The DA's by-election setback: An analysis

Helen Zille explains what happened, and the lessons that can be drawn from the party's history

In the early hours of Thursday morning, after being up most of the night watching the results of Wednesday’s by-elections trickle in, I wrote a Facebook post that elicited wide-ranging and intense responses.

The post was my back-of-the-envelope analysis of the results, and their implications.

Now that I have the benefit of concentrated number-crunching, on a ward-by-ward basis, (thanks to Johan van der Berg and Gareth van Onselen) I am able to do a much deeper analysis of the election outcome, as honestly as possible.

I will reflect first on some general insights, before getting into the specifics of particular wards, and conclude with some lessons from the DA’s own history.

The first general point, is this: Institutions, including political parties, are very difficult to build and frighteningly easy to break.

A series of expedient decisions, a few compounded mis-judgements, combined with vacillating leadership, can undo the work of decades. Reconstruction usually takes years, where it is possible at all.

In politics, where triumphs and disasters often follow each other in quick succession, longer term trends are difficult to discern, especially in the cacophony of superficial media “analysis”.

It is therefore essential, after last week’s disappointing by-elections, to filter the important signals from the background noise. That is what I try to do here, based on the statistical evidence.

The facts are as follows: The ANC had a much worse day at the polls than the DA, (although no-one who read newspapers or followed broadcast news would know this).

Judged by comparative party performances in all the 44 by-elections where the DA, the ANC and the EFF fielded candidates, the ANC lost 7,8 percentage points in support since the last national election (2019). In comparison the DA lost 0,8% and the EFF grew very slightly by 0,3%.

Read superficially, those statistics tell us that the DA is stabilising, after our catastrophic “free fall years” between 2016 and 2019. And the deeper we burrow into the statistics, the better the news tends to get.

On average, our support grew significantly among both black and white voters. Where we saw a sharp drop -- in the wards where there is a majority of voters that the apartheid regime would have classified as “coloured” or Indian -- the by-elections took place under the most difficult local circumstances imaginable. The results in ward by-elections must always be understood within a specific local context.

However, that is no reason for complacency and we dare not ignore the broader trends.

Despite the fact that the comparative numbers tell us a relatively positive story, we must still ask this core question: If these statistics are correct (which they are) how is it possible that the DA suffered a loss of nine seats, and a gain of only two -- a net loss of seven? Of the seats lost, five were to the ANC, one to GOOD, one to the Freedom Front Plus, one to Al Jama’ah and one to the Patriotic Alliance.

The DA’s gains were: one ward in the Eastern Cape from the ANC, and one from an independent candidate in the Free State. We also retained 14 wards, some with increased majorities.                                                          

On the face of these numbers it seems absurd to say that the ANC lost more than the DA. But it is true.

Let us look at the overall trends:

- The biggest winners in these by-elections were the small ethnic parties.

- DA’s losses to these parties were Ward 9 in Lenasia (which we lost to Al Jama’ah), Ward 68 in Riverlea Johannesburg (which we lost to Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Allaince), Ward 27 in George (which we lost to GOOD), and Ward 5 in Potchefstroom to the FF+.

- Despite these wins, smaller parties are rarely able to win wards. They tend to draw voters away from the DA, thereby usually enabling the ANC to win, accounting for some of the ANC’s apparent gains. This happened in Ward 120 Johannesburg (Lenasia South); Phokwane and Renosterberg in the Northern Cape.

- In yet other places, where there have been significant demographic shifts, due to the mushrooming of informal settlements in the area. Among the wards lost to this trend was Ward 29 Madibeng, Ward 120 Johannesburg and Ward 16 Emfuleni.

But, the greatest warning sign, overall, was the percentage drop in coloured support in the “rural” Western Cape wards we contested, specifically in George and Saldanha. This, I believe, is in large measure the result of the DA’s extremely clumsy and, frankly incomprehensible treatment of Patricia de Lille, as the party sought to expel her in 2018, contributing significantly to the “Free-Fall” years between 2016 and 2019.

Added to this were local factors in the wards that resulted in the expulsion or resignation of DA councillors, giving rise to the vacancies and necessitated by-elections.

Take the four George Wards: Ward 27 (which we lost to GOOD) and three in which we had severely reduced majorities (Wards 8, 14, and 17). Those vacancies arose as a result of the fact that the DA expelled its former corrupt mayor, and his coterie of close councillors. Instead of being rewarded for being the only party that holds its leaders accountable, we faced the backlash from local communities. GOOD saw the opportunity, and was there waiting to establish a beach-head in the Southern Cape. That’s how local politics works.

In a strange way, however, the wake-up call of last week was a positive thing. It gives us a closer insight into the damage we have suffered since 2016, largely self-inflicted. That damage has been primarily political, but when the politics go wrong, the organisational infrastructure is quick to follow. It is impossible to fix organisationally what is broken politically.

This is why our Policy Conference, our Federal Congress and our Provincial Congresses were all such important markers on our road to recovery.

No more “blue wobbly jelly” trying to be all things to all people, as John Steenhuisen said. No more judging people on the basis of their race before we bother to get the facts -- as we did in the debacles involving Elana Barkhuizen in Schweizer Reneke and Ashwin Willemse, the erstwhile Supersport rugby commentator. The DA’s knee-jerk response on both these (and other) issues cost us dearly.

