On the decline of the DA

RW Johnson's analysis of how the party had gone off track

R. W. Johnson, though not himself a member of any political party, was asked to make a submission to the recent DA Review Panel. He chose to do this in written form rather than orally. In general the submissions to the panel (which were mostly oral in form) are confidential but Mr Johnson has given his agreement to the publication of his submission below.

Submission to the DA Review Panel

1. When the Progressive Party was founded – its first meeting took place almost exactly sixty years ago in August 1959 - the eleven MPs who broke away from the United Party had quite a range of views: all they had agreed on was that the UP’s decision to further curtail African political rights was unacceptable. Accordingly they set up the Molteno Commission to determine what a new non-racial approach should look like. The resulting proposals for the abolition of racial discrimination and a graduated but non-racial franchise in a unitary South Africa formed the basis of the party’s policy for several decades.

Effectively what the party wanted was a basis in liberal principle which would also be moderate enough to give the party some chance of continued parliamentary representation. The whole point was to establish a liberal current within the political mainstream which would, over time, exert increasing influence.

This was achieved, though only just. Anyone who wishes to criticize the Progs now for having adopted a programme calling for a graduated franchise should realise that the price of going for a broader franchise would have been the reduction of the Progs to the same impotence as the Liberal Party. This in turn would have left the South African parliament dominated by two rival racist parties and would have made the chances of ultimate reform far more difficult.

2. I knew some of the original eleven MPs and they did not hide the fact that some were more conservative, others more liberal. But the key was that they all accepted the fundamental principles of the Molteno Report: no racial discrimination, no compromise with the Bantustan policy, merit not colour.

This was crucial in that it gave the party a very real unity, binding all its members together, and it also gave it a bold, clear message. In the South Africa of the 1960s it was strikingly impressive to see PP posters boldly declaring “Merit, not race”. This could not be confused with the message of any other party and it echoed a sentiment clearly felt among all racial groups.

3. The DA’s position today is somewhat similar to that of the pre-1959 United Party in that the party has ceased to be a party of recognisable principles and the Review Panel is rather like a later edition of the Molteno Commission. (Another, more famous example was the revision of SPD policy at Bad Godesberg.)

The DA has grown rather like Topsy with recurrent amalgamations and a gradually widening appeal across all racial groups. Its MPs have quite a range of views and its voters an even wider range. As a result the party has lost any binding sense of principle and it has lost its specificity. Even many DA MPs say they are not sure where the party stands.

The sight of the party’s head of policy resigning shortly before the last election on the grounds that the DA “doesn’t take policy seriously” was a devastating signal of how rudderless the party had become – and no one in the party’s leadership felt able to contradict this statement. Even DA voters frequently jeered that the party was now merely “an ANC-lite”.

4. When we asked voters (in the ENCA/Markdata pre-election survey) what they associated the three main parties with, they associated the ANC with social grants and RDP houses; the EFF with anti-corruption (“Pay back the money !”) - and the DA with nothing in particular. This is a disastrous situation: confusion as to what the party stands for is a deadly electoral turn-off, particularly since such confusion inevitably leads to divisions within the party.

The mood among many remaining DA voters is often resentful and reluctant, which could easily presage further significant losses in the future. This is, after all, exactly what happened to the United Party whose support ebbed from election to election until it was extinct. This happened, moreover, despite the party’s historic legacy (Smuts), its long rule as a governing party, its well dug-in positions in local and provincial government and, in an age of constituency MPs, its many well-implanted parliamentarians.

5. How has the DA come to this? I have tackled some of these questions in Chapter Nine (pp.127-136) of Fighting for the Dream, and won’t repeat that here. However, it is important to realise that the situation the party faces today originates with developments that began ten or more years ago.

6. The DP of 1994, which was only a 1.7% party, was almost wholly white. By1999 the party had greatly grown its white audience and, notably, had broken through among Afrikaans-speakers. It is important to note that this was achieved without any sacrifice of liberal principle.

The fact was that as Afrikaners looked around in the post-1994 landscape they didn’t hanker for apartheid: they accepted the changes and simply wanted a fair deal for themselves and their families in the new situation. They were happy enough to compete with all-comers and just wanted proper recognition for effort and merit. Perhaps rather to their own surprise, they had become liberals.

