The DA's mid-life crisis

RW Johnson writes on what the official opposition needs to do to rejuvenate itself

The DA, fairly clearly, is heading towards a crisis. All the signs are bad – poor polls, indifferent by-election results, great popular discontent over the handling of matters in Cape Town, a general malaise. In a way this was inevitable. The party has been on a smooth upward curve ever since Tony Leon took over the shattered remains of the DP in 1994 and was continued under Helen Zille through the 2014 elections. That movement peaked with the 2016 local elections. Twenty-two years is a very long time for a party to maintain an unbroken upward momentum.

Perhaps the only comparable period was 1949-72 for the SPD, the German Social Democrats who were wont to talk of “comrade trend”, so habituated does a party become to regular gains. But a break has to come.

As things stand the party is heading towards a fall in its share of the vote in 2019. This will be traumatic. There will be much soul-searching and, very likely, a general clear-out at the top of the party. This may be no bad thing: any party needs such moments of fundamental re-assessment from time to time. However difficult that moment is, there is no alternative but to pick oneself up and go on.

The DA is the only possible Official Opposition which is to say, the only possible alternative government. It is true that the media has been hideously unfair to the DA since the advent of Ramaphosa but then it was at least as unfair under Mandela, perhaps more so, but at the end of that period in 1999 the Leon-led DP more than quintupled its vote. This is what the DA faces – life under a hegemonic party which the media is scared of and curtsies before. Such behaviour is despicable but the point is to carry your case to the voters like Leon did and confound the media.

Several things are already evident about that necessary re-assessment.

1. The party cannot afford a leadership which is not financially and economically fully literate. We are moving into a period which will be dominated by the political economy of credit ratings, bond rates, unemployment, IMF bailouts and wider economic policy. The era when the party could afford a leadership which talked mainly about race matters is over.

2. The party also needs a far more collective, co-ordinated leadership. At present the leader and his shadow cabinet all give their own speeches with no sign of co-ordination at all. This is just as bad as the ANC, where all sign of proper collective Cabinet government disappeared long ago.

3. The party has drifted a long way from being a proper liberal party. As it becomes increasingly multi-racial a common ideology is essential and there is no alternative to liberalism: a wishy-washy ANC-lite mish-mash earns general contempt and anyway offends against a very basic law of politics, as evidenced by the example below.

In 1974 the Scottish Nationalists made their initial breakthrough. This panicked both the Tories and Labour which sought to head off this new threat by adopting policies of devolution to Scottish and Welsh parliaments. All they did was to legitimate the demands of the Nationalists: after all, if you wanted greater autonomy, why not vote for the real thing? This has ended up with a Scottish parliament dominated by the SNP.

If you want a South African example, look at the old United Party. Intimidated by the swart gevaar tactics of the Nats, the UP tried desperately to prove to voters that it was just as concerned as the Nats to maintain “white leadership with justice”. Not surprisingly voters opted either for the white supremacist real McCoy – the Nats – or a party which flatly opposed it, the Progs.

The same applies here. If what you want is “transformation”, unlimited affirmative action, black economic empowerment and to “confront white privilege and black poverty” - when the whole point since 1994 has been the confrontation between black poverty and the soaring wealth of the black elite – then why not go the whole hog and vote ANC or EFF?

The DA has to stand for something different, for its own distinctive values. In this it has a majority on its side. All the polls show that huge majorities are far more concerned with jobs, not race, that black voters prefer “appointment on merit” to affirmative action. What the DA has not understood is that the black elite cares passionately about BEE, affirmative action and so on – but it is wholly unrepresentative. To connect to the majority of black voters one has to ignore that elite.

4. The DA has to apply these lessons to itself. Everyone wants diversity but it must select all important positions on merit, irrespective of race. It should never forget that its 20 year advance of 1994-2014 was achieved under white leadership when, by 2014, that meant a DA vote of over 22% as against a white population of 8%-9%. Voters too recognise merit ahead of race. And voters spot merit (or the lack of it) quickly. They are not patient if they get second-best.

5. Finally, and most important of all, the DA has to change into being more of a grass roots party. It has become an excessively top-down party, the exact opposite of what a proper liberal party ought to be. As with other mis-steps this is not all the fault of the current leadership – under both Leon and Zille an increasing democratic centralism became apparent in the all-important business of candidate selection. In the old days, remember, Leon got his chance because the DP constituency party in Houghton voted for him as candidate against the candidate of the Establishment. Democracy in action.

That would not be possible today. The party leadership, finding itself in an electoral system which confers all power on the party bosses, has decided to legislate the same principle into the structure of the DA. The electoral college of each province no longer chooses candidates, it merely makes recommendations to the centre. Democratic centralism, DA-style.

An even greater abomination is that an outside consultancy, Deloitte & Touche, is then hired at great expense to tell every federation what questions it may ask of candidates. Just as bad, Stanley Greenberg, who has spent twenty years as the ANC’s pollster is then hired to be the DA pollster. That could never happen in a mature democracy. Pollsters take on the coloration of the parties they advise. The DA might just as well have hired Essop Pahad or Ace Magashule to advise them.

