The DA: In victory, defeat?

RW Johnson on the DA and the challenge to the liberal tradition: Part 2

This is the second article in a two part series on the DA and the liberal tradition. The first can be found here.

The emergence of the modern DA

The way in which Tony Leon rescued the Democratic Party from electoral disaster in 1994, turned it around and by 1999 had made the DP the official Opposition was one of the greatest victories ever won by the liberal tradition. Leon made the DP into a courageous voice of opposition against the new ANC hegemony, a stance warmly welcomed by most minority voters.

Following through on that he waged the famous "Fight back" campaign in 1999. This required remarkable chutzpah. The DP had very little money and blew it all in the first week of the campaign, launching "Fight back" with tens of thousands of posters right around the country. Thereafter the party simply ran on empty for the rest of the campaign. But it was enough. It captured the headlines and a public mood and the campaign became a central talking point.

Ironically, the campaign multiplied the DP's parliamentary delegation six-fold but even some of those swept in by "Fight back" were uncomfortable with it. The Afrikaans vote collapsed towards the DP and the NP, on the point of expiry, begged to join the DP and thus form the DA. The 1999 election had changed the entire political system decisively in favour of the liberal current and it remains Leon's monument. Every future DA leader will build on the platform he achieved.

Despite the discomfort felt by some about "Fight Back", there is no real doubt that it was a master-stroke and enormously successful. The real question is whether the DA was right to absorb first the Nats and then the Independent Democrats. In both cases the electorate of these parties were already collapsing towards the DA.

Had the party simply stood firm and refused fusion, its gravitational pull would have largely done the necessary work without having to cede key positions to old Nats or Patricia de Lille. And this was quite a price to pay. DP voters were little inclined to trust Marthinus Van Schalkwyk, who has been a military intelligence agent on campus and an apartheid apologist, or Ms De Lille, a close friend of Winnie Mandela, a PAC supporter with all the normal anti-white sentiments ("one settler, one bullet"), and who later tried to sell out the DA and her own electorate to the ANC.

Van Schalkwyk soon departed but the DA actually found itself handing over its second most important office, the mayoralty of Cape Town, to Ms De Lille, just as it had earlier handed it over to Peter Marais. Yet if the DA's enlargement could only be achieved by placing into key positions people with no necessary loyalty to liberal principles, this was a high price indeed.

The argument against this depends largely on symbolism - always a potent force in South African politics. The truth about the amalgamation with the NP is that it caused to come across to the DA a fringe of NP voters and activists who would probably never have come across any other way. The same is true, albeit on a much smaller scale, with the ID. This is simply an acknowledgement that communalism is alive and well in South Africa.

First Afrikaners and then Coloureds had to be assured that their community leaders and representatives were wholly welcome and accepted within the DA before they could feel wholly confident about it being "their" party. All communities in South Africa know what it means to be held at a distance, to be marginalized, to be asked to vote for this or that party not as part of its core but as mere add-ons. Even middle class English-speakers knew this feeling as first the NP and then the ANC tried to fold them in without ever conceding anything to their community qua community. In the end this is simply not good enough and the whole community knows it.

In effect the DA has opted - without ever saying so in as many words - to acknowledge the power of communalism. Of course, many individuals from all communities came across as individuals to the DA but there was also a sense in which first Afrikaners, then Indians and Coloureds had to be invited into the DA as whole communities. They had to see and hear DA leaders visit their communities and accept the norms of those communities and they had to see and hear Indian and Coloured voices speaking for the DA in the authentic accents of their own communities.

This was largely achieved under Leon's leadership and has been consolidated under Zille's. The unspoken truth was that politically and sociologically the party's driving force still came from the white English-speaking liberals who had driven Helen Suzman to victory in 1961 and ever after. Moreover, the DA remained attractive to the rising young elite of that community who continued to provide many of the most striking and able MPs in the liberal tradition.

