The key dilemma facing the DA - Tony Leon

Former party leader says challenge is to grow into new markets while retaining faith with core values and old voters

Remarks of Tony Leon to the Democratic Alliance Sandton, Crowne Plaza Hotel, Rosebank, Johannesburg, January 23 2013

"Opposition Then and Now"

I have not sought specifically in interviews, writings or speeches since my return to this country last October to assess the general prospects and future of opposition in this country, and specifically the role and outlook for the Democratic Alliance (DA), which party I led for seven of its twelve year existence.

However, since this is the first DA platform I am speaking on since arriving back from Argentina last year, it seems appropriate to offer some observations and even pre-empt some of the questions which will arise in a forum such as the one you have convened for me to address this evening.

The other day that enfant terrible of our politics, Julius Malema bewailed his current isolation in the political wilderness, noting that ‘his friends had deserted him in droves.' I was tempted to suggest that he remember the wise words of President Harry Truman, "If you want a friend in politics, get a dog." But then fairly recently our President apparently suggested that dog-loving is UnAfrican, so perhaps that is not such a good idea.

I am always wary when people use ‘culture' as either a club or a shield- whether to justify rent-seeking riches or to denigrate minorities - since part of the founding settlement of our democracy was specifically to champion and celebrate and protect multi-culturalism and the individual choice to adopt as many cultural identities and practices as consistent with the injunction of ‘do no harm to others.'

On the subject of friendship, I am pleased to recognize old political comrades here this evening and to have retained many old associations in this Party, and perhaps more significantly to note how many more people and new leaders have emerged in it since I left active party politics on stepping down from Parliament in 2009.

Someone defined ‘'leadership success" as the "success of the leader's successors". On that definition, and looking at the current track record and trajectory, I suppose that my many years leading this party and its predecessor could be termed "successful."

I am also mindful of Queen Elizabeth's injunction that "distance lends enchantment." Four years outside the clashing conflicts of party and parliamentary combat and three years away from South Africa does lend both physical distance and subjective perspective which can be refreshing and clarifying.

With this as background, allow me to make the following brief observations of the political and opposition terrain I had to navigate during my time at the helm and the opportunities and dilemmas I think you confront tonight and in the years ahead:

Opposition then:

On Saturday week, 2 February, we will note the twenty third anniversary of the famous speech of FW De Klerk in Parliament, which was in political terms of such thermo-nuclear intensity, that we are still living with its after effects today.

One of the lesser consequences of that event was that it blind-sided the liberal opposition Democratic Party, among whose new members of parliament I was at the time, the freshly elected MP for Houghton. In essence, the conservative president of the country and leader of its National Party, in one swoop, appropriated most of the platform and manifesto of our party.

Although the DP during the negotiations' process inaugurated by that speech played a significant, at times, disproportionate role, in truth when the ANC and the NP commenced negotiations, we had a bad seat at the table and a difficult set of cards to play.

This positioning was well summed up by the then ANC chief constitutional negotiator, Cyril Ramaphosa, who defined the "sufficient consensus" - which Codesa required to reach its decisions - with breathtaking candour: "Sufficient consensus means that when the ANC and NP have agreed to something, the rest of the parties can get stuffed."

Outside the negotiations' process the DP had a torrid time of it. The party couldn't decide whether it should accommodate itself in the slipstream of the ANC (as some of its defecting members decided to do); seek common cause with, and the protection of, the NP (as most of its voters decided to do in the 1994 election); or soldier on alone.

The majority of the party and its leadership decided to hew an independent liberal course, more out of duty to its principles than out of any expectation of electoral reward. In the event, the results of the election -a triumph for the country and a disaster for the party - were pretty well pre-ordained before the first ballot was cast on 27 April 1994.

Although I was not the party leader at the time, I was pretty much its chief campaigner around the country. And when we could get a hearing at all (most of our meetings in townships and on university campuses were either broken up by ANC rowdies or ignored, although we had more success in the suburbs), few voters believed in the message that, in an election based on proportional representation, the quality of the parliamentary representative and the purity of the party cause trumped considerations of size and history.

In the aftermath of being sent to the new national assembly and constituent assembly with just 7 (out of 400) MPs, a major rethink was required. It was clear that if the party continued along the road it had trod for the previous thirty five years of existence it was headed for the scree slope of oblivion.

