Can the Zille strategy succeed?

RW Johnson questions whether a sufficient part of the ANC would ever break towards the DA

In a refreshing recent talk Helen Zille spelt out her strategy for the DA. I say “refreshing” because – despite a lot of unnecessary discussion about fulcrums and levers, -the strategy was quite clear. According to Ms Zille, this strategy has been gestating in her mind ever since July 2013 when the EFF was launched.

The point was that the DA stands for constitutionalism, the rule of law, the market economy and the separation of party and state. But the DA is only a 20-22% party and the political environment was dominated by the huge and amorphous ANC which was a mixture of all kinds of things – black capitalists, Marxists, clergymen, criminals, rural chiefs, racial nationalists and so on.

Then in 2013 the EFF appeared and it was immediately clear that this new party – a 6% party then but by now an 11% party – was the mirror opposite of the DA. The EFF didn’t believe in the constitution and continually flouted the rule of law. It wanted to nationalise all property and it assumed that the party would control and be coterminous with the state. Helen Zille says she immediately realised that this provided the new principle around which the party system could be re-structured: the struggle between these mirror opposites would be “the battle for the soul of South Africa”.

Accordingly, Ms Zille says, DA strategy was firmly re-centred to fight this battle and when she left the DA leadership in 2014 she thought this was cast in cement. So it was with horror that she saw the DA’s new leadership group throw that strategy away after the 2016 local elections and make alliances with the EFF against the ANC. This was. She argues, the fundamental mistake of the Maimane-Mashaba leadership and it led to dire results, with the DA losing voters on its leftward flank to Ramaphosa and on its rightward flank to the FF+. As far as she is concerned, what characterises all those who have abandoned the DA in recent time is their willingness to work with the EFF.

Whether this is a fair re-writing of history would doubtless be disputed by some who have their own version of events in which the DA’s decline has more to do with mistakes made under Ms Zille’s leadership. But that is no longer really the issue. The question now is whether Helen Zille’s strategy of re-alignment can work.

The Zille strategy sees the factional warfare within the ANC revolving around this same “battle for the soul of South Africa” with the constitutionalists led by Ramaphosa opposed by the Zuma-RET faction which has far more in common with the EFF.

All of which, says Zille, is likely to come to a head in 2024. The failure of the ANC to get 50% of the vote in the 2021 local elections was, she says, “a huge watershed” and she is clearly banking on the same thing happening in 2024. At which point the ANC will have to choose either to ally with the EFF or the DA to provide a new governing coalition. This will be the DA’s great chance to ally with the ANC constitutionalists and “build a new majority”. Indeed, she clearly sees the ANC and the DA constitutionalists forming a new party together – which could, of course, only happen if the ANC formally splits in two.

How to evaluate this strategy? A first point is that far too many in the DA and in the commentariat are already assuming that it’s a done deal that the ANC will go under 50% in 2024. It should not be forgotten that the ANC always fares worse in local elections than in parliamentary contests and that in 2021 the party was also desperately short of money.

It may be taken for granted that the ANC will make a far stronger effort in 2024 and that, by hook or by crook, they will avail themselves of a lot more money to fight such a key election. In addition, as we know, the ANC keeps increasing the number of voters who live on welfare grants. This also increases the potency of the ANC’s main weapon, which is to threaten that a failure to support the ANC will lead to a cut-off of these grants.

Secondly, it should be realised that a lot will depend on the exact numbers. If the ANC loses its majority but is reasonably close to the 50% line it may be able to cobble together enough votes by making deals with Good, the ACDP, the Patriotic Front and the other rats and mice of the smaller parties. This is, after all, exactly what Helen Zille did in 2006, winning victory in Cape Town with a rag, tag and bobtail group of seven parties.

This would certainly be the preferred option for Ramaphosa because it would avoid agonizing choices and allow him to maintain the threadbare fiction of a united ANC. Ramaphosa has clearly decided that he must at all costs avoid the historic opprobrium of being the leader under whom the ANC splits, thus bringing down all the hopes it has nourished since 1911. This is a far stronger motive than those outside the ANC tend to understand.

And that would also be the preferred option of the Zuma-ites and the RET faction. After all, while the ANC hangs together somehow all the factions continue to enjoy their share of the patronage. They all fear and dislike the thought of getting cut off from the gravy train.

However, let us follow the Zille strategy through. She makes the key – and surely reasonable - assumption that the ANC is quite incapable of saving itself. Ms Zille says that “the entire ANC is an interlocking set of criminal syndicates” and she sees Ramaphosa as being up against that – for he too talks of a “battle for the soul of South Africa”. And she dwells on the fact that Ramaphosa has repeatedly pinned his flag to the cause of reform. She talks of how he had thanked the Mayor of Cape Town in heartfelt terms for coming to his rescue for the fire-afflicted Parliament, and how in effect Ramaphosa was standing “virtually alone” for the constitutionalist cause within the ANC.

