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.