I was elected leader of this unhappy and uncertain band. I subsequently wrote that being leader back then was like being given a poisoned chalice. I ruefully noted (in a borrowed phrase) that "at times it tasted like something rustled up by Lucrezia Borgia on one of her more vengeful days." But the one advantage of having few expectations to meet (in truth, most of the media, many of our historic backers and the majority of our  traditional -read English speaking, white and suburban -  voters had written us off) is that you can define your own agenda and determine your tactics after fashioning a strategy without the burden of expectation.

The downside is, of course, relevance: projecting yourself onto a political radar already crowded by the height and glory of the presidency of Nelson Mandela and the weight of the National Party opposition (then consisting of 82 MPs in the National Assembly, more members incidentally than the DP has today) and its dual role alongside Mangosuthu Buthelezi's IFP of power sharing in central government, while each of those parties controlled one province as well, was a difficult task.

This seemed very unpromising terrain on which to rebuild a small party and make it fit for purpose for the newly democratic South Africa. However, amid obvious and objective weaknesses, we had certain strengths which we maximized with vigour and determination: since 94% of parliamentarians were in parties serving in the government of national unity, the opposition terrain was more or less open to us.

Thus our small band, of mostly experienced parliamentarians used the platform of parliament, and the crisis of legitimacy affecting the National Party, to broadcast our message of good governance and answerability, adherence to rule of law principles and the advancement of market-friendly, growth-promoting economics.

With a great deal of hard work and not without controversy (the attraction of some leading and defecting NP members and the "fight back" campaign among others) we were well positioned for the next election. It is also true, that notwithstanding some blind spots of his own, Nelson Mandela's personality and presidency encouraged and gave recognition to the opposition role played by the Democratic Party.

Shortly after our relatively stunning success in the 1999 election (we increased our voting share by over seven fold and added 31 new MPs to our team and went from being the seventh largest party to becoming the second largest and with it the title of "official opposition") we soon faced an important fork in the road. In the Western Cape, where the ANC had achieved the largest share of the vote, slightly ahead of the NP, we held the balance of power in that province, the only one where the NP, due its retention of Coloured support, beat us.

Notwithstanding our explicit pre-election commitment to forming opposition alliances to hold down the power of the ANC, I was placed under enormous pressure by some of our donors, many independent commentators, and most of the media (who in turn were under pressure from a victorious and very assertive ANC) to do a deal with the ANC and deliver the province to their control, with our party as junior governing partner.

Having two years before, resisted the tempting offer of Nelson Mandela to enter his government, I found the pressure significant, but the suggestion easy to rebut: we had promised the voters strong opposition and we could hardly deliver on this claim by essentially closing down, or significantly compromising, the independent opposition role the voters had entrusted us with.

Thus the deal was made with the NP. Under it, Helen Zille and others achieved provincial ministries and we found ourselves sharing power with a party we disliked, but with our strategic project intact (consolidating the highly fragmented opposition and establishing a governing bulwark against the increasingly hegemonic ANC, then rapidly consolidating its power over the rest of society).

We were able within a year of that coalition to formalize our arrangement - under our leadership and based on our core principles - by forming the Democratic Alliance. By December 2000, the party achieved over 23% of the vote in the national local government elections -a result which took a further eleven years to replicate in the 2011 local government elections.

Of course, what followed was a very rough ride and I will spare you the agonizing details of the immediate period which followed the formation of this party - a history of splits and schisms, bad faith and floor crossing. However, the party that stands today is the inheritor of those early and difficult decisions.

It was in the period of the NNP desertion to the ANC (2001-2004) that the DA faced its most fraught challenges. We were the largest opposition party, but the very space which opposition claimed for itself and which the constitution demarcated was under enormous challenge.

I dubbed this phase "the closing of the open society". Although we identified the "open and opportunity society" as the summary of our policy and positioning, in truth at the height of the Mbeki presidency there were few takers for this position in wider society.

The press, with a few honourable exceptions, had been suborned by the government agenda, and with the exception of the government policy on HIV-AIDS, few leaders and organisations in civil society wished to pick a fight with the ruling party.

Within the opposition itself, parties outside the DA such as the NNP, ID, IFP found it easier to accommodate themselves within the paradigm, if not the formal membership, of the governing ideology. We had a bigger reach than ever before, but getting our message across - and even the concept of robust opposition recognized -had a hard swim in such murky waters.

