The DA pays the price

RW Johnson says a leadership clear-out was essential, but the party needs to learn from its mistakes

Recent events within the DA have led to various predictions of doom. Ebrahim Harvey, for example, writing in Business Day (24/10/19), says that the DA is now in a crisis where the key point “which it can no longer ignore, is the relevance of race in South African society in general”.

He goes on to talk of “the inherent historical weakness of white liberalism” and predicts as a certainty that “the party will suffer much more in the 2021 local government elections than it did in the 2019 national elections”.

Maimane’s departure, he says, “will almost certainly lead to a substantial loss of black support at the polls because “regardless of any weaknesses in his leadership there can be no doubt that Maimane is the best black leader liberalism has ever had in this country” so that “the party has far more to lose than Maimane”.

Moreover, he believes that Maimane has “history on his side” because those who strive for a non-racial liberalism are guilty of “a naive illusion”. Sadly, Harvey notes, “it is not only white liberals who play down race: white Marxists do the same”.

All of which could be termed the South African conventional wisdom. But, like conventional wisdom everywhere, it is highly questionable and quite possibly plain wrong.

I have to admit that I have always found myself at a loss when asked “to debate the race issue”. What is there to debate? We know that biologists say that race doesn’t really exist, that skin colour, the shape of one’s eyes or the type of hair are entirely superficial characteristics.

Of far greater significance are cultural and civilizational factors. I have known black Americans, black British, black French and black Russians. All of them had far more in common with their national compatriots of whatever colour than they did with, for example, black South Africans or Nigerians. These are simply facts and thus not really debatable.

It is also a simple matter of fact that black people were mistreated under apartheid and that many South Africans are prey to a strong racial consciousness. Again, we all know this, so what is there to debate? It is only at this point in the discussion that one often hits pay dirt because it usually then turns out that what is really meant is that because so-and-so suffered in the past as an African/Indian/Coloured/woman they must now be compensated, usually with the rider that the more the suffering, the higher the compensation. (This often produces a perverse competition as to who suffered most.)

Thus the “debate” quickly becomes a demand for resources, special deals or favourable treatment. This is human enough; indeed trade unionists, businessmen and consumers all make such demands all the time. But one is left with a feeling that the race issue was just a detour en route to this, the real business.

But let us take the arguments that Harvey has so conveniently laid out for us. To suggest, as some do, that the DA could now implode like COPE ignores the fact that the South African liberal tradition is by no means weak. It is by far the oldest political tradition in the country.

One can trace a line from Andries Stockenstroom and Dr Philip through the Colensos, Olive Schreiner, Margaret Ballinger, Helen Suzman and so on to today. This tradition is far older than Communism or Afrikaner and African nationalism and it has had to be very resilient to last through two very difficult centuries. The DA is the inheritor of that tradition which puts it in a very different category to COPE which was trying, against the odds, to start its own new tradition.

It is also not true that Maimane has been liberalism’s best ever black representative – there have been a number of very able black liberals such as Jordan Ngubane, Albert Luthuli or, more recently, Gwen Ngwenya. Indeed, the problem about Maimane was precisely that he wasn’t much of a liberal.

He had voted ANC in 1999 and 2004 and was quite happy with Mbeki, despite the fact that the latter’s Aids denialism cost the lives of some 365,000 black people. In 2009 he voted for COPE.

So it wasn’t until 2014 that he voted DA nationally. Three weeks later he became the party’s parliamentary leader, a quite absurd promotion. He was an incongruous leader, vocally rejecting the theory of evolution and thus the whole Enlightenment tradition, arguing for demographic representivity and for making race central to the DA’s notion of social justice. Given this and the DA’s espousal of affirmative action and BEE, it is hardly surprising that the party attracted the sobriquet of “ANC lite”.

This was, of course, in line with the DA’s naive pursuit of identity politics which saw the party repeatedly confer power and responsibility on people with either no, or very shallow, roots in the party – Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mamphela Ramphaele, Patricia de Lille, Herman Mashaba and other iterations at provincial level. Some black voices have been raised saying that the DA set these leaders up to fail.

This is very largely accurate for politics is like any other career, requiring a good deal of hard work, perseverance, learning from toil at the coal face and from an unending study of history, political biography and economics. If people – of whatever race - are jumped virtually from nowhere into leadership positions without any of this behind them, they are virtually certain to fail.

Amazingly, the DA leadership went so overboard for identity politics that it assumed all this lacking experience and knowledge could be compensated for simply by having the “right” skin colour. Contrary to what Harvey says, the DA was utterly steeped in the politics of race.

In all the cases above this led not just to disaster but on every occasion that disaster duly occurred the nominee in question turned round and, with considerable bitterness, played the race card against the party which had given them their political career. Maimane, in his resignation speech, did this yet again, as had Mashaba, de Lille and Mazibuko. Such behaviour would have been unthinkable if he and the others named above had been truly committed to the liberal project or had been in the party long enough to grow deep roots in it. And that is really the key.

The DA certainly wants and needs black, Coloured and Indian leaders but it has to grow them organically, allowing them to win their spurs over a period of time just like their white compatriots. Accelerated promotion is a road to disaster.

Maimane’s resignation was in every way a curious affair. How could he not know that to appear next to Mashaba as he denounced the DA, not only calling Mashaba a “hero” but holding his fist aloft like a boxing champion – would at best seem inept, at worst treacherous?