7. The same was roughly true of the Indian and Coloured electorates which were increasingly attracted to the party by and after 1999. They felt discriminated against and were angry that despite their contributions to the Struggle, they were now regarded as “not black enough”. They too preferred “merit, not race”.

To be sure, each of these groups required some degree of cultural recognition (as all groups do) and wanted to see at least some DA MPs drawn from their own ranks, but these demands were not difficult to meet in a growing party, especially since there was no demand for straightforward demographic representivity.

This was important for several reasons. First, the Progs had always been able to recruit among the best and the brightest among the best educated part of the population. The calibre of their parliamentary leadership was good, sometimes very good.

This was important to the wider membership and the electorate: Suzman earned almost universal respect and when a Van Zyl Slabbert spoke all the NP benches listened. This was important to the party’s morale and to its donors. And this was an advantage which the party can ill afford to do without. Greater diversity is a good thing but maintaining (or increasing) the calibre of the DA’s parliamentary representation is equally important.

8. Secondly, the high quality of the DA’s MPs was important to the party’s new recruits from other racial groups. It is rather like when black, Indian or Coloured pupils gain entrance to an elite ex-white school. They are entirely aware of what they are joining and if, soon after their entrance, the white elite abandons the school or shrinks sharply in numbers, they realise that this means the devaluation of the school. It is the same with universities.

It is fine for all races to gain admission to the best universities but if those universities lose their traditional constituency (as has happened at UKZN) this is then followed by a rapid attrition among other groups as well, standards fall and institutional decline sets in. That is, the sociological model that works is when an institution keeps its traditional constituency and then adds to it, preserving (or even improving upon) its traditional standards.

9. Finally, political parties are like other social groups: they are living creatures and have their own sociology and their own history. It is extremely important for them to draw strength from their own histories, traditions and the family associations that accompany them.

An American Republican can take great pride that his was the party of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, that his parents and grandparents worked for the cause and that this connects him with them. It is the same with all other parties. Of course politics and parties change but as far as possible they have to try to carry their historic core along with them. Politicians with any skill know their party’s history well, are forever reading about it and evoking it. Harry Truman was not a well educated man but he read American history all the time and said he could not conceive how any President could succeed who did not do the same.

10. All of which had great relevance when the DA had largely succeeded in winning over the minorities and began to make serious efforts to break through to the African electorate. Already the party had attracted a more than useful fringe of African members and MPs but the argument was that if the party was going to continue to grow and thus have a chance of sharing – or even winning – power, a new set of approaches was necessary.

In itself this was sensible enough. It might have been more “comfortable” for the DA to remain a 20% party – a party of the minorities – but all parties want to grow and for a non-racial party to surrender hopes of winning over the largest racial group would have been clearly untenable. But one should remember the only successful example of mass multi-racial organisations – the Christian churches – and realise that the more diverse the constituencies that the party appeals to, the more essential it is to have unity on principle.

Looking back, it is clear that the party approached the challenge of winning more African votes in far too mechanical a manner and without considering sufficiently the challenges and difficulties this would produce.

11. Thus the party effectively decided that it must offer the African electorate many of the same things the ANC was offering. In addition the party decided that it must disprove the repeated ANC allegation that the DA was racist, wanted to bring back apartheid and so on. Accordingly the party became hyper-sensitive to any expressions of opinion by its representatives that might possibly attract the ANC’s ire. This was a fatal error for it effectively handed control of the DA’a agenda over to the ANC – and, of course, the ANC, seeing how effective their allegations of racism were, would only re-double them.

This attitude betrayed a crucial lack of self-confidence on the DA’s part: really the party needed to stand squarely and robustly on its own principles, whatever the ANC’s reaction. This was, after all, exactly how the original Progs had behaved in the face of the National Party’s furious hostility.

12. Moreover, all the DA’s efforts were bent on stamping out any signs of “white racism”. They seldom if ever made any efforts against black racism. It was left to Afriforum, for example, to pursue Malema for his many outrageously racist statements. This was extremely unfortunate in that it gave the impression that the DA was biased on this matter. A liberal party has to be against all racism, coming from any direction at all.

13. This desperate concern to “prove” the party’s racial innocence has had extremely damaging results within the DA itself. Over and over again the party leadership has rounded on its own MPs, accusing them of ideological crimes, causing acute divisions and producing very poor publicity.

