The Democratic Alliance: Liberal or nothing

RW Johnson says short term compromise will lead to long term disaster for party

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is a unique opposition party in Africa: white- led, multi-racial and steadily gaining. From a base of 1.7% in the 1994 parliamentary election, it improved its position to 16.7% in 2009, and in 2011's local elections took nearly a quarter of the vote.

In 2006, the DA won the city of Cape Town, and it has controlled the Western Cape since 2009. Under its governance, the province has consistently outperformed the national economy and maintained strong labour figures, despite large inflows from both the Eastern and the Northern Cape. It has the most successful schools, with the highest matric pass rates. The health sector has seen a dramatic reduction in TB cases. The DA has proven itself as a governing party. Its brand is synonymous with good governance and the benefits that it brings.

The DA is the lineal descendant of the Progressive Party (PP), formed in 1959. Representing the liberal strand within South African political life, it has grown by a process of amalgamation and coalition building that has allowed it to escape repeatedly from the ethnic ghettoes in which it seemed condemned to languish. When the PP was first formed it was over-dependent on a wealthy fringe of white (and sometimes Jewish) English-speakers. It seemed impossible that it would ever break into the Afrikaans electorate or the ranks of poorer whites.

Come 1994 and South Africa's first democratic elections, the party was in a more favourable position than any other in the apartheid parliament. It was accustomed to an opposition role and its steadfast history of opposition to apartheid gave it moral currency. By 1999 it had won over the bulk of the white vote, including the large majority of Afrikaners-a stunning reversal of all previous history. The party was criticised for being too white and grave doubts were expressed about its ability to garner black votes. Over the subsequent decade, however, it won over many African, Indian and Coloured (mixed-race) votes. These groups now constitute almost half of its support base.

Many, including its leader, Helen Zille, pin the hopes of the party's progress on its willingness to elect a black leader in future. However, under white leaders, the DA's support has multiplied 14-fold and undergone a complete ethnic transformation since 1994-during which time many parties with black leaders have failed. The need for black leadership may not be as essential as some in the DA sense.

Other factors explain opposition success in South Africa. In 1999, its leader at the time, Tony Leon, catapulted the DA into the role of the official opposition with his "fight back" campaign. Mr Leon's opposition to the African National Congress (ANC) was one of principled and tough-minded liberalism. This chimed well with the feelings of many South Africans of all races who felt that what they needed most in the new dispensation was simply a level playing field. He gave strong personal leadership to this image as a high-profile parliamentary leader.

Ms Zille has strengthened the DA with clean and efficient rule of Cape Town and the Western Cape, but she has abandoned a national role. She does not sit in parliament, seeming more concerned to be a Cape provincial politician; she has shifted the party's policies so that the DA no longer looks as liberal as it used to. It espouses affirmative action and black economic empowerment (BEE), appearing to be an ANC- lite in many eyes. It still benefits from the position Mr Leon won for it: as the ANC decays it is the obvious alternative.

The DA's hopes of power are largely a matter of waiting for the ANC to fail. This is happening faster than might have been expected. The thought was that the ANC's tenure might be the same as Afrikaner nationalism's 46 years in power. But the ANC's corruption, factionalism and incompetence are so flagrant that few expect it to last that long. The DA's hopes are proportional to ANC failings.

The modern ANC is essentially a rural party. The biggest delegations at its December 2012 conference will come from the rural heartlands-the KwaZulu- Natal, Eastern Cape and Limpopo provinces. Gauteng is South Africa's most populous and urban province and home to the economic capital of Johannesburg. But it is only the ANC's fourth-biggest province by membership, coming just ahead of rural Mpumalanga.

Even in 1994 it was evident that the racial cleavage in electoral politics was weakest in Gauteng, where the bulk of the black middle class lives. Gauteng has become the centre of opposition to Jacob Zuma's leadership. The ANC is more at home in the Zululand idyll of Nkandla, where Mr Zuma can happily herd his cattle and pamper his wives in the fashion of a Zulu chief, than in the bustle of modern, dynamic Johannesburg.