Under Helen Zille's leadership the DA's gradual and continuing expansion has progressed to a point where the DA is beginning to assume the status of a future alternative government. It has become almost routine to read black journalists - Xolela Mangcu, Justice Malala, Prince Mashele, Aubrey Matshiqi and others - forecasting the demise of the ANC as it is ever more fully consumed by factionalism and division. The assumption, increasingly, is that the DA will rule one day and that the ANC's dream of a second tranche of the National Democratic Revolution will then be abandoned forever. No doubt, the dying of that dream could be a violent event - but commentators have already begun to look beyond it.

But Zille's DA is also approaching several moments of truth of its own. First, Zille herself has always been essentially a regional politician. What was important to her was that the DA should conquer first Cape Town and then the Western Cape. In effect she treated the DA leadership as a part-time day job while the main focus of her activity lay in either the Cape Town mayoralty or the Western Cape Premiership: that is, the condition on which she performed the DA's leadership role was that she be allowed a second and all-consuming job in the Cape.

To her great credit she won her two principal objectives and future DA leaders will build on her Western Cape bastion just as she built on Leon's "fight back" campaign. But it was won at a price. For the first time since 1961 Parliament was no longer central to the liberal effort and the effect, in an era when the ANC had already reduced the role of Parliament, was to reduce it still further. Inevitably, this caused considerable alienation within the DA parliamentary party, with several key personnel departing to diplomatic sinecures.

Moreover, with the Western Cape and Cape Town secured, the DA's inevitable next target is to win power in Johannesburg and it is tolerably clear that this will require a new leader and a new approach not anchored to the Western Cape. This will indeed require wholesale change for Zille has regionalized the entire party leadership. In effect the national DA is now run entirely by a clique of Western Cape politicians: Zille herself, James Selfe, Ryan Coetzee, Lindiwe Mazibuko, Wilmot James and Patricia de Lille. Moreover, this group is now seeking to take over the only remaining post beyond its grasp, the parliamentary leadership. In effect the Zille period has seen a complete take-over of the DA by a single region and a straightforward denial of the party's federal principles.

It has also involved a denial of the Gauteng-based centralism which is so pivotal to the country's political culture. This cannot be much longer sustained if the liberal current is to grow, not only because the largest single group of DA voters remains that on the Reef, but because from 1994 on it was apparent that the fraying of black racial solidarity in voting - on which all the DA's hopes are based - has consistently advanced further in the metropolitan centre than anywhere else.

The Mazibuko conundrum

The leadership's latest proposal - for Lindiwe Mazibuko to take over the party's parliamentary leadership - represents a critical moment in the party's development. Nobody doubts, of course, that Ms. Mazibuko is an intelligent and able woman, nor that it is desirable for the DA to have more Africans in its leadership group. The problem arises because Ms Mazibuko is only 31, has not really made her name by mastering a key portfolio - the normal route to parliamentary leadership - and that no one imagines that she would be so rapidly propelled towards such a senior position if she were white, Indian or Coloured. Moreover, her victory in this contest would simply mean that the Western Cape had achieved a complete monopoly over all party posts - at precisely the time when it needs to be doing the complete opposite, promoting key Gauteng-based figures to leading roles.

Of course, it would be possible to argue that Mazibuko's early promotion is not an act of racial preference and not a denial of the party's original slogan of "Merit, not race": the argument would have to be that she simply is so exceptionally able that even at 31 she is the best. This seems improbable: Helen Suzman was the Progs' parliamentary leader at age 44, Van Zyl Slabbert at 39, Tony Leon at 38 and Helen Zille (had she not opted against Parliament) at 56.

Today's DA is a lot bigger than its predecessors when they were elected, meaning there should be far more choice. Can one seriously argue that Mazibuko is abler than Suzman, Slabbert, Leon or Zille?