Yet if one looks at the critical cases one is bound to agree that there has been much ado about nothing. Diane Kohler-Barnard, an able front-bencher, was heavily punished for having passed on a third party e-mail which she hadn’t even read.

Helen Zille, a former (and still popular) party leader, was excoriated for having said that the legacy of colonialism was not solely negative. Yet such a statement would be quite ordinary for any Indian, Australian, Canadian or American, all of whose countries experienced colonialism. The DA leadership, by reacting as it did, merely showed how parochial it was and how it had implicitly accepted the SACP theory of SA as a species of “colonialism of a special type”.[1] Now one hears that Belinda Bozzoli – another excellent front-bencher – is in trouble for making the entirely reasonable statement that she was fed up with the ANC singing its songs in Parliament which is supposed to be a place for deliberation by all, not for hegemonic demonstrations by the ruling party.

14. All these cases were/are simply trivial and ridiculous and such pouncing on ideological “crimes” is in any case completely inappropriate behaviour for a liberal party. It would be far better to emphasise that the DA believes in free speech and can tolerate a variety of views provided they do not breach basic liberal principles. If breaches do occur, offenders could be spoken to privately by the Chief Whip, with the ultimate threat of the withdrawal of the whip. This would not only show much greater maturity and self-confidence but would put a stop to a pattern of behaviour which has done much damage to the party.

15. However, in its eagerness to win over black votes the party also made a series of crippling concessions to ANC thinking. It reversed its previous firm opposition to the Equity Employment Act, it accepted some form of BEE and it embraced the notion that it was an imperative for the party to have black leaders. Some have gone further still by arguing that the DA parliamentary delegation should be demographically representative.

16. These ideas are all simply wrong for a liberal party. The original Prog slogan of “Merit, not race” still applies. Affirmative action, BEE and a preference for black leadership are all based on notions of racial favouritism and thus discrimination. They are also all based on treating people purely as members of racial groups.

Liberalism refuses to do this and insists on treating individuals on their merits and emphasises individual, not group rights. The same notion underlay the so-called “Young Leaders Programme”. It should have been unthinkable in a liberal party to select a number of young people and thus designate them as future leaders.

Leaders have to emerge through their own efforts and merits: no other sort of leadership works and it is profoundly undemocratic to single out a particular group for future leadership functions in such a way. The argument that these are measures for “redress” makes little sense.

One cannot redress the injustices done to previous generations by showing racial favouritism towards a later generation. It is also a disservice to the younger generation which is encouraged to see themselves as dependent victims who need to be “compensated”.

They need to be strong, assertive citizens, eager to achieve on merit. Of course the DA should offer help to the disadvantaged (of any race) but the most important single step would be to reform the education system.

17. In any case these policies are all wrong for several different reasons:

A. Politically, they do not work. There is no evidence at all that the adoption of these policies has helped the party gain votes. Indeed, the evidence suggests the opposite conclusion. It must be remembered that the DA grew from 1.7% to 22% under Leon and Zille. They did not win these votes because they were white but because they were good leaders, stood up to the ANC and proposed practical solutions.

At the same time we have seen many parties with black leaders fail – the PAC, IFP, Cope etc. That is, having a black leader is no panacea. It is simply wrong to imagine that the answer to the party’s problems lies in having leaders or MPs of any particular colour. What matters is how effective they are, how well co-ordinated the party effort is and what impact the party can make though the adoption of winning campaigns and strategies.

In the last Parliament the DA was quite clearly eclipsed by the EFF which showed a much sharper political sense. The fact that the EFF, not the DA, won popular plaudits for being anti-corruption, says a great deal. The DA needs to be a lot sharper and more agile in Parliament and in its strategic thinking. The initial decision to attack Ramaphosa as no different from Zuma was a classic case of naive and mechanical thinking.

B. Both affirmative action (AA) and BEE lead to corruption and inefficiency. This is quite inevitably so. If someone gets a job or gets given special economic privileges on account of their racial group membership, they know that their merit and performance are not important. Why bother trying if what is important is your race? Similarly, why should others from less favoured groups try to achieve? They know they come from the “wrong” racial group and that their merit will not be recognised. This is bad for everyone and for the whole system. AA and BEE also both foster a continuing sense of victimhood.