South Africa is a country of five big cities: what happens there determines its future. By 2011 the DA had entrenched itself in Cape Town, and did well enough in Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth for DA strategists to talk of winning all three in 2014. A possible future is one in which the ANC loses all major cities except Durban and becomes dependent on its vast rural bases, maintained by ceding power to traditionalists - a sorry and terminal plight for a modern African nationalist party.

The DA has mapped out its narrative of future success. Ms Zille repeatedly predicts that the DA, led by a black leader, will take national power by 2019. Although the DA indignantly rejects the ANC's accusation that it is a "white party", the party's old white liberal core and liberal Protestant ethic are still crucial to its success. This is, after all, the source of its emphasis on clean and efficient government. As political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi insists, white South Africa may have lost its political dominance but it still has a cultural majority. Whites built the country's dominant institutions, which still function according to their rules or incur scathing criticism when they do not. The DA swims as a natural insider in that sea where the ANC still feels awkward and unaccustomed.

The DA holds out for a future in which its backing from Coloured people in the Western Cape enables it to complete a clean sweep there and push into the Northern Cape, and where a growing group of African voters enable it to win city after city. The awesome prospect, which the ANC cannot bear to contemplate, is that of a white-led (or at least white-core) party gradually overthrowing the ANC and thus symbolically- and by popular consent-reversing the cause of "liberation".

Is the DA hoping to do the sociologically impossible? It has successfully transformed itself from a party of genteel white English-speakers into a party representing all racial minorities. It reigns unchallenged right across Mitchell's Plain in Cape Town, home of the Coloured working class; in Chatsworth, the equivalent Indian area in Durban; as well as among poor white Afrikaners in Brakpan, Krugersdorp and Port Shepstone. Among the more affluent whites of Constantia, Sandton and Durban North, its support reaches 90-100%, figures previously seen in "managed" elections or in the words of the party chairman, James Selfe, "East European levels". But can one graft onto that structure a growing African group?

It is an ambitious quest. South Africa's racial fault-lines are so strong that it is difficult for civil society or political parties to ignore them. Either such institutions fail to achieve coherence or tip the scales towards one group.

The ANC set out to be that sort of catch-all party, to assemble a completely multi-racial constituency. It failed in large part because its "Africanist" elements alienated the minorities. Long before it is within sight of power, the DA must become a predominantly African party; and South Africa has no record of a predominant- ly African party which long retains the support of the racial minorities. The question it will have to face is how to do so without losing minority support by pandering to race.

The model has to come from the churches. The biggest churches in South Africa-the Zionists and Pentecostals-are not an example for they are 100% African. The Dutch Reformed Church (DRC), the Catholics and the Anglicans all adhere to a striking "colonial" model. The DRC is rigidly Calvinist-were it to stray from that it would lose currency with its international Calvinists. The Catholics similarly depend on papal authority and the Anglicans on Canterbury. These external dependencies enable the churches to absorb vast African memberships without having to cede ground to traditional beliefs about polygamy, ancestor worship and so on. If these beliefs were indulged, these churches would lose their international Christian recognition, their multi-racial followings and ultimately their identities; a fate suffered by some denominations.

If the DA wishes to remain a party trusted by minorities it will have to entrench its liberal Protestant ethic as powerfully as the DRC has entrenched Calvinism. It will be a difficult task to accomplish while appealing to the African majority. But anything less will lead to its collapse in the same way that the Congress of the People has done.

The temptation, already visible, is for the DA to embrace threats to its liberal core-affirmative action, BEE and so on. But sociological models show short-term accommodation leads to long-term disaster. The hard lesson is that the DA will do better to stick to its principles and wait for the game to come its way.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of Africa in Fact, the journal of Good Governance Africa.

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