Certainly no one attempts to make that argument: the argument is that what makes Mazibuko better is her assumed appeal to the black majority, a presumption of communalism which sits awkwardly in a liberal party. It may be that this has some electoral merit, though the logic of the argument is actually that Mazibuko should replace Zille as national DA leader - and this may well be the idea. It seems unlikely that Zille, now 60, will wish to place herself at the head of the next phase of the DA's task, the conquest of Johannesburg. She would, presumably, prefer to remain esconced as premier of the Western Cape and hand the next, difficult phase over to someone else - Mazibuko?

As may be seen, this is a hazardous strategy. For a start, it might make better sense if the candidate was Mmusi Maimane, the 30 year old Sowetan who was the DA's mayoral candidate for Johannesburg in 2011 - but he too is very young, has only been in the DA three years and is a student of public administration, not a practitioner.

Secondly it is a bad signal to all DA members from the racial minorities that they are operating under a glass ceiling, that there is little sense in their striving upwards through meritocratic careers if they can be so easily trumped by a far younger black person on simple grounds of racial preference.

It is not just the current parliamentary leader, Athol Trollip, who would be consigned to the scrap heap by such a move but younger stars who really have made their mark in parliament such as David Maynier (43) or the defence spokesman, Gareth Morgan (34) (Water, Environmental Affairs spokesman). The message to the parliamentary party is that their old careers no longer make sense for promotion is a matter of the leader's patronage and racial preference, both decidedly illiberal factors.

There is also the simple historical fact that ever since the Progs were founded in 1959 their chief motive power has come from their ability to attract and harness the abilities of the better educated and talented young Anglophone whites. In effect the party will be choking back this group on which it has depended for fifty years, together with the lesser but still significant group of young Indian and Coloured talents.

In addition, of course, Ms Mazibuko's private school and university background mark her out as highly privileged within the black community, a fact not missed by black DA members who have come up via harder route - or by ANC opponents who have reached for the usual "coconut" epithet.

The problem is, too, that the DA's normal policy of de facto racial communalism rather falls down when it comes to Africans. With the racial minorities it is easy enough to ensure that the party has a decent representation of Indians or Coloureds in its team to signal to these groups that their interests have been properly taken on board. These groups (and whites) know they are minorities and that that's as much as they can ask for.

But Africans are 79% of the population and they are simply not biddable by a single spokesperson of their race. Moreover, the ANC - whatever it says about its non-racial tradition - is in practice fiercely racially communalist. This has been made abundantly apparent in the case of earlier African DA MPs who have been treated to a combined assault of intimidation and bribery and the allegation that they are betraying their race by supporting the DA.

That is, if the DA attempts to play the communal (race) card, nothing is more certain than that the ANC will play the same card back at them far harder. So hard, indeed, that the majority of the DA's African MPs have folded under these overwhelming communal pressures and have gone over to the ANC.

For the ANC are perfectly aware of the stakes: if they allow it to become accepted that the DA is an appropriate career vehicle for talented young Africans they face possible long-term damage which could sink them all. Their response will be correspondingly ferocious. It is asking an awful lot of a young black woman of 31 to face such an assault. At the least, it would be easier if she were part of a larger young black cohort.

What sort of party?

Clearly, as the DA grows and changes and develops into a proper alternative government the question it will face, ever more insistently, is what sort of party is it? Up until now, one could say with some confidence that it was a free enterprise party devoted to rule by constitutional law and through institutions - that is to say, a classic liberal party. But already this picture has become seriously blurred.

In practise the party has ceased to use the word "liberal" to describe itself. Moreover, the party has felt pressured to say that it is in favour of "transformation", affirmative action and at least some version of BEE - although it is doubtful if any of these things have a legitimate place in a truly liberal party. Similarly, the rule of law used to be upheld against the pressures of communalism, but as we can see, the party is beginning to make concessions to communalism.

These departures from the old liberal mould are not accidental for as the party expands it incorporates more and more people who not only do not come from the liberal tradition. To be sure, followers of Gandhian non-violence or Luthuli's Christian liberalism will fit easily enough into the liberal current. But in more and more cases the DA will be run by people whose relationship to any sort of liberalism will be tenuous, at best.