C. The only way that the DA can stay united as it becomes increasingly multi-racial is if it has a firm set of principles which are shared by all groups. This has to mean liberal principles. This is the party’s heritage and in any case no alternative set of principles exists which the party could possibly adopt. It must be recognised that identity politics, notions such as demographic representivity and any sort of racial favouritism are all simply incompatible with liberal principles.

D. It has to be realised that affirmative action, BEE, demographic representivity and so forth are all ANC policies. The DA cannot succeed by adopting ANC policies. Anyone who wants those things will always know that the ANC is the real McCoy when it comes to such policies. Political parties often make this mistake.

When Scottish nationalism first broke through into Parliament in 1974, all the main British parties rushed to adopt schemes for the devolution of power to a Scottish Assembly. This merely legitimated the demands of the SNP and anyone who really wanted independence or greater autonomy for Scotland knew they could not do better than vote SNP.

The result has been the effective wiping out of the main British parties in Scotland in favour of a complete political monopoly for the SNP. The Labour, Tory and Liberal efforts to head off demands for Scottish independence have thus ended by making that independence more likely than ever. Me too-ism very seldom works.

E. It has to be realised that affirmative action, BEE and identity politics all favour a tiny and relatively privileged elite. This is, indeed, the over-riding theme behind most ANC policies and it is the principal reason why poverty and inequality have grown so much under ANC rule. This is obvious wherever one looks:-

(a) In effect ANC policy on education is to support SADTU – a small and corrupt trade union elite – at the expense of the millions of learners. The same is true of many other Cosatu unions. SAMWU, for example, insists on high national salaries which are simply bankrupting many municipalities and they also protect corrupt and incompetent employees from dismissal. This protects a small union elite at the expense of the mass of ratepayers. Similarly, Nehawu and the nursing union bear a heavy responsibility for the collapse of the public health system, to the detriment of the mass of patients.

(b) The ANC spends good money on its “100 black industrialists” programme. It is completely bizarre to make the creation of a hundred more fat cats (of any race) a priority. All one can hope to do thereby is to increase inequality.

(c) The Mining Charter demands that mining companies distribute 30% of their equity to BEE capitalists and local communities (for which, read chiefs). Since no company is ever likely to be willing to simply give away 30% of its equity, the result has been that no new mines have been opened in SA in over a decade. The consequent shrinkage of the industry has seen the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. In effect these workers have been sacrificed to the greedy demand of a handful of would-be BEE beneficiaries. It is no good the DA criticising the government’s BEE policies simply because they have enriched the political elite. All and any BEE policies can only ever enrich a small elite.

(d) The same applies to affirmative action. AA cannot possibly help the unemployed or the vast mass of black workers. It can only help a small fringe of the already more fortunate who are sufficiently educated or well placed to take advantage of such measures. It is very striking that when the government monitors these policies it only shows interest in how many black directors there are in major companies, how many women there are in Parliament, how many black lawyers are being hired and so on.

These are simply a handful of elite positions for the fortunate few. In practice the tenancy of such positions can make no difference at all to the inequalities suffered by women, the poor and the unemployed. The DA needs to argue for better treatment for the masses, not special deals for the favoured few.

(e) The abolition of university fees for large numbers of students has actually meant the granting of an extra subsidy to the most fortunate, better educated and better-off members of the younger generation. The young unemployed and those without qualifications are far more numerous and needy. This has been a directly regressive step and in effect has meant extending extra financial help to the sons and daughters of the black middle class. This money should have gone instead to shore up South Africa’s universities which are all in a state of decline.

(f) Ramaphosa has embraced all these policies. His government recently conceded an 8% increase for civil servants and a 7% increase for Eskom workers. Yet civil servants are already paid 30-40% more than those in comparable private sector jobs and the average salary of Eskom employees is around R800,000 p.a. In neither case does the government have the money to pay such increases and it can only honour these commitments by increasing the national debt.

(g) Ramaphosa then convened a Jobs Summit. He committed the government to forbid any redundancies in the public sector and pressure was put on the private sector to make a similar commitment. That is, the sole effect of the Summit was to benefit the fortunate few already in (often well-paid) jobs. Nothing whatsoever was done for the ten million unemployed. By thus conceding inflation-plus increases to public sector workers and also guaranteeing their jobs, in effect Ramaphosa is saying that the nation’s highest priority is to maintain the privileged consumption levels of these groups – a directly inegalitarian objective.

