The end of the party

Jon Cayzer writes on the real reason for the DA’s collapse

When I began working for the Democratic Alliance (DA) in 2012 in a junior role of speechwriter, Helen Zille had embarked on a great journey to reposition the DA as a ‘catch all’ party of the centre based upon broad liberal values.With Lindiwe Mazibuko’s election as parliamentary leader in 2011, it felt like that Zille’s push for greater diversity and inclusivity had been extended to not only elective representation, but also to the realm of ideas and thoughts. It was an exciting time. For this and her struggle credentials, she may be remembered as the most prestigious South African politician of our time second only to Nelson Mandela.

What was then particularly attractive about Zille’s leadership was the implicit acknowledgement that the struggle for freedom in South Africa had always been more deeply personal to black people. She also powerfully challenged notions of assumed white competence head on in the party, with the “fit for purpose” mantra including the ability to empathize and relate to voters.

From 2007 to 2013, the DA became a much more open-minded party and less tone deaf to the daily assault on the humanity of black South Africans during apartheid and the baleful consequences that persists to this day. In the party’s communications (brilliantly coordinated by the former Director of Communications, Gavin Davis), there was a greater understanding that reconciliation and redress were as important as Western-style notions of liberty, human rights, and democratic governance. The party’s former strategist, Ryan Coetzee in 2012 gave an excellent exposition on reconciliation and how it begins with seeing the world through one another’s eyes.

However, Zille was ‘a woman in a hurry’ to steal the title of a famous French-Italian movie. As she worked to fast-track dynamic black leaders, the party began to drift in its public policy formation. The takeaway must be that Zille was right to modernize the DA by working to make sure it looked and sounded like the country it aspired to govern one day.

However, she – as so many leaders do in the daily and grinding exhaustion of public office faced with countless micro decisions - stopped thinking deeply about the need for the party to develop a new economic policy to replace the outdated Mandela era consensus. Apart from education, she appeared to have scant interest in other issues like trade diplomacy, statecraft and sustainability. In fact, as a party we all - public representatives and professional staff alike - fell into the trap of defining ourselves almost solely as being the opposite of Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

For over a decade the official opposition has lacked a strategic vision of how South Africa could look under an alternative government; a theory of change with evidence-based policy making and issue trees like those used, for example, in the British Cabinet Office. Its problems are thus systemic and require a systems-based approach– one which looks at how all the components of the institution fit together. This was evident when the party formed local coalition governments in Port Elizabeth, Tshwane and Johannesburg in 2016.

The election results which it had fought to attain caught it by surprise and there was a negligent unpreparedness for transitions. Instead it only focused on auditing and exposing the previous regime’s corruption. The DA mayors had very few civic leaders with experience under them and the national leadership of the party only brought pressure to bear in terms of media management, with little support. It is therefore hard to see how Mmusi Maimane can solely be held responsible for this chronic institutional stress whatever one thinks of the quality of his leadership.

It is this policy malaise and intellectual provincialism that led to the DA’s recent implosion, and not the modernization project itself. They were discrete elements which Zille has conflated in her mind. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that while white leaders can survive egregious mistakes (like asking Mamphela Ramphele to be the presidential candidate in 2014 without first undertaking basic due diligence checks), black leaders are not given the same space to grow and, crucially, recover from setbacks. “One strike and you're out.”

There is also a context that would be almost indiscernible from outside the party. Zille was a hands-off leader due to her pre-occupation with the Premiership of the Western Cape. She practiced what American political scientists call “extreme delegation” (Ronald Reagan being the most famous example in U.S. presidential history).

Whether by purpose or by accident, this, for the most part, happily allowed other leaders to flourish, more so than under her predecessor, Tony Leon. The drawback was that this laissez faire environment equally created the condition for errors to be made like, for example, the 2013 B-BBEE/EE saga. This was when every member of the large DA parliamentary caucus failed to pick up that they were voting for legislation that contradicted the party’s policy on black economic empowerment.

Zille then stepped in with a heavy hand, as was her right as federal leader. Problems and divisions then arose when this sudden interventionism was difficult to bear for leaders who had enjoyed several years of relative autonomy.

This background explains why Zille and her supporters have drawn the wrong conclusions from the May election result. The party moreover faced an ANC titan with unsurpassed credentials and prestige, and who’d managed to create the impression in the electorate that there had been a change of government.

In terms of the counterfactual, if the DA had added, say, one percentage point to its share of the vote, there is no doubt that the pace of Maimane’s modernization project (to continue the push for diversity started by Zille) would have increased. During her time in office in the Western Cape, Zille governed pragmatically and like a social democrat with an impressive pro-poor agenda. The former premier was refreshingly light on ideology. Nor did she– and the party – attach any significant importance to ‘classical liberalism’ then (often entire keynote speeches never mentioned the ‘l’ word), as she and her supporters do now.

To provide a UK comparison, this erratic behaviour is reminiscent of when Margaret Thatcher became a hardened Eurosceptic after she left office – after driving the Single European Act through the House of Commons and spending her entire career taking Britain deeper into Europe. The Institute of Race Relations (IRR) has become to the DA what the European Research Group (ERG) – and, prior to that, the former rebel groupings over three decades - has become to the Tories’.

The events of recent weeks show that the DA has withdrawn to its comfort zone and looks ready to elect a white male leader, John Steenhuisen. He may have been an adequate if unmemorable parliamentary proceduralist as Chief Whip, but that hardly qualifies him for national leadership. He is no Eglin, Suzman, Van Zyl Slabbert, Leon or Zille - yet. Power, as Robert Caro observes, reveals character when a leader is on the way up. His success will be determined by if he can be his own man and escape the trap the party has fallen into.

The party’s actions show that it would rather be ideologically pure whatever that entails. Even if it withdraws back to its ideological safe ground, there has been no indication from any of the DA’s leaders that it intends to persuade new voters regarding the merits of liberalism. It is internal navel-gazing of an esoteric kind.

Instead, this will be used as a defensive weapon of retreat, self-righteously abandoning the battle for the hopes and minds of millions. The official opposition prefers the comparatively uncomplicated task of governing the Western Cape with its relatively high Human Development Index to the messiness, inherent contradictions and, what public policy experts call ‘devil pacts’, that are required to govern in much more complex cities like Johannesburg and Tshwane.

In its ‘heart of hearts’ the DA has given up its aspiration to govern South Africa and feels it cannot break its electoral glass ceiling. As the sun sets on one of the most important projects of our democracy, it is time for others to step forward and build a new democratic alternative to the ANC.

Jon Cayzer is a professional speechwriter. He has written for companies including Aramco and Uber. An ardent feminist, he was recently a public affairs consultant at the Soul City Institute for Social Justice. He is presently an On Purpose Associate developing a teachers’ recruitment and retention strategy in East London.

Immediately prior to this assignment Jon was an associate at the Royal Bank of Scotland’s sustainable banking team where he helped develop the bank’s financial capability strategy The MoneySense.

Jon is also a former speechwriter at the Democratic Alliance and private secretary to Mangosuthu Buthelezi. He holds an MPA from the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government.