Maimane's project is mission critical for our country

John Steenhuisen says Zille's colonialism tweets widened the trust deficit between the DA and black South Africans

Maimane's project Is mission critical for South Africa

Having technically entered into recession and with 9.3 million of our fellow citizens who have lost their jobs, South Africa finds itself in an extremely difficult position.

As the unemployment queues grow longer by the day, hope gets shorter. It is exactly this predicament that makes the Democratic Alliance project of realignment, led by Mmusi Maimane so important. Indeed, it is now mission critical for South Africa.

Last year’s local government elections provided a glimmer of hope for so many South Africans who saw that bad ANC governments can be removed if people and parties stand together for the good of our country.

This is the background against which the debate raging about colonialism must be viewed. Triggered by an ill-advised tweet by Helen Zille, it is consuming the national debate and occupying far too much time when, frankly, far bigger issues should be occupying the time of the Democratic Alliance and the nation.

Let me be clear, Helen Zille is not a racist. I have known her and worked alongside her for many years, but her tweet caused great hurt and offense, particularly to black South Africans who suffered under decades of subjugation and oppression.

Indeed, the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the DA’s objective to save South Africa from ANC corruption and looting is the trust deficit that still exists between the party and many black South Africans.

Ironically it was in fact Helen Zille who started the party down the road of fixing this trust deficit by steering the DA towards a liberalism with a more human face. She taught the party that if we wanted to advance our banner we would have to ensure that we were not tone deaf to issues such as race. Part of this was to ensure that the party and its public representatives stayed away from unnecessarily divisive issues and instead focused on uniting South Africans around a vision of one nation, with one future. It is her u-turn on this vision that makes her recent behavior so utterly inexplicable for many of us.

Mmusi Maimane won an overwhelming mandate at the party’s federal Congress when he was elected leader. He realized that for the DA to seriously prepare to form the core of an alternative vision for the country the party needed to accelerate the process that Helen Zille had actually started. But, as he pointed out in his Congress speech, it is only possible to achieve our aims by sticking to the values of non-racialism, constitutionalism and a market economy with a social welfare net.

Since Maimane’s election at that Congress in 2015, the stakes are even higher. Our country is suffering under ANC mismanagement and looting, and we know that forcing them out of office will not be easy. What is required is fundamental realignment of politics, attracting new voters who may never have voted for the party before.  This forms the core of Maimane’s Project 2019 mission. It is a mission that is bigger than the DA. It is a mission to save the very future of our country.

Our success in the 2016 local government was that the opposition, through coalitions, was able to remove the ANC from office in three cities – Pretoria, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth. This was a major blow to the ANC both psychologically and electorally. It is therefore puzzling that some choose to portray these coalitions as some sort of ideological “slideaway” from liberal purity.

This is particularly so if one considers that even Zille’s own first Cape Town coalition was established with the co-operation of parties as diverse as the PAC and councillors such as the controversial Badih Chabaan. Zille also led us into coalitions and eventual mergers with the Independent Democrats, avowed social democrats rather than liberals. The abortive “toenaderings” with controversial Xhosa King Dalindyebo and Agang’s Mamphele Rampahale are other examples. Why were these all seen as “strategic” and steps in the “realignment of politics”, but when Mmusi Maimane brokers governance deals with parties that do not necessarily share the same pure liberal ideology, it is hailed as a “slideaway”?

The truth is that our victories in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth have provided hope for many South Africans in an otherwise bleak political landscape. The 2016 elections heralded a new era of coalition politics and, like it or not, the 2019 election is likely to result in a coalition government as well. The sooner parties get to grips with managing the complexities of these the better.

The ground has never been more fertile for major opposition gains. The ANC is at its weakest, led by the most unpopular President ever in post democratic South Africa. The house of cards built on the foundations of ANC capture by the Guptas is starting to fall. The ANC is busy tearing itself apart in fits of factionalism as the fight for control of the spoils rages unabated.

This is not the time for opposition parties to be disunited, it is not the time for backward-looking debates around colonialism and its effects, those debates belong in lecture halls, not on the hustings. We are involved in a fight for the future, not the past. That is why it is essential that the DA focuses like a laser beam on, by word and deed, narrowing the trust deficit between voters and the party. If we want South Africans to vote for us in the numbers that we need to take power away from the ANC, then we have to show that we are a forward-looking, progressive party that truly is a home for all South Africans regardless of race or background.

John Steenhuisen is the Chief Whip of the Democratic Alliance