18. These policies are not popular. Back in the late 1990s we carried out a survey at the Helen Suzman Foundation which showed that a majority of black voters opposed affirmative action and thought that “the best man/woman for the job” was the right philosophy. This was hardly surprising. For the vast mass of black people affirmative action offers nothing except worse services as a result of inappropriate people being appointed to jobs they fail to do well.

More recently, the SAIRR carried out an exactly similar survey (using the same wording as in the HSF survey), producing identical results. Despite decades of propaganda in favour of affirmative action, such policies remain unpopular. It should be remembered that under apartheid Africans felt enormous frustration that they were barred from doing jobs they knew they could do well.

The demand was exactly that everyone should be able to compete fairly and the best man/woman should always get the job. This was also a theme of Fugard’s Sizwe Bansi is Dead where the protagonist yearns to be allowed to earn his living as a photographer because such a job will validate him and his talents and make him independent of apartheid and political pressures.

19. A final and obvious point is that almost all of the policies discussed above are directly damaging to the country’s development. Affirmative action has robbed Eskom of its key skilled personnel, with results we know. Both AA and BEE are strong disincentives for both foreign and domestic investors. An education system run for the benefit of SADTU not only robs the next generation of education and skills but also means the economy will be hampered in a multiplicity of ways.

20. It is important to realise that the black electorate has understood this. In our most recent survey (ENCA/Markdata) we found large majorities of ANC and EFF voters agreeing that they would be happy to do away with AA, BEE and EWC if that would help more investment and thus more jobs. Large majorities of both these parties also thought that privatization was the best remedy for the SOEs.

On one issue after another we found large black majorities dissenting strongly from key government policies. Huge majorities of black voters believed that land now controlled by the chiefs should belong neither to the chiefs nor to the state but to those who live on it. That is, they favour the growth of a large independent peasantry, which should be music to DA ears. The support of many black people for the ANC is historical and emotional but they are amenable to a much more policy-based approach.

21. This leads on to three further points.

(i) First, the DA should certainly continue to seek recruits and votes among black South Africans. But this must not happen at the expense of neglecting the constituencies the party has already won over. Everyone has to be treated equally. Racial favouritism of any kind is poison to a multi-racial party like the DA.

In 2019 it was quite apparent that large numbers of the DA’s traditional constituencies believed that the party had stopped caring about their interests. When we (ENCA/Markdata) began pre-election polling in 2019 the DA had lost a whole one-third of its vote both in Gauteng and the Western Cape. (It was weird to hear DA spokesmen insist that their polls showed the party gaining: I knew that was either a lie or it meant that the party’s pollsters were hopeless. The Markdata poll turned out to be easily the most accurate of all the polls done.)

At that point the party seemed to face catastrophe: in Gauteng it was running neck and neck with the EFF. In practice a lot of hard work and scaremongering about the EFF prevented the worst from happening but this was a tremendous warning for the future. It is clear that a full 20%-30% of traditional DA voters were – and probably still are – hovering on the brink of defection.

(ii) There are various reasons for this. The party handled the De Lille affair very incompetently and this did great damage in the Cape. It was absurd for the party leadership to get involved in this, let alone take responsibility for Cape Town’s water problems. This provoked a good deal of contempt.

Above all, the problems with De Lille were not new and had the party leadership been fully awake it would quietly have encouraged other candidates to relieve De Lille of the mayoralty in 2016, thanked De Lille for her work and found her something else to do.

Good party management means seeing problems coming and pre-empting them. More generally, the language used by the party (e.g. attacks on “white privilege”) sometimes sounded as if it was only interested in the black vote and was taking its white electorate for granted. In the Cape this was also a Coloured problem. Coloured voters are highly instrumental and will quickly desert a party which seems to take them for granted.

(iii) Particular damage was done among the Afrikaans community. The DA has to take very seriously the fact that the biggest single bloc of its supporters speak Afrikaans. Over the past five years there have been many instances where the Afrikaans language and culture has come under pressure.

Afrikaans-speakers expect the DA to stand up for their constitutional rights in such matters and yet far too often the party was silent. This was peculiar: the party stands to lose no votes by standing up for equal language rights and yet it often simply ignored the issue. It should be realised, for example, that the decision by Stellenbosch University to use English to an increasing degree is as big a blow to the Coloured community as the Group Areas Act was. By that decision most Coloured children are simply cut off from all hope of upward mobility. In effect the DA seems to bow to the ANC notion that standing up for Afrikaans is reactionary and right-wing.

