A critique of the Democratic Alliance

Frans Cronje argues that the official opposition has been making basic political misjudgments

Much has been written about the threat posed to the ANC by Mosiuoa Lekota and his breakaways. But a greater threat arguably exists to the DA whose centre-right position in South African politics could now face a credible challenge for the first time. The DA will need to get its MPs out of hibernation if it plans to contest this threat.

Contrary to popular analyses the ANC rebels may erode DA support to a greater extent than ANC support.

The extent to which the Lekota breakaway will erode ANC support is difficult to determine. Certainly he may do well in the Eastern Cape and the Free State but stands little chance in the KwaZulu-Natal for example. As a best case scenario, the breakaway may do well enough to deny the ANC a two thirds parliamentary majority.

Analysis of Lekota's chances should keep in mind the experience of the 2006 local government elections. These were preceded by a spike in protest action against service delivery shortcomings following which much was made of the official opposition's chances to erode ANC support. But the outcome of the election produced a substantial net increase in support for the ANC and a close on 20% fall in support for the official opposition. In making their initial predictions a number of analysts had failed to study closely enough service delivery data on South Africa. This data demonstrated that despite dissatisfaction in some quarters the ANC had successfully delivered to a sufficient number of voters to ensure its continuing support. That fact still applies today, despite failures in areas such as AIDS and education. 

Of course for the ANC the next national election will be different to that in 2006 in that there was not a new black opposition that had hived off from the ruling party in that year. The ANC is now rightly concerned and has put its impressive political machinery into gear to avert a deeper split in the party. 

However if the ANC is concerned, the DA should be doubly so. Lekota's policy platform will in all probability be based very closely on what is wrong in the ANC. The cronyism in the ANC, corrupt behavior in the party, threats from within the party against democratic institutions, and generally undemocratic behavior should make up the core of his campaign. Whether this will resonate with voters will be tested at the polls.

What the DA should be concerned about is that Lekota will be playing their game. DA campaigning appears to be chiefly based on what is directly wrong in the ANC more than on general policy alternatives for South Africa. The DA's problem is that Lekota will be better at this than they are. He will carry substantially more credibility because of his background in the party and because he is black.

The DA should in any case never have gone toe to toe with the ANC about what is wrong in the ruling party. That strategy stood no chance of garnering significant black support. The impression created by a party of mainly white South Africans telling black South Africans that the party they credited with their liberation was incompetent could not have gone down well. Even if a growing number of black South Africans privately shared the concerns raised by the DA, the manner in which the DA did so may have had the unintended effect of insulting the liberation mythology with which many black South Africans identified. That the DA was accused of being racist, embittered, and opposed to transformation was most unfortunate and untrue but not unexpected.

The DA would have been better served by leaving direct attacks on the ANC out of their campaigning all along and focusing more on developing a widely acceptable policy platform to take advantage of what was an inevitable split in the ruling party.

By default the DA has occupied the otherwise vacant centre-right position on the South African political spectrum. On the policy front it was, however, required to do relatively little to earn this position due both to the absence of large alternative opposition parties and to the strong centre-left leanings of the ANC. It might therefore  have done more  in designing, disseminating, and building a constituency around a strong policy foundation to cement its role on the political landscape.   Now that the split is happening the DA is caught flat footed compared to the impressive initial political momentum created by the Lekota breakaways. These breakaways may come to challenge the DA's default political position which it may then struggle to retain.

The DA's spokespeople may argue that this analysis is flawed and that they have developed many alternative policy positions. In a number of cases they are right - but only on paper. They have also made a number of very significant political moves in parliament for which South Africa is much the better. But all this has been so poorly articulated and promoted that it is very poorly understood by all except certain academics or analysts who have made a study of the party.

If the DA disputes this they should walk around any town or city of South Africa and ask people to list as many of the DA MPs as they can. It is unlikely that most South Africans will be able to identify more than five when there have been just under fifty in parliament over the past five years. What the other 45 have been doing might have been very important but no-one knows it.

The weak articulation of policy was in the recent past exacerbated by some elementary political misjudgments. Helen Zille's meeting with the then President  Mbeki ended badly when Mbeki straightened her collar for the cameras and thereby put her firmly and publicly in her political place. She should of course have reciprocated by straightening his tie. The party's later flip-flop in support of Thabo Mbeki just weeks after the party considered a vote of no confidence in his leadership was amateur opportunism. The subsequent decision to put Joe Seremane up against Kgalema Motlanthe to replace Mbeki had no chance of success. While the DA might argue it was done in principle, it looked silly and opportunistic. Such elementary miscalculations are difficult to explain when juxtaposed against Helen Zille's adept and clever strategizing in the City of Cape Town where her at times excellent political intuition has held a treacherous coalition together against significant odds. 

If such clever strategising can be carried through to 2009 and to 2014 and include wherever possible coalitions with the ANC rebels then the DA and the opposition in general may come to profit from the split in the ANC. The key question here will be whether Mr Lekota judges that such coalitions serve his best interests. There is also the chance that the coalition party with the greatest degree of popular support may come to absorb its minority partners.  

Now that the DA is up against a political movement that may attack the ANC with credibility it has limited time to secure its constituency before the next election. This should include the wide articulation of a series of sound policy proposals that will serve South Africa well. Particular focus should be devoted to articulating why and how these proposals will work. There is already some indication in the media that this is happening.  With just under 50 MPs and a very good leader of their parliamentary caucus and a good number of MPLs and councillors the party is in an excellent position to do this successfully.

The split in the ANC may therefore change South Africa's political landscape in a most unlikely way. If Lekota's renegades do not simply fade away they may erode the default support for the official opposition to a greater extent than they erode the support of the ruling party. This is a scenario that the DA should long ago have identified and against which it will have to move swiftly and skilfully.

Frans Cronje is Deputy CEO of the South African Institute of Race Relations. This article first appeared in SAIRR Today November 6 2008

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