Reflections on the DA of Tony Leon

James Myburgh writes on the opposition's rise, fall and recovery post-1994 (May 2007)

The following feature was first published on Moneyweb on May 2 and May 3 2007

Part 1

The fall and rise of the Democratic Party 1994-1999

James Myburgh 2 May 2007 

As Tony Leon will be stepping down later this week as leader of the Democratic Alliance, it is an appropriate time to look back over his thirteen years as head of the liberal opposition in South Africa.

There is a common tendency to assess the performance of the opposition in this country by unthinkingly measuring it against the situation that applies in the established Western democracies. As a result the difficulties and constraints facing the opposition here tend to be underestimated, if not completely ignored — and the important contribution it can (and does) make is greatly undervalued.

The more appropriate and enlightening point of comparison is with other cases of single-party dominance following on from ‘national liberation’.  Since 1994 the African National Congress has monopolised the loyalties of the black majority outside of Kwa-Zulu Natal, giving it an overwhelming and immovable electoral majority.

Moreover, the ANC – like other liberation movements before it – seeks to completely ‘transform’ society, and it regards opposition as an obstacle rather than an asset. In such circumstances responsible (loyal) opposition is a rare thing indeed.

One temptation for the opposition is to try and imitate the ruling party in an attempt to replicate its success. When this fails, as it inevitably does, the opposition is vulnerable to either to co-option, demoralisation, or alienation. Since there is no foreseeable prospect of coming to office opposition has to be sustained by something other than the pursuit of power.

In the 1994 elections the Democratic Party had been decimated. It had received 1.7 percent of the vote and 7 seats in the national assembly. This made it the fifth largest party after the ANC, NP (82 seats), the IFP (43), and the Freedom Front (9). It had only two more seats than the PAC.

Opposition-inclined voters among South Africa’s racial minorities had wanted to back the strongest counterweight to the ANC, something which had squeezed the DP’s support. Apart from being much smaller than the NP it had suffered from internal divisions, weak leadership, and uncertainty over its role after the end of apartheid.   

Paradoxically, many of the DP’s difficulties proved to be blessings, albeit heavily disguised ones. In less desperate times the party may well have opted for a more clubbable and less driven leader than Leon. The defection in 1992 of a number of its MPs to the ANC also did the DP a favour. It helped “purify” the party, Leon notes. Up until then the party had been paralysed by caucus infighting, and their departure got “some of the nonsense out of the way”.

With the ANC, NP and IFP all bound up in the government of national unity, the role of parliamentary opposition fell to the DP. “That took quite a toll”, Leon notes, “in terms of physical, intellectual, and emotional resources.” Yet it also gave the DP a two year start over the NP which only walked out of the GNU in mid-1996. 

From the beginning Leon states “I never doubted the necessity of doing what we had to do – which was critical in consolidating democracy in this country.” That meant that “we had to establish an opposition which took the principles which had served the PFP and DP in the fight against apartheid” and carried them into the new South Africa.

Yet this project was almost derailed by President Nelson Mandela when he approached Leon in early January 1997 and offered the Democratic Party one seat in the 26 member cabinet. This was a generous if somewhat Machiavellian offer. Leon says that when he discussed, in detail, the terms of their participation Mandela said, “You can obviously debate anything you like in cabinet. But when we finish and we go out we must face the world with one voice. Then he added, ‘Just like Mugabe and Nkomo do in Zimbabwe’. I just thought that is really a bridge too far. I went back to the DP’s Federal Council and said ‘we must decline with thanks’.”

It was later that year that the DP first began making headway among disillusioned NP voters, a process greatly hastened by the resignation of F.W. de Klerk as leader. At the end of the year Thabo Mbeki ascended to the ANC presidency, and the ruling party began to aggressively pursue its racial nationalist agenda.

In early 1998 the DP won a series of by-elections in former NP safe seats across the country. According to one opinion poll, by June 1998 the DP was level pegging with the NP in terms of popular support. In the June 1999 elections the DP replaced the NNP as the official opposition after it won 9.6 percent of the vote to the NNP’s 6.9 percent. It ran a campaign orientated towards minority voters, and particularly disillusioned Afrikaners, with the slogan “Fight Back”.