(iv) This disdainful attitude towards Afrikaans-speakers climaxed, of course, with the Schweizer-Renecke affair in which a completely blameless young Afrikaans teacher was unfairly denounced as a racist by a young DA leader. It was essential that the party leadership should have quickly stepped in to say that that was unfair. (Again, there was no need for disciplinary action: the young DA leader could have simply been rapped over the knuckles.)

Its failure to do so cost the party hundreds of thousands of votes to the FF+, who showed a special video about the incident to more than 200,000 people. It is ridiculous to argue that the party only lost right-wing or racist votes to the FF+. These votes were lost on cultural/language grounds. The party faces a very considerable repair job with the Afrikaans-speaking community and has to take that task extremely seriously.

(v) Second, the DA has committed a cardinal error by attempting to compete mainly for the loyalties of the black middle class. A far greater number of black voters are those who cannot benefit from the policies favouring that class. The DA should be speaking up for greater equality and making it quite clear that the ANC government is quite forcefully creating more and more inequality. (When we asked black voters who they blamed for greater inequality, over 80% said “the government” or “the ANC”. 16% said “rich whites” and only 1% said “all whites, apartheid”.)

(vi) Third, the pursuit of such social engineering policies as AA and BEE or of identity politics or demographic representivity are simply frivolous in the face of the huge national crisis which we now face. It was obvious from our recent survey work and focus groups that people of all races are absolutely desperate. orale is dreadfully low. People are fleeing the country in large numbers and we are losing key skills and a growing part of our tax base. Those with capital are getting it out of the country as fast as they can, clean contrary to Ramaphosa’s investment drive. The jobs issue dominates everything and is the key reason why so many black voters have lost faith in ANC policies. In our focus groups we found some African voters arguing, quite unprompted, for a return to white rule or saying that things had been better in the days of the Bantustans.

20. Moreover this crisis is steadily getting worse. The problems of Eskom and the other SOEs have not been solved and many are on the point of bankruptcy. So are many, perhaps most, municipalities. There is no possibility that the government can find money to keep them all going.

We are likely soon to lose our last positive rating from Moody’s which will produce a further large exodus of capital and further job losses. There is no sense that the government has any plan to deal with this crisis or even that it understands how bad the situation is.

In many parts of the country law and order has broken down. Major national roads have become unsafe in many areas, with the stoning or hijacking of vehicles. 84 large construction sites have had to be abandoned due to the thuggish activities of local criminals. The police are absent or ineffectual. It has to be realised that we are now not far from a collapse into complete chaos and, possibly, the disintegration of the national state. The only real alternative would appear to be sweeping structural reforms.

21. The DA should be speaking truthfully and forcefully about this national crisis. It is essential that the party’s leadership has a strong grasp of the economics of the situation and that it can present a plan for getting the country out of its present mess.[2] This cannot be produced by a whole series of individual policies produced by researchers working within individual policy silos.

There has to be a well-worked out and coherent plan enunciated by a cohesive shadow cabinet. And the party has to concentrate all its attention and all its policies on this gathering national crisis. In many ways the situation resembles that of 1990 where De Klerk decided that “things simply cannot continue like this any more”, except that the ANC seems far from that realisation.

22. The recent decision to hand over an extra R230 billion to Eskom should have been at the centre of the DA’s attention. Where is that money supposed to be coming from? Is something being cut elsewhere so that we can afford that, or is the idea simply to go deeper into debt? And what is the point of handing Eskom more cash without demanding large-scale reforms such that it stops losing money?

Quite clearly, this money is likely to get poured down the drain, just propping up Eskom’s existence a little longer. And why R230 billion when Eskom owes nearly R500 billion? Does this large diversion of resources to Eskom mean that all the other SOEs will be allowed to go bust?

23. But, of course, the DA’s greatest concentration has to be on the unemployment crisis. It has to point how badly the government is failing on this front – in many ways making the situation worse – and then has to put forward its own plans to deal with this crisis. It is now quite clearly impossible for the government to meet all the financial claims upon it and the DA has to know how it would deal with this approaching fiscal and bankruptcy crisis.