But that is the crux. Let us, for the sake of argument, imagine that in the 2024 election the ANC gets 45%, the DA 22% and the EFF 11%. Lacking a whole 5% for a coalition majority, the ANC could not simply rely on the tiny parties, the rats and mice. So it would have to make a deal with the DA or the EFF. The Zuma-RET faction would obviously oppose a deal with the DA and if the Ramaphosa faction were to go ahead with that, the ANC would split. For things to go Ramaphosa’s way he would have to carry with him at least 28% of the ANC’s 45%, that is to say he would have to win over at least 62% of the entire ANC.

Is that really conceivable? Remember that the SACP and Cosatu would be bound to oppose a deal with the DA. And that no doubt Sanco, some churchmen and various left NGOs would also oppose such a deal. Ms Zille talked of the ANC being constituted of Marxists and racial nationalists: both those groups would oppose a deal with the DA. Given that the DA-ANC government would see two almost equally sized blocs (28% and 22%) come together there would be a great hue and cry that Ramaphosa had definitively “sold out to capitalism”.

And Zille was quite right to talk of the power of the criminal syndicates within the ANC. They too would monolithically oppose a deal with the DA for they would fear that that would be followed by root-and-branch attempts to destroy them in line with the Zondo report.

Is Ramaphosa really strong enough and determined enough to win over two thirds of the ANC against all those forces? Even though it would mean splitting the ANC irrevocably? Remember that Zille herself says that he is “virtually alone” in the ANC and she imagines his plea for help: “I am trapped in my own party”. Can she really believe that someone as weak and isolated as that, and well known for his lack of backbone, would have the guts, determination and strength to force through a deal bound to split his party – and win over almost two-thirds of the ANC to his side? It’s an extremely big ask.

For the alternative would be so much easier. If the ANC with its 45% makes a deal with the EFF, with its 11%, the government would have a comfortable majority. The government would assure itself that since the ANC was four times the size of the EFF, there could be little danger that Malema could set the agenda. (This ignores the fact that this disparity of size has not prevented Malema from setting the ANC’s agenda for years past.)

Moreover, if such a deal were to be reached, there would be no opposition from the SACP and Cosatu – indeed, they would be happy with this reunion of the left. The criminal syndicates would also be extremely happy with the expanded business opportunities such a deal would bring. And, to everyone’s huge relief, there would be no split in the ANC. Instead, things would be able to drift on as now with the Zuma and RET faction still within the party.

It is true, of course, that the ANC’s constitutionalists would be very wary of the EFF, but against that one has to place the fact that strong affinities still connect Malema to the ANC. Malema still has many friends and contacts within the ANC, virtually all his voters come from the world of the ANC and racial solidarity still connects the ANC and EFF, just as it divides the ANC from the DA. Moreover, the EFF’s thuggery, crookedness and racial populism are all features which fit snugly into the ANC mould. Indeed, it is quite likely that the EFF and ANC are already involved in overlapping criminal syndicates.

It is not even clear that the ANC would pay much of a price for such a deal. If you look at the behaviour of constitutionalists like Kgalema Motlanthe, Trevor Manuel and other old ANC stalwarts who clearly felt deeply uncomfortable with the Zuma presidency, you find that they found ways to signal their discomfort but then relapsed into silence. None of them left the ANC. Similarly, Thabo Mbeki and the Mbeki-ites clearly reviled Zuma and his ilk but almost all of them are still in the ANC.

In other words, everything we know about Ramaphosa and the ANC suggests that they would take the easy and comfortable way out, welcome Malema back into the fold and go on as now. No doubt Ms Zille and others would claim, doubtless rightly, that this was a further fateful step by the ANC on the road to hell and that the country would play a frightful price for thus mortgaging its future to Malema. But such arguments from patriotic principle have never counted much with the ANC.

Malema, for his part, has clearly done some thinking about such scenarios and is already convinced that he has a certain path to the presidency. This should not be lightly dismissed. He is the only politician who has ever made a success out of splitting from the ANC: Sobukwe, Buthelezi, Biko, Holomisa, Lekota and sundry others all failed. And Malema has an extremely sharp political brain, even if his political programme is ludicrous.

Helen Zille has clearly made up her mind to push for this strategy, indeed she makes no secret of the fact that this strategy is quite personal to her. But she is quite right to imagine that such a deal, if it did happen, would open up some very promising perspectives for reform. Ms. Zille tells us that she has been thinking about this strategy ever since 2013. But after all that time it looks very much as if she has come up with a strategy which seems bound to fail. There has to be a better way.