Similarly, whenever the issue of his Steinhoff car and his rented house came up, Maimane insisted that this was all an attempted smear by his enemies. Yet he never attempted any answer to the questions of “why did you say the house belonged to you when it didn’t?” and “why did you keep driving that car for many months after its potentially fraudulent source was revealed?”

By the time of his resignation as leader this had become a passionate claim that by thus revealing where he lived his enemies had placed the whole Maimane family in great danger. This is rather odd. Helen Zille, for example, was premier of the Western Cape for ten years and it was known throughout that time that she and her family lived in Leeuwenhof. And anyone could have discovered where Maimane lived simply by following him home.

If Maimane had wanted greater security he could have taken a house in the parliamentary village. Then, having rubbished the DA in his resignation speech he nonetheless said he would continue as its parliamentary leader. This suggested an extraordinary sense of entitlement, as if he was able to pick and choose his roles even while he damned the party publicly.

When it became clear that the DA parliamentary caucus would never stand for that he left the party altogether. It was an accurate measure of his failure. In 2014 he had been gifted the parliamentary leadership as soon as he entered Parliament. Five years later he couldn’t even get nominated for the same job.

Contrast this with the case of Colin Eglin. Elected as leader of the Progressive Party in 1971, then of the PRP in 1975 and of the PFP in 1977, in 1979 Eglin had to face the demand of his MPs that Van Zyl Slabbert should displace him as leader. This must have been uncomfortable for Eglin but he gave way with good grace and continued to serve the party in other capacities.

Then, after Slabbert’s surprise resignation, Eglin was again elected leader in 1986-88 before again being forced to step down as a result of the amalgamations which produced the Democratic Party. He continued as a DP and then DA MP until 2004. Eglin was a difficult man – the saying in the party was “Colin is either impossible or abroad” - but he observed the old-fashioned gentlemanly conventions, always placed his party’s interests first and simply swallowed any affronts to his ego.

This resulted in a long and distinguished political career. If Mazibuko, Mashaba or Maimane had behaved similarly, they might all have lived to fight for many a further day, but in all cases they allowed their egos to dictate their conduct. A large difference, of course, was that Eglin had been one of the original Progressive Party founders in 1959 and was completely rooted in the party.

What of the predictions of a black exodus from the DA and the certainty of electoral disaster in the 2021 local elections? None of us can be that confident of knowing the future but the argument is not straightforward. First, it should be noted that Mmusi presided over a considerable fall in black support for the DA.

It was all very well for him to make eloquent declarations about his determination to bring more black voters to the party but he signally failed even to hang on to what the party had already gained. And those voters had been gained under Tony Leon and Helen Zille – two white leaders. So the basic assumption of the identity politics behind Maimane’s leadership was wrong.

We have seen this before with the far-too-confident predictions that Patricia de Lille would carry off a large fraction of the Coloured vote in 2019. Even in her home province of the Western Cape her party gained only 61,971 votes against the DA’s 1,140,647.

No one who has studied voting behaviour would ever have imagined that she would do much better than that. After all, her old Independent Democrat party had been down to 2% or less when she abandoned it for the DA. And historically very few Coloured politicians of any kind have had much of a following from their own community which, in a local variant of the tall poppy syndrome, is often deeply suspicious of those who aspire to be its leaders.

Moreover, De Lille had always been an incongruous convert for the DA. She had ruled the ID with a rod of iron in authoritarian style and it was only to be expected that she would do the same thing with the city of Cape Town when she got her hands on it. She had previously been in the anti-white PAC and then she tried to steer the ID into an alliance with the ANC to fight the DA, which she clearly saw as her principal enemy. Inviting her into the DA was always bound to end in tears.

Second, it is far from clear that the departure of Maimane and Mashaba will see an exodus from the DA of black MPs, councillors and activists. All those positions carry with them prestige and a revenue stream – or at least the future prospect of it. Few will want to abandon that in a hurry.

Of course some, at least, might join the ANC but the track record is that the ANC welcomes such floor-crossers for a brief period only before they drop from sight forever. It is far more likely that such folk will stay in the DA, though possibly harbouring certain insecurities and resentments. It will be a key objective of the new leadership to reassure them and coax them along.

Third, a great deal now depends on the person chosen as the new DA leader. Clearly, having just voted Zille, aged 68, back in as chairperson the party would like to avoid the impression of going back a generation or throwing out blacks in order to replace them with whites. But it is essential that the new leader is truly capable, whatever their colour, and that they take a clear line on liberal principle. And they will need a supporting team for the DA leadership is a difficult job.

As for 2021, it is not obvious that the DA will do worse then than in 2019. Normally, after all, the party does far better in local elections than in national elections. In part this is due to differential turnout but it is also the case that voters care more for a party which can maintain their local facilities and not steal the money as opposed to a notional alternative government at national level.

A great deal will depend on whether the party can pull back the Afrikaans voters that it is currently haemorrhaging. The greatest disaster of Maimane’s leadership was the impression he gave of being willing to sacrifice Afrikaners in order to win over blacks – a classic ANC stratagem and foolish in the extreme in a party in which Afrikaans-speakers were the largest single bloc.

It is true that the DA is in a mess but it should be realised that under Mamane it was in any case drifting towards destruction and that a leadership clear-out was essential. But the party also needs to think hard about the bizarre and naive decisions it took about its leadership in 2014-15, first trying to hand the party over to Mamphela Ramphaele though she refused even to join the DA, then actually handing it over to Maimane without the least prospect that he could make a success of the job. These were crazy decisions and the full price for them is still being paid.

RW Johnson