This was not something the party needed to worry about in the era when it relied on the young Anglophone "best and the brightest" to whom liberalism came quite naturally via their schools, families and churches. It could afford to allow its liberalism to be fairly sotto voce in that era but that will be much less true in the era ahead.

For, of course, the DA has no alternative: it must grow; and it must particularly grow amongst those for whom communalism is still a core value. The only way out of this conundrum would be to emphasise the party's liberal principles and philosophy much more openly, both internally within the party and externally as well. As yet, this does not seem to be happening. Unless this is energetically remedied the danger is that as the DA grows it will simply become an unprincipled catch-all party.

This is what the French Gaullist party aspired to be - "my supporters", said General de Gaulle, "are the rush-hour crowd". That suited the General because he wished to dominate the party personally and make it his vehicle, which indeed he did. While he lived "loyalty to the General" was the party's only real philosophy. The price was paid when he vanished. After him, in the era of Chirac and Sarkozy, the party became a mere electoral rag-bag, a by-word for sleaze and opportunism.

The DA thus has some very serious work to do. It must re-discover and re-define its liberal roots, develop a far stronger and more explicit sense of its own history and its placement within the liberal tradition. How many of the DA's new parliamentary intake even understand the central importance in the party's history of "Merit, not race"? If it doesn't do this, as it grows it will inevitably become the vehicle for ambitious tenderpreneurs and "Big Men". If, for example, it were to start winning 35% or 40% of the vote it would be very difficult to prevent a simple migration into it of all manner of ANC patronage bosses eager to ride a new horse to power.

It is, in this context, alarming to read that Moletsi Mbeki, Trevor Manuel and other from the ANC tradition have already been offered the DA leadership as the price of their defection. No nonsense about political principles here: the idea is simply one of trade in political bosses, extending the process which brought in De Lille.

Similarly, if one starts the marchandise of party positions based simply on a candidate's communal origins as a means of leveraging "their" electoral bloc, one has quietly jettisoned non-racial meritocracy in favour of "seeking new markets". And the DA simply loses all its meaning if it becomes the Tweedle-dum to the ANC's Tweedle-dee.

This, after all, is very much the pattern of politics in the rest of Africa. Once the heroic era of the independence party passes - which has now happened almost everywhere in Africa - power tends to be contested by two parties that are virtually indistinguishable. Can anyone point to principled differences between the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy which has just lost the Zambian elections, and the Patriotic Front which has won them?

In such countries elections are mainly about the redistribution of patronage with all manner of bosses and groups claiming that it's their turn to eat. There is no doubt that some of these processes are pretty much endemic in African politics, irrespective of party labels. The DA must think hard about this. It wants, after all - and quite rightly - to become a primarily African party. It cannot take for granted any notion that it will be somehow immune to tribalism, bossism, warlordism, racial patronage politics and so on. Even to insist on a strongly principled party, firmly rooted in the liberal tradition, may not be barrier enough; but without some such barrier the more the party succeeds, the more it is likely to fail.

If South Africa can gradually muster the determination to vote the ANC out it will want a real change, not just more of the same. Yet as the DA grows it has already become a very different party than the old Progs of Helen Suzman and it is bound to change more still.

Until now the party has been happy just to follow the usual pollsters' route, attacking "new markets", seeking "greater diversity", "greater market-share" and other such marketing buzz-words. But such techniques derive entirely from the adaptation of commercial market-research and marketing techniques to politics: they are value free. That is all very well if you are trying, for example, to sell more toothpaste: you are perfectly happy to sell toothpaste to burglars, rapists and murderers for you just want to enlarge your market share.

A party with clear and recognizable liberal principles cannot be like that. It is necessarily choosy about who and what it wants to invite into its political community and it cannot be satisfied to become a mere catch-all party. The danger is that as it approaches its hour of victory the liberal tradition could find that it has forgotten its own reasons for existing.

RW Johnson

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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