As we begin our recovery, we can also learn some important lessons from our own history.

The clearest historical comparison starts with the political triumph of the 1999 general election, when the then Democratic Party became the official opposition. After decades of struggle against the once formidable National Party, we had finally overtaken them in the polls.

We then moved quickly to absorb what was left of our erstwhile arch-opponent the NNP, and changed our name to the Democratic Alliance. Despite consistent media criticism, we continued to soar in the polls and achieved another high in the local elections of 2000 when we won an overall majority in Cape Town of 53% -- and 23% nationwide. Our growth had been nothing short of spectacular.

Just one short year later, our dream of building a formidable alternative to the ANC lay in tatters. We had bitten off more than we could chew.

Internal ideological incompatibility eventually blew the DA apart. Marthinus van Schalkwyk led his New National Party into the ANC, and the DA’s electoral fortunes faced a dramatic reversal.

In Cape Town, our voter support was slashed by almost a half. Where we had drawn 53% in 2000, we retained only 27% in the election four years later.

Thus began the long, slow recovery, which took a full decade.

It was only in 2011 -- when we won 61% of the vote in Cape Town and 24% nationwide -- that we again achieved the electoral heights we had scaled ten years earlier.

We were on a roll again, entering a growth spurt that led to the triumph of the 2016 election when we managed to become the core of new governments in four metros outside the Western Cape, and govern 32 municipalities overall, some outright, others in coalitions.

And, just as so often happens in politics, we were at our most vulnerable at our time of greatest success. The quest for sustained rapid growth led us not only to bite off more than we could chew, yet again. Even worse, it encouraged us to take ideological short-cuts in an attempt to win the “race against time” to save South Africa from its threatened demise under the ANC’s “criminal state”.

In the process of seeking new votes, we departed from our core values, vacillated on key issues of principle, and broke trust with many of our loyal voters, without gaining any significant new support. In fact, quite the opposite. Voters of all races, who had backed us because they identified with our values, which offered a viable alternative to the ANC, left in droves.

Just as happened after our complex, and ultimately ill-fated marriage with the NNP of 2000, we have to strip away the ideologically incoherence that arose during the past five years, and consolidate once more around our core values before embarking on the long, hard road of recovery.

One thing I have learnt (yet again) is that there are no short-cuts to building a non-racial, principled alternative to the ANC. It is the “politics of the long haul” or the “long obedience” as two former party leaders described it.

One of the biggest problems a political party faces during a period of rapid growth, is that superficial success disguises deep-seated problems and makes them easier to ignore. Hubris leads to poor decisions and attempted short-cuts. This is exacerbated by shallow analysis, especially in the media, whose proposed “solutions” often only serve to aggravate the underlying cause of the malaise.

It takes a real jolt to face the facts: the result of the 2019 election, the Review Committee report later that year, and these by-elections last week have all played their role.

The great risk is learning the wrong lessons from a traumatic experience. We must ignore the media, interpret the statistics accurately, understand the forces at work, and start the long road to recovery. As Helen Suzman always told us: When in doubt, revert to our principles.

These, in my opinion, are some of the crucial lessons as we go into the 2021 local government elections:

When we enter governing coalitions, we must be confident that we will be able to govern properly. We must have candidates, especially mayoral candidates, of the right calibre. We need clear coalition agreements, that are enforceable.

Above all, we should never again enter minority coalition governments in which we are dependent on our arch-opponents, the EFF, to stay in power. The fact that we did this led to the failure of our coalition governments in Tshwane and Johannesburg, severely damaging our “good governance” brand. Our losses in minority communities in Gauteng can be traced back directly to our failures in government in Johannesburg that arose from trying to keep the EFF “sweet” so that we could stay in power. Walking the streets of Lenasia before the by-election I heard it first hand: voters regarded it as betrayal.

The DA’s voters, of all races, demand high standards of the party: Our voters are tough on us when they perceive internal conflict, weak governance, inconsistency and lack of focus on their issues. They punish us at the polls. This is something we should welcome. It is a sign of democratic maturity and we must learn the lessons accordingly.

We have made a good start on our recovery, as (ironically) our election results show, based on the recent Policy Conference (where we reaffirmed our core values and commitment to non-racialism) and our seamless Federal Elective Congress where we elected new leadership.

But we must be under no illusions -- recovery this time around could be even harder than it was in 2000. Back then our core values (especially non-racialism) were considered progressive. Today there has been an international shift to identity politics, resulting in the absurdity that non-racialism is even described as “racist”. Identity politics are a very attractive proposition in minority communities nurturing grievances world-wide.

The retreat to ethnic identity is in full swing and will be difficult to counter. But we have to be clear: there is really no alternative, if we want a peaceful prosperous South Africa, than to build a large, inclusive moderate centrist party, in which individuals protect each other’s rights while claiming their own. We were making good progress, and we have to get back there. Recovery is not only possible. It is essential.

As Winston Churchill said: Success is never final. Failure is rarely fatal. It’s the courage to continue that counts.

Helen Zille is Chairperson of the Federal Council, Democratic Alliance.