Earl Long, the fabled political boss of Louisiana, used to harangue his supporters: “Look here, when I'm in the right I don't need any of your damn support. It's when I'm in the wrong that you gotta support me.” One's mind drifts to this story as one contemplates the present situation of the DA.
Currently the party is in the midst of re-launching itself as a pure liberal party in which racial criteria are discarded as determining factors in favour of more functional and meritocratic considerations.
Weirdly – it could only happen in South Africa – some commentators have construed this as a move to the right. Indeed, Helen Zille, now depicted as the leader of this colour-blind liberalism, has even been accused of wooing the Alt-Right, a group which doesn't even exist here. Given that both the ANC and the Constitution routinely exalt the principle of non-racialism, it is indeed peculiar that when the DA takes this principle seriously it is denounced as reactionary.
But the truth is even odder. The DA which Tony Leon handed over to Helen Zille in 2007 was already a straightforward liberal party. It had opposed both BEE and the Equity Employment Act and was resolutely opposed to racial quotas and the use of racial criteria. In 1999 Leon had used this tough-minded liberalism to win a majority share of the white Afrikaans vote and, progressively, of the coloured and Indian vote. These voters simply wanted a fair crack of the whip in a non-racial democracy. They disliked the hegemony of the ANC and wanted a vigorous opposition. They also wanted people picked on merit and they wanted things to work. It was a colour-blind and clear appeal, rooted in the founding principles of the old Progressive Party.
The movement away from this clarity began under Zille. Not only did the DA embrace “equity employment” but it began to toyi-toyi and to treat Mandela as its own patron saint. Even many DA MPs admitted that they no longer knew what the party stood for as it became an “ANC-lite”. Moreover, the party plunged headlong into identity politics. Despite strong warnings about her authoritarian and viscerally anti-DA instincts, Patricia de Lille was not only embraced but featured as one of three women (with Zille and Lindiwe Mazibuko) on DA posters. The idea, quite clearly, was to emphasize their colour and femininity. A new vision of the party's past even blanked out all mention of Leon, who had the effrontery to be both white and male.
Mazibuko, who had been absurdly over-promoted for identity politics reasons, soon blew up. When she was demoted a ridiculous gambit was attempted with Mamphela Ramphele, again for identity politics reasons (no political experience but black and a woman). This too was done despite strong warnings and it blew up within days. Next came the equally absurd over-promotion of Mmusi Maimane, a preacher in a weird little church with no experience in municipal or provincial government, in parliament or the shadow cabinet. Had he been any colour but black such a move would have been unthinkable.