These things happened for understandable reasons but they were not only wrong, they show a fundamental confusion of mind. It ends up with Mmusi Maimane saying he wants to transform the DA benches by appointing a whole lot more black candidates. This is simply not his job, nor ever should be. Local parties should choose who they want to represent them, black, white or brown. Merit, not colour.

In a liberal party the business of leadership is to insist on an overall liberal ideology for the whole party and to co-ordinate what the party’s grass roots have thrown up. Of course there are all sorts of compelling reasons why the leadership feels tempted to intervene beyond that but they all bear the price of emasculating the grass roots upon which the party ultimately depends.

Better to begin at the other end. Liberal activists need to be active in their local communities, working to set up PTAs, to make local schools better and more responsive, doing the same with local hospitals and other facilities, taking up local issues of very kind.

In the process of doing this the local community recognizes the worth of its local leaders, sees the improvement in its own life as a result and the improvement of community spirit which comes from that. Inevitably, those local leaders become councillors and MPs. That is how local democracy should work and this is the very heart of liberal democracy.

At present the only party doing this sort of thing in South Africa is the EFF and it is perhaps no accident that time and again the EFF has wrong-footed the DA, giving a lead which the DA is forced to follow. Yet this is not a new tactic. A few DA leaders like Mike Waters came up this way. This is how Peter Hain re-invigorated the British Liberals in the 1970s – they became famous for their “community politics”. But even then this was not new – it was the way in which Herbert Morrison had built the London Labour party into an irresistible machine in the 1920s and 1930s.

In other words, the DA needs to enfranchise its grass roots and try to get them to make every DA area better run and better governed – not just Cape Town but everywhere. There is no doubt that this works, that local people notice the difference and see in it the best reason for voting DA, as do all the surrounding areas.

What goes with this, however, is a recognition and acceptance of what that local democracy throws up. The party leadership should insist only on liberal principles and on gathering all these local spirits together to provide a real national alternative.

At present the DA leadership is nearly the opposite. It intervenes heavily to influence local candidate selection and even declares its ambition to nudge it heavily in a particular racial direction, which is the opposite of what a liberal party, respecting its grass roots, should do. This is further exemplified by a leader who attempts to take over (and extinguish) local democracy in the DA centre of Cape Town, insisting that he and not local politicians, will manage and speak about the local water crisis. This was then followed up by ordering the local DA politicians to shut up about their own city budget and then about the city’s leadership.

If local councillors are to have any purpose at all they must pay sharp attention to their own city’s budget and to its leadership. Telling councillors that they should not discuss these questions is tantamount to arguing for the abolition of local democracy altogether. This ought to be anathema to any liberal politician. It is too centralist even for the ANC. Mmusi Maimane was, of course, an ANC man before he was DA and one has to say that his habits of mind are still far more ANC than they are liberal.

Gradually, over a period of years, the party leadership has placed one restriction after another on the way its local branches are able to choose their own candidates for Parliament and the provincial assemblies. Yet this is the very life blood of local democracy in any party. If local branches cannot have the decisive voice in choosing their own representatives, what are they supposed to be for at all? In effect that key characteristic of Communist Parties and the ANC, democratic centralism, has been making great strides within the DA.

This is, indeed, part of the process in which the DA has begun to resemble the ANC to a quite uncomfortable degree. Thus the citizens of North West have made it abundantly clear that they do not want Supra Mahumapelo but instead of that being decisive, the question then goes to Luthuli House, the NEC and the Top Six where interests and lobbies that have nothing to do with the North West predominate. But how different has Cape Town been? For a long time now it is clear that a majority of DA councillors do not want De Lille as their mayor. That alone should have been decisive. Instead the matter endlessly involves the DA Chief Whip, an enquiry by an outside law firm, the DA leader and the party’s Federal Executive. Both parties seem determined not to let local democracy operate. Had it done so, it is likely that the Cape Town DA caucus would never have selected De Lille for a second term as mayor in 2016.

This is, indeed, the pivotal point from which any renewal of the DA will have to proceed - active community politics and greater local democracy. Of course some of the results of that will be inconvenient for the party bosses but the result would be the rejuvenation of the party’s branches and the successful drawing in of new members all over the country as a result of successful local actions and initiatives. And that, in the end, is far more valuable.

The party bosses need to reflect on the fact that they are rather in the position of soccer club directors and managers. They may be the important people who take the big decisions but at the end of the day the club is wholly dependent on its fans. They buy the tickets, fill the stands, buy the promotional kits, travel to support the club away from home, give their unstinting support. Without them there simply is no club. Parties are the same. Without the voters and without their party activists, they simply don’t exist at all. Their centrality has to be reflected in the spirit and the regular practice of the party in which the watchwords have to be democracy, subsidiarity and responsibility.

RW Johnson