The DA under Helen Zille: A reply to RW Johnson

Geordin Hill-Lewis says historical perspective was lacking in the columnist's critique

As an historian, R W Johnson would know that the historian’s key task is to explain and analyse past events in the context of their time, not bring personal motives to a reinterpretation of events with the benefit of hindsight.

He is not a statistician, so he can be excused for misinterpreting the results of the recent by-elections, in which the DA stabilised since the serious setback of the 2019 election.

But for his analysis to succeed, he is compelled to create an exaggerated perception of failure, because his purpose is to attribute blame.

Without re-hashing his arguments, it is necessary to bring some much needed perspective to his distorted historical review.

The DA underwent periods of rapid growth both under former leader Tony Leon and Helen Zille, from tiny 1% rump to official opposition and party of government, and to 24% national political force.

Nor was the setback of the 2019 election (or recent by-elections) unique in the DA’s history.

The DA has traditionally experienced disruptive setbacks following major growth-spurts -- both under Tony Leon, and under Zille’s successor, Mmusi Maimane.

In Leon’s case, he led the DP into a merger with the NNP to form the DA, in order to broaden the party’s support base and its leadership. As a result, the DA grew exponentially winning a clear majority in Cape Town in the local election of 2000 -- something the DP could never have done alone.

Within a year, the ideological incompatibility between the two alliance partners resulted in the party blowing apart.

The result was a crash in the DA’s votes in the election of 2004, when our support in Cape Town halved, to just 27%.

It took a decade for the DA to regain the electoral strength of its 2000 election result.

It is strange that Johnson omits any reference to this, in his attempt to drive a particular narrative, rather than provide an honest analysis.

Johnson reserves particular scorn for Zille’s successful attempt to bring Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats into the DA -- a move that significantly broadened the party’s support base.

De Lille and Zille worked constructively together for years, and their partnership built a formidable two-thirds majority for the DA in the City of Cape Town and 59% in the Province.

The blow-up between the DA leadership and De Lille only came after Zille had resigned the leadership. The fiasco of the way it was handled under the new DA leadership, and the departure of De Lille to form GOOD, has also cost the DA support as was evident both in the 2019 election and the recent by-elections.

Despite the disruption, this setback was not nearly as harmful to the party’s voter base as the split of 2001.

And, although Patricia walked out, a lot of former ID supporters remained in the DA (just as many NNP supporters remained with the DA after Van Schalkwyk left).

Zille tried to do the same thing by attracting one of the most prominent black public figures in South Africa, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, into the party after she expressed interest in doing so. That attempt failed before it was finalised -- and without electoral cost to the DA. So it was hardly the catastrophe Johnson pretends it was.

Attracting prominent leadership figures, and their parties, is one of the way parties grow in complex, plural societies. It is extremely difficult to overcome the barriers of identity (particularly race and ethnicity).

The occasional merger with other parties can help enormously, as it did when the DA merged with both the NNP and the ID. The former break-up was much more destructive than the latter.

Johnson also blames Zille for the advancement of diversity in the DA’s leadership ranks. He should know that the credit for this belongs to both Leon and Zille, who both sought to advance this goal during their tenure.

It he did not like the particular people that made their way up the leadership hierarchy, he is woefully short on presenting a list of potential alternative candidates. Where are these marvellous leaders? And are they willing to face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, that are particularly poisonous when aimed at black leaders in the DA?

Johnson should also know that DA leaders do not appoint their successors. They are elected. Zille did an enormous amount to encourage and support the development of talented leaders of all races. It was the Congress that elected her successor.

She left a party that was administratively strong and battle ready.

In the 2016 local election, a year after Zille’s resignation, the party soared, and was able to create governing coalitions in four major metropolitan councils outside the Western Cape.

Once more, the party had bitten off more than it could chew. Serious incompatibilities arose, especially in the ill-fated co-governance agreements with the EFF (which Zille strongly opposed). The outcome was reflected in the 2019 elections (when the DA’s support dropped proportionately far less than it had in 2004 following the NNP split).

Uniquely among political parties, the DA was able to face its demons. After the 2019 election it did some serious soul-searching. Following a course correction and a leadership change we are busy rebuilding.

We hope it will not take a full ten years it took to regain our support, as it did after 2001, because there is really no alternative to building the moderate, non-racial centre of South African politics.

Just as happens regularly in the heartland of DA support - the fires may rage, but the fynbos always re-emerges.

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.