The DA needs to raise its game

RW Johnson says the opposition will need something more than just a renewed adherence to liberal principles

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.

Maimane inherited a party still endowed with considerable forward momentum. Crucially, this momentum, which had lasted since 1999, provided a feeling of inexorable onward progress which enthused the party's voters, MPs and donors. But as Maimane echoed more and more ANC themes – demographic representivity and attacking “white privilege” - the feeling of drift grew. Moreover, the old diplomatic relationship with Solidarity was broken off and the party turned a deaf ear to Afrikaans issues over language and education.

For the party leadership had lost all touch with its electoral base – not surprisingly, for Maimane's own ascent had, in true ANC style, been entirely to do with patronage and the accelerated mobility made possible by identity politics. The toxic result was that the party not only lost its forward momentum but also managed to alienate Afrikaans-speakers, a crucial part of the DA electorate.

Just how disastrous the era of identity politics has been for the DA is illustrated by the fact that not only has Lindiwe Mazibuko become a venomous critic of the party, but De Lille, Ramphele, Maimane and Mashaba have all ended up launching their own political movements aimed at hurting the DA and Mashaba has even recruited two top DA executives, Paul Boughey and Jonathan Moakes to help him. This could not have happened in the old Progs which could count on lifetime loyalties. But identity politics is rooted in very shallow soil and loyalty to the party counts for almost nothing. De Lille, after all, is now on her fourth party while Ramphele abandoned her own party, Agang, in the middle of its first election campaign, leaving the party to cope with a trail of bad debts.

The DA's loss of momentum and Afrikaans support is ongoing. As with most of us in life, the real disasters derive from one's own mistakes. Much as the DA has criticized the electoral system as a party bosses' charter, the party has been shaped by the same forces. Local democracy in choosing candidates was overturned and the party leadership became too powerful. And it used its power to play identity politics with senior appointments, ignoring mere merit.

It was, moreover, always fixated on chasing after voters it hoped to win in future rather than standing up for the electorate in which it was rooted. Thus Maimane ignored Afrikaans voters while chasing ANC votes which never looked likely to come his way. And amidst this happy pursuit the party cheerfully abandoned the liberal principles with which Leon had taken it from 1.7% to 12.4%. Helen Zille is sometimes depicted as the leader of today's liberal re-alignment but she has, to put it mildly, been on both sides of this argument. She says she was wrong before and has now learnt her lesson, but this has been a most expensive education for the DA.

More than just liberal principles will be required to right the ship. For voters swayed by ethnic or language loyalties, by the fear of unemployment or even of starvation, a diet of political principles is thin gruel indeed. Tony Leon's Fight Back campaign of 1999 was so massively successful not only because it exalted the role of a robust opposition but because it had visceral appeal to people who were feeling fed up and because it promised to represent them in a manner that was assertive and unafraid. Something similarly political, perhaps with a touch of spice and bedevilment, will be needed for the DA to regain its momentum.

This is entirely possible. Ramaphosa's sudden willingness to sell off power stations and take on the public service unions stems from the fact that the political roof is falling in on him. Even if the unions magically play ball, the national debt is mounting and out of control and Ramaphosa doubts his ability to survive resort to an IMF bail-out – which could well occur before the next national election.

The DA will hardly run short of ammunition but, equally, time is short. The party urgently needs to think through the political economy of the next few years and to prepare itself to fight in scenarios quite different from those which have obtained so far. (This is quite different from having an economic policy.)

In the country's increasingly scary economic situation voters are desperately looking for clear leadership, while the government dithers, continues to throw money away on lost causes and looks lost. It is vital that the DA provides the missing intellectual leadership to chart a way through and marries that to a real political strategy. That is, the party needs to raise its game sharply. The old business-as-usual politics will not do.

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Afrikaans in Rapport newspaper on Sunday.