In order to understand the significance of what is going on in the Democratic Alliance it is necessary to understand how and when this all began.
Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille was elected leader of the DA in May 2007, several months before Jacob Zuma defeated Thabo Mbeki in the latter’s attempt to secure a third term as African National Congress President. In early 2009 corruption charges against Zuma were dropped clearing the way for him to become South African President.
Even as much of the commentariat resigned itself to this inevitability, and even started to welcome it, Zille remained firm in her belief that Zuma was an existential threat to the wellbeing of the country. Since the ruling ANC was not going to stop Zuma, the DA would have to step up, and into, this role. In an August 2009 speech Zille put it this way: “It is imperative therefore for the sake of everyone's future, that we create a political vehicle that is capable of challenging the ANC at the polls.”
Zille would pursue this objective over the next six years with a determination bordering on the obsessive. She sought to bring into the DA politicians and intellectuals from various political traditions (including Wilmot James, Patricia de Lille, Herman Mashaba, and Mamphela Ramphele), and also aggressively promoted young black leaders. A highly capable but still young and inexperienced person such as Lindiwe Mazibuko was able to progress from applying for a job as a parliamentary researcher in 2007 to the position of Leader of the Official Opposition in parliament within the space of four years.
Many in the black middle class more broadly, who had looked up to Thabo Mbeki and his vision of transformation and the African Renaissance, found themselves without a political home post-Polokwane. Initially it seemed the COPE would be the vehicle for their aspirations, but by the time of the 2009 elections this party was already in the process of collapsing. One such individual was Mmusi Maimane.
According to his biographers “Mbeki was always a hero in Maimane’s eyes. Even before he expressed his interest in taking up politics as a career, he would passionately defend Mbeki’s leadership style and choices in his many debates with his childhood friend, Thabo Shole-Mashao, who remembered that ‘after having read Mark Gevisser’s book, we would spend a lot of time debating Mbeki. He used to be attracted to his leadership style, he was his hero’.” He had flirted with the idea of joining COPE, but when this fizzled out, he finally and somewhat reluctantly signed up to join the DA in late 2010. Despite having never actually voted for the DA before Maimane was made the party’s mayoral candidate in Johannesburg in the 2011 local government elections.
Initially it seemed, given Zuma’s unpopularity, that the DA was on the verge of finally making a breakthrough into the black electorate - with the party at as much as 30% in polls it conducted internally in 2011. In its messaging and positioning the DA became utterly focused on closing the deal with a particular section of the black ANC electorate who were so utterly fed up with Zuma they were even willing to consider voting DA.
The DA stopped fighting any ideological battles with the ANC on racial issues, for fear of frightening away these voters, and it also started laying lavish praise on past ANC icons. In parliament the DA’s once resolute opposition to the ANC’s racial agenda started became increasingly unreliable and erratic. This was for both tactical electoral reasons and because many of the politicians now in senior decision-making positions in the parliamentary caucus simply did not possess that instinctive aversion to racial discrimination so characteristic (and defining of) the South African liberal tradition.
The DA message in the 2014 election, pushed by Zille nationally and Maimane in Gauteng, was that under presidents Mandela and Mbeki, “South Africa made progress. They had a good story to tell." Zuma’s election as President in 2007 was apparently the moment that the ANC lost its direction and was hijacked by unscrupulous leaders.
Despite all these contortions, in the 2014 national elections the DA was only able to secure 3,5% of the black African vote. The chunk of the black ANC vote that the DA thought it could win over largely went to Julius Malema’s newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters instead. The DA increased its support to 22%, from 16% in 2009, but fell well short of its earlier 30% target.
Yet while the DA’s approach of swallowing ever larger doses of black nationalism repelled many liberal intellectuals - and failed to have the desired effect on black voters - it was, paradoxically, very popular among minority voters. In one-party dominant systems opposition supporters traditionally tend to become demoralised and so don’t turn out to vote. The DA strategy held out the prospect to minority voters of becoming part of a new majority, and this was a great mobiliser in voter turn-out efforts. It was also an easy sell to the party’s donors. Zille meanwhile enjoyed high levels of trust among minority voters, and was relied upon to ultimately do the right thing by them.
By this point the DA’s course was set strategically, even though it had failed to secure the promised electoral breakthrough. In 2014 Maimane became the party’s leader in parliament, replacing Lindiwe Mazibuko who departed for Harvard, and in 2015 Maimane replaced Zille as national DA leader. In the provinces too the principle of black leadership now prevailed. In December 2015 Nenegate - followed by the Gupta-leaks - realised all Zille’s prior warnings about the dangers of a Zuma presidency. The DA succeeded in bringing the ANC under fifty percent in the 2016 local government elections in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay, securing the mayoralty in the prior two metros through still undisclosed deals with the Economic Freedom Fighters. Again, the DA achieved this through disproportional turnout from minority voters, and very limited incremental gains among black voters.
