The DA's Great Leap Forward flops

RW Johnson on the official opposition's struggle over strategy

The DA's struggle over strategy

Over the last several years the DA developed a narrative which saw the party targeting 30% of the vote in 2014, victory in both Gauteng and the Northern Cape and laying the basis for the DA to be part of the government by 2019. Naturally, this involved a great deal of talk about the "terminal decline" of the ANC. Sometimes DA speakers got quite carried away by these targets and even started talking of "winning" by 2019 or, in Lindiwe Mazibuko's case, of becoming President by 2024.

It all made for an extraordinary spectacle: political parties do not normally give such hostages to fortune. The rationale for all this was, apparently, that the DA was engaged in a race against time before the ANC could effectively reduce South Africa to failed state status. The strategy which this implied was a frantic competition for the black vote, with concession after concession made to ANC policy - on BEE, on affirmative action, on using race as a factor, on the lunatic new land reform bill and even on surrendering the party's even-handed position on Israel/Palestine.

To top it all off there came the twice-repeated and utterly bizarre offer of the party leadership to Mamphela Ramphele. In this virtual stampede away from the party's old liberal stance, offence after offence was dealt out to the party's old core electorate in quite heedless fashion. The notion was that while this might cost the party some support, it would gain far more elsewhere. Above all, the party tried to make Zuma the issue. The party's Gauteng leader, Mmusi Maimane, suggested that the big question in the electorate's mind was whether Zuma was as good as Mbeki, with the suggestion being that everyone who preferred Mbeki (like Maimane himself) could vote DA.

This involved the party in reversing all it had said in criticism of the Mandela and Mbeki administrations - the arms deal, Aids denialism, support for Mugabe, the lot - and embracing the whole period of ANC governance up to 2009. This amounted to nothing less than large-scale historical falsification and the denial of the party's own heritage - a quite extraordinary thing for any party to do. In effect the DA was turned virtually inside out in this Gadarene rush.

Reality dawns

The publication of the latest Sunday Times/IPSOS poll has dealt a hammer blow to all that. It suggests that the DA will poll only around 22-23%, far, far below the 30% target. With that, the ambitions of the DA taking Gauteng and the Northern Cape also disappear. The prospect of the DA entering government in 2019 then seems remote. The much-touted Ramphele, it appears, is so lacking in popularity that her party will score 1% or less. Perhaps worst of all, it looks possible that Jacob Zuma might even lead the ANC to a net gain, perhaps even a two-thirds majority. If the actual result is indeed anything like this it will not only mean that the DA strategy will lie in ruins but also that the party has turned itself inside out and offended its traditional supporters - for nothing.

How could the party get its strategy so disastrously wrong ? The answers have to lie in a faulty analysis. Let us review the facts. The DA's performance since 1994 is laid out below:



Gain since previous election
















Incrementalism in action

Thus apart from the extraordinary breakthrough of 1999's "Fight Back" election, the DA has been gaining steadily, adding 30% or so to its electoral core at each contest. This was no mean achievement - one is reminded of the German SPD's steady progress through the 1950s and 1960s when the party spoke of "Comrade Trend" being behind them. In the DA's case this performance meant starting from a white, English-speaking Old Prog core, adding first white and then Coloured Afrikaans-speakers and Indians, and then slowly building a small but growing base among African voters. This in itself was an extraordinary social achievement for no institution in South African history has ever previously built such a non-racial coalition through the steady accretion of different groups. The result was a party which was far more truly non-racial than the ANC and, indeed, the real fulfillment of the Rainbow promise of 1994.

Building such a coalition was not easy and ran right against the trend of racial polarization which the ANC has successfully ridden since 1990. As each incremental step was made, great care had to be taken to integrate and cement the new groups into the coalition, make them all feel at home, listened to, made to feel they counted. Moreover, most of these groups had no previous history of liberal belief and a huge job had to be done of inculcating liberal principles into their elites for onward transmission to grass roots. The strategy was, of course, at its most successful in the municipalities that the DA won, where all groups could feel they were benefiting from better, cleaner management. This, then, was the strategy the party followed from 1994 to 2009. In fact it was much the same strategy followed by the old Progs who had slogged their way up from having but one MP in 1961 to becoming the official Opposition by 1977.

Everything suggested that  the same steady incrementalism was the right path for the future. For it to succeed it was of critical importance that the DA unwaveringly held to liberal principle: such a diverse electorate could only be held together if there was a complete refusal of racial favouritism. As the example of the ANC shows, once one engages in racial favouritism towards any group, the non-racist strategy fails - the ANC may proclaim its non-racism but its clear racial favouritism has seen its support among the minorities dwindle to nothing.

Of course, following such a strategy meant one could not set one's clock by the rate at which the ANC was destroying the economy. One could only progress at the DA's own speed. And that meant that the DA would probably only approach 30% in 2019. If then, because, against all expectations, South Africa's proportional electoral system was producing two-party polarisation. This meant that the DA's progress would become steadily harder because, with the withering of the smaller parties, virtually all DA gains in the future would have to come directly from the ANC. It would be a very hard slog. But, like the old Progs between 1959-90, the party would stand squarely for principles that it knew to be right and which gradually gathered more and more people in.

The Great Leap Forward

Thus the question is: why on earth did the DA decide to throw away this clearly successful incrementalist strategy and instead go for broke by a sudden wild bid for a major share of the African vote - which everything in its own past history said would be inevitably unsuccessful? The idea that the party could leap in one bound from 16.66% to 30% was pure wishful fantasy. Worse still, the party decided to throw away its liberal principles in order to make this ridiculous bid.

