come to symbolise a turning point in our politics. A growing number of staunch ANC supporters are becoming increasingly comfortable voting for opposition parties. This shows our democracy is maturing. This shows we are increasingly moving away from "race" as the dominant fault-line in our politics, and focus more on principles, policies and delivery. This shows that voters are increasingly accepting their responsibility to hold their leaders to account. They know that their vote is their voice, and they are using it.
All this is positive news for our democracy. But realignment will not all be smooth sailing. By-elections, as challenging as they are, are much easier to manage than coalitions, mergers or party bust-ups; all of which will continue to play a role in the ongoing development of our two party system. At times in the years ahead, the going will be rough, but as Tony Leon, my predecessor always said: If you like sausages, don't watch them being made!
Our role in the DA is to read the signs correctly, spot the trends, and position our party in the non-racial centre of the political spectrum. If we get this right, we will govern South Africa before the end of the decade. There is more reason to be optimistic about the future of democracy than ever before.
This article by Helen Zille first appeared in SA Today the weekly online newsletter of the leader of the Democratic Alliance.
Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter