The DA spins its wheels

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on the predicament of the official opposition


The May 8 general elections are still being spun by the various parties to best flatter themselves. Almost everyone has been able to torture some solace from the figures.

The African National Congress consoles itself that its 58% is “only” four points down, citing as explanation what President Cyril Ramaphosa called “nine wasted years” under President Jacob Zuma. While this is admittedly a light rap on the knuckles by the electorate, it suffices, Ramaphosa and his media fans sagely agree, to be interpreted as the New Dawn mandate that the beleaguered president needed.

Some in the ANC have surreptitiously tried to share in the unalloyed success of their renegade offshoot, the Economic Freedom Fighters, which doubled its share to 11%. As they justifiably point out, if the two parties vote together — or merge — they would command the kind of constitution-changing majorities that the ANC last had in the heyday of President Thabo Mbeki.

Over 25 years and six general elections, the ANC has proven the remarkable solidity of its vote, which before now had never dipped below 62% nationally. Compare this with neighbouring Zimbabwe, where after only 20 years, the governing Zanu-PF faced political annihilation.

In the 2000 Zimbabwean election — shamefully proclaimed “free and fair” by South Africa, despite a sustained campaign of intimidatory violence by Zanu-PF and the security forces — the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) came within a hairsbreadth of winning power. It took 57 of the 100 contested seats and was thwarted only by a constitutionally tolerated con-trick, whereby the 30 additional seats reserved for presidential and tribal appointees all went to Zanu-PF loyalists.

The MDC’s growth was ignited by Zim’s spectacular economic collapse, triggered by land expropriation without compensation. In SA, despite fragile economic circumstances and looming land expropriation, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has not, as yet, benefited from a mass rejection of the governing party.

Nor does the official opposition make it easy for itself. The DA’s response to losing a few hundred thousand votes to the Freedom Front Plus has been foolishly petulant. It basically has said, “good riddance to bad rubbish” — we don’t want the votes of racist white nationalists. 

It’s childish behaviour. In a grown-up world, politicians often must make deals with the devil in order to access power — or in Ramaphosa’s case, deals with the Zuma faction — and none can afford to be too judgemental about those who vote for them. All that matters is that whatever the origin or motivation of their supporters, the party remains true to its values.  

The DA should know this better than most. After all, it previously managed to retain its core liberal identity despite an influx of former National Party, white, mostly Afrikaner, voters. In 1994, its predecessor, the Democratic Party (DP), drew a derisory 340,000 votes. With the collapse of the Nats, that soared to more than 1.5m in the next general election.

In the 2004 election, when the Nats' successor, the New National Party, joined the DP to form the DA, support rose further, to just under 2m. There is no evidence that these mostly white, Coloured and Indian new supporters — who now outnumbered the old guard liberals by six to one — in any way diluted the DA’s core principles.

On the contrary, it is the passionately argued perception of this very same group, many of whom voted FF+ last week, that it is, in fact, the party’s own leadership that watered down  DA principles. They did so by trying desperately to attract black voters from the ANC by offering them a race-based muddle of policies. 

What makes the DA response particularly misguided is that the majority of those who turned to the FF+ on May 8 did so to register a protest and likely could have been won back. That is, had the DA not chosen to smear them as racist scum.

There are those who believe that ANC-lite policies might have worked, had it not been for the DA’s infighting, poor leadership, and their treatment of Patricia De Lille, who hived off to found Good. In other words, it was not the DA policy so much as the DA leadership, that was at fault this time around.

The DA's woes are of concern not only to the party's supporters. It would be a tragedy for SA’s democracy if the biggest and most capable of governing of the opposition parties has hit the ceiling of its growth. We need the genuine prospect of a change of government to keep the ANC vaguely honest.

The problem, however, goes beyond Mmusi Maimane’s poor leadership. The DA is on the horns of a demographic dilemma in that most of its support is from racial minorities but, to challenge for power, it needs to attract substantial numbers of black votes.

Despite — or because of — ANC-lite policies, it is not doing so. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research this week released an analysis that showed the DA actually lost support in black townships such as Soweto, Alexandra, Diepsloot, Khayelitsha, and Langa. It also lost Coloured voters to Good and to the African Christian Democratic Party. 

And for as long as voting in SA continues almost exactly to replicate race, the DA will always be on a hiding to nothing.

In 1994, SA’s population was 38.6m, of which the minorities that tend to support the DA was about 25%. Last year the population hit 57.7m ( it is now 58.3m), of which the ANC-leaning black portion has increased from 29.5m to 45.9m, shrinking the minorities to 19% of the total.

It's not only a matter of natural population growth. It is the minorities who, proportionately, have been emigrating in the largest numbers, with between 700,000-1m whites having left.

It's not all gloom if the DA could pull itself together. There is every statistical indication that there is an enormous number of black South Africans who are alienated from the ANC but have been unable to find a political home.

This can be seen in a steadily falling number of new voter registrations and voter turnouts. Fewer black people are registering to vote and more of those who do register, don’t actually turn out on polling day.

That’s dramatically obvious when one looks not at ANC percentages, but actual votes received.  In 1994, the ANC 12.2m votes. In this election, it was only 10m, yet the party remains electorally unassailable. The DA, in comparison, had increased its support, both in percentages and absolute numbers, in every election until now.  

No doubt the DA will do a lot of navel-gazing as to why it is now spinning its wheels and not drawing these critical, floating voters. An optimist will hope that some kind of spontaneous coalition of opposition parties — drawing in the likes of the United Democratic Movement, the Congress of the People, Good, ACDP and, yes, FF+ — might save the day. Or that the ANC will again split and the moderate portion will align with the DA.

A pessimist might conclude that neither of those scenarios is like and, in fact, it probably doesn’t matter what the DA does. For things to change, it might take the same kind of cataclysmic national wake-up call that roused MDC supporters. 

But, most likely, as long as the ANC can dodge steering SA head-on into the economic buffers or the occurrence of a similarly destructive event, the ANC is set to retain a comfortable parliamentary majority long into the future. 

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