Big, big trouble awaits us in 2021

RW Johnson writes on the DA's difficulties in the context of the coming crisis

The DA’s poor results in the recent municipal by-elections are bad news not just for the party but for the country at large. At a point when the ANC has led the country to the point of fiscal failure and when it is publicly and repeatedly riddled by corruption we need a strong alternative from the main Opposition. That the DA is under-performing the ANC is simply disastrous. How has this happened?

The party that Tony Leon handed over when he stood down in 2007 was in good shape. Leon had taken it from 1.7% of the vote to 12.4% and it was visibly growing. Building on a small English-speaking base of just 1.7% of the vote Leon had achieved a feat unique in South African political history: in 1999 and again in 2004 he had won the bulk of white Afrikaans voters for a party led by an English-speaker. In the new DA electorate these Afrikaners mingled happily with large numbers of Coloured and Indian voters as well as an increasing fringe of black supporters.

This multi-racial coalition has been put together not by racial politicking but on the basis of an unabashed liberal critique of the ANC government. The party had a black chairman, Joe Seremane, an incorruptible man of genuinely liberal views but the party did not play identity politics. Its unity depended on a coherent and shared vision. Leon had to struggle against one-sided media hostility – the media largely accepted the ANC version of political correctness – but voters appreciated his courage and his clarity.

This clarity was progressively lost under Helen Zille. She too was a person of drive, integrity and courage but she sought to compete with the ANC by narrowing the ideological gap between the two parties and she was fatally attracted by identity politics. She continually tried to find ways of broadening the party’s appeal to black voters by dint of the accelerated promotion of black politicians with no track record of experience in the DA.

The result was one disaster after another. Patricia de Lille, whose visceral hostility to the DA had led her to side with the ANC against it, was invited in and, despite her known autocratic tendencies, handed the jewel in the crown, control of Cape Town. Lindiwe Mazibuko, after just two years as an MP, was jumped to parliamentary leader by Zille until she discovered that she and Mazibuko (who had begun to talk of herself as a future President) had serious policy differences.

This was followed by the farce of Mamphela Ramphaele being invited in as the party’s presidential choice (and clearly the next DA leader) when in fact she refused even to join the DA. Ramphaele had zero political experience, had not been a success in various other roles and was a strongly opinionated Black Consciousness activist. Complete disaster followed within days, leaving the party’s credibility on the floor.

Zille then made way for her protégé, Maimane, who was a preacher in a loopy church, did not believe in evolution and was clearly a train smash waiting to happen. He lacked political experience, admired Thabo Mbeki and was, unbothered by his policies on Aids or Zimbawe. This alone should have precluded him from consideration. His ascension completed the party’s slide to an ANC-lite position. All clarity was lost. Maimane’s reactions were instinctively ANC, replete with little sermons about “white privilege”. He had no natural sympathy for the party’s Afrikaans-speakers and tended to assume they were at fault, a fact which they quickly noticed and peeled away to the FF+, undoing Leon’s greatest achievement.

The damage was completed by the party’s selection of Herman Mashaba as its Jo’burg mayoral candidate – again a man of no political experience with no background in the DA. Handing the leadership of a complex coalition in the country’s biggest city to a political neophyte who didn’t identify with the DA was simply asking for trouble.

The question is why the DA allowed this all to happen. Leon had bequeathed a united and growing party with a clear vision. This had been not lost but thrown away. It is easy to blame Zille for her colossal misjudgements, for playing identity politics and even trying to elide Leon from the party’s history. But how did the party’s elders allow such a series of blunders? Now the party is trying to return to its liberal roots but it needs to explain, at least to itself, how and why it went so badly off track and lost all momentum. The damage could easily have been much worse: imagine the disaster if the lunatic scheme to hand the party leadership to Mamphela had really gone through.

Picking up the pieces will not be easy. The post-Zille party cannot fully emerge with Zille still in the chair in her seventieth year. It is intrinsically difficult to hold together a multi-racial coalition in South Africa. It can only be done by having a clear, crisp vision and by emphasising performance and merit, not symbolism. Within the party promotion must go to those who can best run a city or handle a front bench portfolio. It cannot afford identity politics which depends on a sense of racial favouritism and promises nothing about performance.

This is true of the country too: as the government’s failures mount people will turn to whoever can provide order and make things work. One can see this already in the Cape. People know that a DA administration means decent schools and hospitals. That’s why people move there. But merit needs to be continually reinforced. Cape Town’s administration is currently way under par. Heads need to roll.

The DA failed to appreciate what a prize it had won with the Afrikaners. Wherever you looked they provided grit, skills and determination. Too often crucial activists and organisers at local level were asked to line up behind the latest wunderkind who was being jumped to the top for identity politics reasons. They put up with this until they noticed that the DA was missing in action during the struggles for the Afrikaans language or at Schweizer Reineke. Now the DA has woken up but it may have to accept the FF+ as a permanent coalition partner, a sort of sentinel for Afrikaans interests.

The DA’s problem now is that it is inclined to fasten on the micro-problems of trying to do well in the 2021 local elections whereas it also needs even more to do the opposite, focusing on the macro-economic problems of our approaching debt default and the country’s growing ungovernability (a situation in which prime properties in our biggest city are simply hijacked can be described in no other way). Does the party have the intellectual and communication skills for this? Leon always sought advice outside the party and that probably needs to happen again.

Be sure of this: big, big trouble is coming down the line in 2021. The entire budgetary framework depends on a public sector wage freeze which the hopelessly split ANC is unsure to deliver. Already the World Bank has refused to lend to us, causing Mboweni to make hollow and desperate boasts that we can manage without outside help. Neither Ramaphosa nor his cabinet fully understand the mess they’re in. It’s a perfect storm. The country desperately needs an Opposition which can provide a clear analysis and convincing guidance to get us through the rough water ahead. If the DA can do that, the political rewards will be large.

With hundreds of DA councillors at stake the DA organization wants to concentrate on what is required to win back wards in George or Potchefstroom but Steenhuisen and his shadow cabinet need above all to work on the big problems of political economy, now looming larger all the time.

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.