The winning of the Cape Town municipality and the installation of Helen Zille as its mayor (in the teeth of a virulent campaign against us by the ANC with a co-opted ID at its side), once again as a result of intricate coalition building, turned the tide.

But by then the tide was turning against President Mbeki himself - and the once unified and mighty ANC was starting to divide, a process which reached its culmination in Polokwane in 2007, when Jacob Zuma ousted him as party president.

The very disunity which had so characterized the opposition had now swept right past it into the chambers of the ruling party itself. The elemental forces which toppled Mbeki, like the proverbial genie which could never be put back in the bottle, also released into society and the media a renewed vitality and vigour.

The "trust in government and respect the president "approach, on the back of this event and the multiplying corruption and misgovernance scandals, was fast disappearing from the public space. Against this background, the DA, with refreshed and credible new leadership, performed admirably in the 2009 election and probably might have done even better were it not for the emergence of COPE from the factionalised ANC.

Opposition Today

I have summarized this immediate past history, not to take you on a retro-tour through the DA museum, but to point out that the concept and even he continuance of real opposition in the past twenty years of South African history was by no means a sure thing. There were challenges and obstacles strewn in our path (and doubtless we placed some there ourselves). And the success of the opposition project was the result, at strategic and difficult moments, of making some hard choices and explicit decisions.

Of course the platform you bestride tonight is bigger than the one I and my colleagues stood on. It is also true that, three presidents later and after nearly two decades in power, the ANC has shed  a great deal of the moral armour which Nelson Mandela clothed around his organization back in 1994.

And although the overall opposition strength today is slightly less than it was back then (when two provinces were outside ANC control), the opposition terrain today incontestably belongs to the DA and the wind seems set fair for a resounding electoral performance next year.  

Perhaps because I am no longer directly involved in the affairs of the DA, and with the benefit of some distance from the demands of party and leadership offices, I can signpost some of the challenges which you face today.

I do so in the certain knowledge that meeting these opportunities (and some of the risks implicit in them) which you confront will be quite as decisive for the future of the country as the ones which I had to deal with were determinative for the opposition. Here is my selection of some key areas:

The core constituency (minorities) of the party is diminishing. The last election revealed that the DA has unchallenged support among minority voters; the last census showed that this is a reducing bloc of supporters.

The key dilemma (and it is not new, incidentally, only more urgent) is how to grow the party in a new market (where the majority lives and votes) while retaining faith with core values and old voters.

The latter is less of an issue than the former, since the opposition space is overwhelmingly occupied by this party and there are no identifiable and credible challengers for it. And the argument that liberal ideas and policies are somehow a "whites' only" proposition is nonsense.

But in order to attract more votes from black South Africans the party has to close the distance between itself and the majority, something which has far more to do with tone, familiarity, identity and other intangibles and less to do with objective policy propositions. But there will be a temptation to soft-pedal certain propositions in order not to scare off new potential voters.

"Culture" incidentally is political quicksand. I remember how when the NNP leadership could find no other issue to divide the early and fragile DA, they always hoisted up the fig leaf of "cultural differences and insensitivity" to sow dissension and distrust.

If I were the current DA leadership, for example, I would not get into a bargain of "Africaness" et al. Make your point and move on.

This leads ineluctably to the second challenge: can the DA retain its traditional identity with core values -from market economic sensibility to non-racial preferment to mention two obvious ones - and attract new supporters?

In other words, as the number of supporters and voters increase is there an automatic blurring of vision and values? Can you have both or do you have to make a choice.

I would hazard a view that two things are profoundly important for this country's democratic health going forward:

The first is more competitive politics which means, simply, a larger opposition and a smaller governing party. The second, which is more complicated, is to provide not just another version of the ruling party, but a clear alternative. This entails putting forward a distinct vision, other and better policies, and offering something beyond just "the ANC minus corruption and with good delivery."

The DA cannot be just a patronage machine providing a "catch all" message, and scooping up every shade of disaffected government supporter-from alienated Marxists to losers in the government procurement stakes.

Obviously politics is crucially about numbers. But as the party grows and as some outsize personalities, some carrying a great deal of baggage around with them indeed, are attracted to its ranks, just be sure that the welcome mat is also marked with some clear red lines which new and old recruits only cross at their peril.

I am sure that in facing and responding to these challenges, and the many others which will face you on the road going forward, you will understand quite how important it is for our country, and the wider world which still holds faith in our cause, for the future mission of the opposition to be crowned with success.

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