24. It is, of course, a dreadful comment on the DA that despite a national crisis of these proportions, its vote in 2019 went down, not up. But it is not surprising that after a long period of growth and an increasing lack of policy coherence, the party now needs to look at itself critically.

In effect, a complete re-launch may be necessary. But if that is to take place the DA will have to be frank with itself and with the country, to explain why it is re-orienting itself. It also has to be ruthless with itself, demanding merit and performance and simply brushing aside or discarding many of the concerns which have occupied far too much of its time in the past. It would be best to start with a frank appraisal of the national crisis and make it clear that we are in a change-or-perish situation.  

25. To some extent the party needs to go back to its roots, to re-enunciate its liberal principles[3] and to make it clear how liberal policies represent the best way through the national crisis. The party should be proud of its heritage: the liberal tradition in South Africa goes back much further than Afrikaner or African nationalism or Communism. One can trace it back to Andries Stockenstroom and Dr Philip in the 1830s. Its members and especially its MPs need to know that history and to draw strength from it.

Indeed, the party should actively celebrate the liberal heroes and heroines of the past – the Colensoes, Emily Hobhouse, Oliver Schreiner, Mohandas Gandhi, Margaret Ballinger, Alan Paton, Peter Brown, ZK Matthews, Jordan Ngubane and Albert Luthuli.

It is important, too, to honour all of the party’s past leaders from Jan Steytler onwards. The ANC celebrates its foundation every year so why doesn’t the DA celebrate the formation of the Progs in 1959? Those who broke away were brave people, risking their whole career and livelihood in order to stand up for the extension of political rights to Africans, Indians and Coloureds.

26. In recent time we have seen the DA denigrate its own leaders. During the Zille leadership an attempt was made to elide Tony Leon out of the party’s history and recently an even more unpleasant campaign has been waged against Ms Zille herself. These things are completely wrong. Both Leon and Zille spent many of the best years of their lives to building up the DA and they did so most successfully. They deserve to be honoured and, during the current Review, I would certainly hope that both of them would be consulted.

27. But the party also needs to re-orientate itself away from many of the policies it has unwisely adopted over the last decade and examine all of its policies carefully in the light of the crisis we now face. These policies have to be fit for purpose.

They also have to be co-ordinated. There has, to date, been little sense of a Shadow Cabinet working together as a coherent and organised team. That has to change. If the party is to speak the truth about the crisis we face and put forward policies which can carry us through it, it is essential that it also presents itself as a united team committed to these policies.

28. A final word about leadership. I have worked over many years in French, British and American politics but I have never known a country in which political leadership matters as much as it does in South Africa. For many voters, the leader is the party. The result is that almost invariably South African political leaders run ahead of their parties – Mandela was more popular than the ANC, Buthelezi more popular than the IFP, Tony Leon more popular than the DP etc.

This is indeed a crucial requirement: the leader needs to pull the party along on his/her coat-tails, not vice versa. I do not think it matters very much which racial group the leader is drawn from provided that he/she can do this.

The track record suggests that this is best done by a leader who is fearless, willing to stand up boldly on principle and who enjoys a certain intellectual authority. (Mandela, Buthelezi and Leon all had that in common.) But it should be recognized that the leadership of the DA has become an increasingly difficult job as the party has become more multi-faceted. It is a hard job for any one person to do and it is bound to become more and more important to have a cohesive leadership team.

R.W. Johnson

Cape Town

15 July 2019


[[1]] SA ceased to be a colony in 1910. The SACP (and thus the ANC) decided to characterise white rule as “colonialism of a special type” - though quite clearly this was not colonialism in the generally understood sense. After all, in the pre-democratic age all countries used to be governed by small minorities, but that did not mean they were all colonies. There is no reason for the DA to accept this ideological construct.

[[2]] I have a number of ideas about detailed policies but this paper is long enough as it is. Really the party needs to convene a conference of (liberal) economists to help produce such a plan.

[[3]] There is no need for the party to shy away from the term “liberal”. Of course the ANC will denounce this as neo-liberalism but one needs to point out that this is not an analytic term. No one describes themselves as a neo-liberal, a proto-fascist, or a pseudo-intellectual - and that is the acid test. These are simply pejorative terms and the DA should not be intimidated by ANC rhetoric