Until it actually happened, it was by no means obvious or expected that the DP would make this breakthrough. Afrikaner voters had shunned the party, and its predecessors, for the previous four decades. And Leon, who – as he says himself – speaks “a kind of Sandton Afrikaans”, did not have a profile which would self-evidently appeal to this constituency. Quite apart from these constraints of ethnicity and history the small size of the DP put it at a substantial disadvantage to the NP among minority voters, who tended to instinctively back the largest opposition to the ANC.

The DP did have certain advantages. It was used to being in perpetual opposition, and it did not need the prospect of government office to keep it motivated or united. By contrast the NP was a government orientated party which had no animating ideals to keep it going now that it was out of office (apparently permanently).  

The ability of the NP to reinvent itself was hobbled, Leon notes, by the TRC which put the “entire repressive state apparatus on public display and it wasn’t a very pretty sight.” Because of its apartheid past the NP also lacked the moral authority to convincingly speak out against the ANC policies of centralisation and racialisation – issues of increasingly pressing concern to minority voters.

The DP, and the PFP before it, had always suffered, Leon says, from a “cloying elitism” – something he had tried to move the party away from when he took over the leadership. He also took up the question of language and cultural rights at a time when it was far from being a fashionable cause among the liberal Afrikaans intelligentsia.

This was not for electoral purposes, he says, though it was hugely helpful in this regard. “But I felt that this minority is going to be completely overwhelmed if we don’t stand up for this particular right. And it is even more important that someone who isn’t Afrikaans stands up for it, rather than someone who is… I genuinely believe if that if the constitution meant anything at all, it had to stand up for language and cultural rights, in a legitimate way.”

The DP’s assertion of its right to criticise and oppose the ruling party, and to mobilise minority voters, was met with open hostility by the Mbeki-ite ANC, which envisaged a far more servile role for the opposition. In the first parliamentary debate following the June 1999 election a DP defector to the ANC was deployed by the presidency to accuse Leon of “neo-Nazism” and “white fascism”. She was subsequently rewarded with an ambassadorship to Finland. 

More surprisingly, it attracted much criticism from many pro-ANC liberals and ex-liberals. For instance, in an article published shortly after the 1999 election the former PFP leader, Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, stated that the success of the DP in attracting Afrikaner support “surely must pose a problem to the [party], given the principles it subscribes to.”

Slabbert also questioned the very need for opposition on the basis that there was nothing much left to oppose. The dilemma of the DP, UDM and NNP, he wrote, “is that there is no serious ideological dispute between them and the government, and they are not positioned to play any significant role in the resolution of the debate within the ANC.”

By the time he said this, the ANC of Mbeki had already re-asserted ‘democratic centralism’ as its guiding organisational principle, and African nationalism as its raison d’être. It was well on its way to giving effect to its stated intention of bringing all levers of state power under party direction. It had also, in October 1998, blocked the provision of rival anti-retroviral treatment to HIV positive pregnant women. The concentration of power in the hands of the Mbeki presidency was very close to complete.

In hindsight, the DP’s great contribution in this period was to publicly protest about these and other matters, and to keep various areas of contestation open. This was a battle fought as much against the tide of informed opinion, as it was against the Mbeki-ites and their efforts to impose a ‘national agenda’ on society. To this day Leon is resented for having spoken out, at the time, by all those good men who remained silent.


Part 2

The rise, fall, and recovery of the Democratic Alliance 2000-2006

One of the main criticisms made against the Democratic Party after the June 1999 election was that it had failed to make inroads among the black electorate, or done something to preclude this from happening in the future. This was rather unfair as black voters were simply not accessible to the DP at the time, whatever it had said or done. Tony Leon comments, “Political parties go where they can get support. You go fishing where the Barracuda are, you don’t go fishing where there are no fish at all.” 

The DP would get itself into a great deal of trouble in 2000 when it tried to break out of the limits imposed by the ANC’s dominance and, as their chief strategist Ryan Coetzee put it, “short-circuit history”. In June 2000 the DP merged with the New National Party led by Marthinus van Schalkwyk and Louis Luyt’s Federal Alliance to form the Democratic Alliance. From the DP side the intention of the merger was to consolidate the opposition, something which would allow them to direct their attentions towards making inroads among the black electorate.

The NNP was in a very weak bargaining position, as it was facing severe losses in the local government elections to be held later that year. Van Schalkwyk, under pressure from his public representatives, had little choice but to agree to the merger on the DP’s terms. As Carol Paton noted the following year, it was basically a hostile takeover. “The NP was on its knees. Its councillors were defecting in droves. The DP boasted that if it couldn’t swallow the NP whole, it would pick of its members ‘one by one’.”