Ultimately, the DA’s Stop Zuma project succeeded, although not in the way the party hoped or expected. The loss of the metros clearly stung the ANC, and fear of a full-on collapse in support was probably a central factor in persuading a narrow majority of delegates at the ANC’s national conference in December 2017 to vote in Cyril Ramaphosa as President.
Zille, Mazibuko and Maimane, fought a long, consistent, often thankless, but ultimately effective campaign against the Zuma Presidency. Yet as the Duke of Wellington observed after Waterloo, “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won”.
It is clear that all the sacrifices the party made in this battle had taken a significant toll on the organisation. The party had lost ideological coherence. Its election messaging ultimately came across as contrived and inauthentic, one reason perhaps that it never succeeding in winning over suspicious and uncertain black voters. If Zuma was the cause of all South Africa’s misfortunes, as they had claimed in the 2014 elections, what was the DA’s role now that Ramaphosa was in office?
The DA post-2007 was also increasingly made of disparate political elements really brought together by a wholly justified aversion to Zuma. This was the only reason why politicians like De Lille, and Maimane himself, joined the party in the first place. With Zuma’s defeat this central unifying factor was suddenly no longer there.
Furthermore, certain ugly compromises appear to have been made in order to secure control of Johannesburg and Tshwane. According to Julius Malema the EFF agreed to support DA control of Tshwane and Johannesburg, on condition that it was able to have a significant say over who got appointed to key positions. Malema explained how the system worked in remarks in July 2017:
"Since August 2016, senior positions are occupied by blacks, not just mediocre blacks or EFF black, but qualified blacks - black qualified South Africans, so that they provide quality services to our people. Every time they bring a name that sounds European, we say this name must go and occupy the last position because this is our country.”
The DA in Johannesburg and Tshwane landed up with responsibility, but diminished power; while the EFF could exercise considerable power behind the scenes - and could and did celebrate its achievements (such as securing insourcing) - but carried no responsibility when things went wrong, as they inevitably did.
In the 2019 election the DA failed to increase its share of the black vote significantly, despite very low ANC turn-out, failed to turn-out its supporters outside the Western Cape in what turned out to be a base-election, and lost significant support to the Freedom Front Plus among Afrikaners. It was lucky to win 20,8% of the vote, and has subsequently taken a hammering in by-elections. Its situation would be even worse given the discontent with it among white English-speakers, but voting FF Plus is a bridge further - and still too far - for such voters.
As the Schweizer-Reneke debacle highlighted the top DA leadership – both technocratic and political - had become completely disconnected from the concerns of its voter base. Leading DA politicians clearly did not feel any sort of pressing obligation to represent or defend the interests of those who had actually elected them into office. This was partly a reflection of the party’s decade long obsession with chasing after perpetually elusive black nationalist voters, and our electoral system, with individual MPs not answerable and accountable to a defined constituency.
Given the very real threat of racial dispossession, egregious cases of Boer-baiting including in the judiciary, and rising black chauvinism in politics and the media (reflected in the outrage over Zille’s Singapore tweets), minority voters desperately wanted and needed once again proper representation of their interests in parliament, and effective ideological opposition to the dominant racial nationalism of the day. Under Maimane the DA was neither willing to, nor capable of, providing this.
The party thus faces the real and imminent prospect of progressive collapse of the type that saw the demise of the United Party in the 1970s and the New National Party post-1997. Given that Maimane was entrenched in his position – and the party leader is always the last person to lose their seat in parliament under our electoral system (see Lekota) - it seemed unlikely that the party would be able to self-correct.
Yet within the space of a week both Herman Mashaba, the mayor closest to the EFF, and Maimane himself, have resigned their positions and from the party. The situation within the party had become so bad that the DA review panel that Maimane had himself appointed took the extraordinary step of recommending that he step down. This was done first privately, and when he rebutted this approach, in the report submitted to the party’s Federal Council.
Zille decided to come out of political retirement and stand for the key position of Federal Council Chairperson. Her victory over Maimane’s preferred candidate, Athol Trollip, was yet another unexpected rebuke of his leadership. As Carol Paton noted, the reason Zille likely won was because hundreds of DA municipal councillors faced losing their jobs in the 2021 local government elections, if the current electoral trends were not reversed. “The threat of the loss of one’s livelihood focuses the mind fast. DA public representatives who fear losing their jobs are driving the momentum for urgent change.”
The DA’s loss of senior leaders is clearly very damaging to the party and its prospects in the short term, yet the probable alternative was even worse. If it chooses the right leaders and is once again able to provide a compelling ideological alternative to the ANC, it will probably be able to recover.
The party has also suffered such setbacks before: in the early 1990s when a number of left-leaning MPs defected from the Democratic Party to join the ANC; and in 2001 when the NNP split from the newly formed Democratic Alliance, again to merge with the ANC. In both cases the loss of support in the short term, was outweighed in the medium to longer term by greater internal unity and coherence.
As for Mashaba and Maimane, there has long been a gap within the electoral market for a culturally conservative black African political party, and it will be interesting to see whether they decide to seize the moment and take it.