Even if it had succeeded it would have had nothing more than an unstable rag-bag of groups which it could not possibly hope to hold together. For Mmusi Maimane, after all, the big question was which ANC leader do you prefer, Mbeki or Zuma?   Yet there is no doubt at all that if you tell the old Progs and the ex-Nats of Gauteng that their real choice is about which of two ANC leaders they would choose, you will end up with a party split. Progress simply cannot be made in that way if the incremental gains of the past are to be sustained, let alone added to.

How did we get here? Part of the reason would seem to lie in the hiring of Stanley Greenberg as the DA's pollster. The fact that Greenberg had been the ANC's pollster since 1994 was a warning, not a recommendation. It is a basic rule of politics that no major party ever hires its opponent's pollster: in effect pollsters get bracketed as being either Labour or Tory, Democrat or Republican. This is necessarily so: a pollster shares the party's inner secrets and helps devise its tactics and strategy - not matters to be assigned to someone from the opponents' camp. The fact that the DA did exactly this in itself suggests a wishful leap of imagination, as if that step alone could unlock the secrets of the African vote.

Mr Greenberg is an able pollster, but look at the history. He helped guide Clinton to victory in 1992 but then in the 1994 mid-terms Clinton met his Waterloo: the Democrats were completely smashed, the Republicans swept both the House and the Senate; and suddenly Clinton was looking at the ruins of his presidency after just two years. Re-election in 1996 looked all but impossible. At which stage Clinton dropped Greenberg and instead hired Penn and Schoen Associates. Schoen quickly explained to him that Greenberg's entire analysis had been built upon a fatally wishful analysis of the 1992 result. Clinton had won 43% of the vote then against George Bush Sr's 37.5% and Ross Perot's 18.9%. Greenberg had interviewed Perot voters and they had told him that they were so fed up with Bush that they would have been just as likely to support Clinton as Bush. Greenberg told Clinton that this meant he had won fair and square, because if you re-allocated the Perot equally, he would still be ahead. This is just what liberal Democrats wanted to hear because it meant they were free to pursue a liberal Democrat strategy - Hillarycare and so on.

Penn and Schoen said this was all nonsense. Perot's voters were natural conservatives and what they had meant was that they were so angry about Bush breaking his pledge on no tax increases that they might even have shown their pique by voting for Clinton. But in fact they hadn't done that and probably never would do so. So Clinton  had won just 43% in 1992 and then again in 1994, this time with no Perot to split the vote, which meant the Republicans had won everywhere. The only way to recovery was to give up on the wishful interpretation of '92 and move to the centre. Which Clinton did - and won handsomely in 1996. The re-interpretation of the 1992 vote actually changed American history.

Note that this was the most critical moment in Greenberg's career and that he was replaced because, rather than face harsh realities, he encouraged the wishful ambitions of the candidate and his youthful White House assistants. Perhaps one should not be too surprised that, advised by Greenberg, Helen Zille embarked on a strategy of huge wishfulness, ignoring all the harsh realities of the past. This strategy now lies in ruins just as surely as Bill Clinton's did in 1994. You might ask why the DA didn't choose Mark Penn and Doug Schoen instead. In fact the two men have now split up but Doug Schoen was indeed the DA's pollster in 1999 and helped devise the "Fight Back" strategy which carried the DP from obscurity to being the main Opposition party. Unaccountably, the DP then dispensed with his services. Schoen remains a distinguished international pollster and is now also a celebrated TV commentator on US politics. (Honesty compels me to plead an interest: Doug Schoen was one of my best students.)

However influential Greenberg may have been, it is impossible to hold him responsible for the DA's ill-fated attempt at a great leap forward. It is the party leadership that chooses the pollster it wants and then chooses whether or not to listen to him. Ineluctably, responsibility for the present denouement comes back to Helen Zille and her team. They have done prodigious damage to the liberal tradition and if that is to be restored much of their work will need to be undone. Looking at that team one realises that it divides into two groups: those too young to have much sense of the party's heritage and people whose main historical formation lay with the UDF.

The UDF was in many ways a glorious chapter in South Africa's history but its heritage is an unhappy one. It was energized by a feeling that it represented all the people of South Africa and that it must have no enemies on the Left. It had no liberal principles at all and largely accepted the ANC's "struggle narrative", a weirdly limited view of South African history and one which dealt in such dubious currency as "struggle cred". And it was completely voluntaristic. By happy chance it existed in an era when a whole array of political, international and market forces were all pointing to the Nats' downfall, so UDF-ites got what they wanted and were left with the abiding belief that if you wanted something to happen badly enough, you got what you wanted. Sound the trumpets long enough and the walls of Jericho will come tumbling down. That is, voluntarism worked. It was the very opposite of the sturdy incrementalism which the Progs had used to become the official Opposition.

The most disturbing fact about the UDF was that although it strenuously denied that it was a pawn of the ANC, in fact it was exactly that - as was demonstrated by the way in which the movement simply folded itself into the ANC without a murmur after 1990. This in turn meant that it would always toe the ANC line - hence its bitter enmity towards Buthelezi and the other homeland leaders, some of whom were obvious potential allies for an anti-apartheid movement. Worst of all, this meant a one-sided condemnation of (say) IFP violence combined with a delicate aversion of the eyes when the ANC or UDF forces themselves used violence. Thus the UDF engendered what Jill Wentzel tellingly called the great liberal slideaway, as formerly principled liberals began to jettison liberal values in order to adhere to the UDF line. Little wonder, then, that that UDF heritage has now produced a further liberal slideaway.

In fact it looks as though the DA will gain in its old incremental fashion - for the fact is that for most of its electorate the die was cast some time ago and the party's antics over the last year will not have much immediate impact.  Once the election is over, however, there will need to be a serious re-appraisal and the question will have to be posed: if the DA abandons its liberal heritage, what identity does it then have?

RW Johnson

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