Initially, the merger seemed to pay off. Minority voters were enthused and in the December 2000 local government elections the DA – campaigning under the slogan “For All the People” won 22 percent of the vote to the ANC’s 59 percent. As the results were being announced the Cape Times led with the headline “SA on way to a two-party state.”

Over the following year a bitter power struggle ensued for control of the party, and it was not long before the DP and NNP leaderships came to regard each other with mutual fear and loathing. Although the DP had enjoyed far greater popular support at the time of the merger, and had ultimate control over the DA, the NNP component had a larger signed-up membership. Deadlock was reached, and never actually resolved, on whether representation at the party’s congress should be determined by electoral strength (as the DP wanted) or paid up membership (which would have allowed for a reverse takeover by the NNP).

In November 2001, after secret talks with the ANC, van Schalkwyk announced that he was taking the NNP out of the DA and into coalition with the ANC. As part of the deal the ANC introduced floor-crossing, something it had previously opposed. The DP foolishly voted for the legislation when it came before parliament. The ANC proceeded to roll back many of the achievements of the opposition, taking control of the Western Cape and of Cape Town.

When asked whether the decision to form the DA was worth it Leon replies ambivalently: “I think that although it caused a huge amount of grief, we have consolidated the opposition and the NP has disappeared completely. Maybe we should have tried to destroy them at the polls. That would also have had costs. There are no free choices in politics; generally one has to choose between the worse and the less worse.”

The DA was the one opposition party with the funding and organisation able to run a national campaign in the April 2004 elections. It directed its message, and much of its campaigning, towards trying to make inroads into the black electorate. Its slogan “South Africa deserves better” was designed to have a broad appeal. It hoped to win five percent of black votes and some 17 percent overall.

However, the DA was unable to shake off the damage from the break-up of the alliance with the NNP, and its aftershocks, and won only 12.4 percent of the vote. This was not much greater than the support it had enjoyed in July 1999, when an opinion poll had put its support at 12%. It had failed to make even the modest inroads among black voters that it had hoped for; and it also went backwards as far as the Indian vote in Natal was concerned. The NNP was punished by the electorate, winning only 1.7 percent of the vote, but van Schalkwyk was rewarded by the ANC with a seat in cabinet.

These results, Leon acknowledges were “a bit disillusioning.” The problem, he states, was that, “we were fighting the war on too many fronts. We were fighting the NNP in the Western Cape and the ANC in the rest of the country. We weren’t really fighting on ground of our own choice.” At that time Leon began to consider when he should step down, but before he did “I was absolutely determined that the party needed to re-group for the 2006 municipal elections, and win back what had been lost through floor crossing.”

As the official opposition the DA has performed important functions, which are often taken for granted. It told the ANC what it needed to know, but didn’t want to hear, most notably on HIV/AIDS but on other issues as well. By representing and articulating the interests and concerns of their constituency they kept electoral minorities bound into the system (and out of the hands of the extremists). The possibility that the DA could, at some point, profit from its mistakes and make inroads into the black electorate, helped ensure that the ANC government remained somewhat responsive to its supporters. It is worth noting, that it had not been for the DA South Africa would have been a de-facto, if not de-jure, one-party state by 2004.

For an opposition to survive through a period of single-party dominance, requires patience, discipline and idealism. It also requires an innate strength from its leader. Whatever commentators may claim, there is no magic lever that the opposition can pull to end dominance. Leon comments, “The opposition can only do what they can do. We don’t control the environment. We have to be as battle ready as possible, and take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves.”

Perhaps the most important achievement of the DA was simply to survive as an outspoken but loyal opposition through the first thirteen years of ANC rule. Niccolò Machiavelli advised, “When a number of princes combine to make war upon a single one, the latter will triumph over the combination, provided he has courage and strength to resist the first shock and bide events by temporizing.” For, he noted, after a while even the most powerful combination will be weakened by internal disunity.

This has certainly happened in the Western Cape where the DA now has the upper hand partly due to the deep divisions within the provincial ANC. At national level too the ANC will navigate the leadership succession with great difficulty.  Leon, for one, thinks the ANC are in the last phase of their rule. “I don’t think they can go much longer than 20 years in office, unless they do a Mugabe. The ticket has started to expire for the ANC.”

James Myburgh

May 2007

* The author worked as a researcher for the Democratic Party between 1997 and 2001