Gareth van Onselen says the official opposition is currently peddling a fantasy to voters
Why is it in South Africa we are constantly forced to choose the better of two devils? Choose Ramaphosa, and get the ANC. Form an opposition coalition, and you get the EFF. It is no different with the DA. Don’t split the vote, build a stronger alternative, and you get the vacuous, ambiguous, directionless and anti-intellectual leadership of Mmusi Maimane.
All of politics is about compromise, to one degree or another. But it would be nice, just once, to have a clearer choice.
The DA has put on a quite a show over the past month. Gone is the internal incoherence and infighting that has defined the organization for a good three years now. In its place, an ostensibly unified, well-oiled machine.
Helen Zille is on the campaign trail, waxing lyrical about a party. Not too long ago she warned the public, “The real danger is that the DA, in its quest for votes, may start to swallow every tenet, myth and shibboleth of African racial-nationalist propaganda, including the scape-goating of minorities, populist mobilisation and political patronage.”
But that, or the impulses that underpinned the threat, seem to have been forgotten.
Maimane is roaming round the country, feigning intellectual fortitude and challenging Cyril Ramaphosa to a debate. When denied, he said the president was “chickening out.” You have to admire Maimane. He wears his hypocrisy on his sleeve. In February this year, he told those people inside the DA, who wished to have no more than a debate about an alternative to BEE, to “shut up”. But publicly Maimane presents himself as a brave man, deeply invested in the battle of ideas. The only thing that is brave about that, is the pretence.
The truth is he cares nothing for ideas. He is positively hostile to policy and the DA, as an institution, has become profoundly anti-intellectual. It does not engage in the battle of ideas. It engages in the battle of shouting. It knows its lines, and it bellows them from the four corners of the earth, until you feel like going “okay, okay, I agree, enough now, please just stop.” And, very often, those lines aren’t even its own.
The DA’s manifesto is a testament to how effectively, with the right marketing, you can give ANC ideas a fresh coat of paint, and present them as your own. Three lynchpin promises in that document – the DA’s BEE model, its offer of free higher education and it abandonment of a sectoral minimum wage in favour of a universal payment, all might as well have been written by the ANC.
The DA gets away with a lot of this because South Africa has a Goldfish memory. We remember pretty much only that which happened yesterday. And yesterday the DA was on top of the world. But six months ago, the DA didn’t know its head from its arse. It matters not. All of that messiness has been polished away, with the help of much money and paid-for advertising, and, with two weeks to go until the election, the DA we see on display is as shiny and gleaming as ever it has been.
The party puts on a good show. You have to give it that. When push comes to shove, it seems to be able to push all its problems into a cupboard and, through sheer will power, keep that creaking, bulging door closed. At least until 8 May. That’s an election for you. If you think the ANC being presented to the public in radio adverts and brightly coloured posters is a fantasy, don’t worry, the DA is selling a fantasy of its own.
There are hypocrisies within the hypocrisies. All glossed over, as the DA carnival moves through town, advertising its various headline acts. It seems, very recently, to have decided to take the Public Protector incredibly seriously. This is a party that has tried, on multiple occasions, to get Busisiwe Mkhwebane removed from office, labelling her an ANC plant, who “whitewashes” reports and demonstrates little more than rank incompetence. But now she is investigating Cyril Ramaphosa. So all of that too is forgotten, and the DA has gone to work building up her legitimacy again, lest she should deliver a favourable finding. If she does, the DA will be the last party to take it on review.
There are pictures of Mmusi Maimane and DA Western Cape premier candidate Alan Winde, beaming together as they unveil a new billboard, remonstrating the ANC for not announcing its premier candidate. Fair enough. Then again, wasn’t it Maimane who secretly hatched a plan to impose himself as the DA’s premier candidate in the Western Cape - and then, when the news broke, who initiated a series of internal disciplinary procedures to have the leaks hung, drawn and quartered? There was even talk of cellphones and laptops being seized. Transparency for the ANC, secrecy for the DA.
The DA youth leader, who did profound damage to the party’s support in the North West, on the back of his race-infused Schweizer-Reneke rhetoric is now the face of the DA’s attack ads. It’s kind of like Hlaudi Motsoeneng having a go at the SABC. But, hey, the past is another country. You can be sure, if Zille had behaved the way the DA youth leader behaved, she would have been locked up and the key thrown away.
Back in July last year, the DA launched its election poster. It read: “South Africans first”. It was an unconscionable piece of xenophobic tripe, as it forced you to ask: “Who comes second?” It was soon abandoned, to be replaced by the now standard DA election line, “One South African for all”. The real DA poster, however, was the first one. It has been pushed down the memory hole.
So too has all that ANC praise, a welcome change. On the anniversary of Winnie Mandela’s death, the DA was notably muted. It must have been biting its tongue real hard. A year ago it fell over itself to whitewash not just Mandela’s history but the party’s own stand it took with regards to her. It has been singularly focused on the ANC, as the root of all evil. But it has been drawn wide too. The ANC is its explicit enemy but, implicitly, it is fighting a thousand battles.
The very fact that the DA is having to fight off Patricia de Lille in the Western Cape is a product of a conflict it both helped create and then exacerbate, to the point where she decided to go to war. In that particular sense, the DA is fighting its own demons, at significant cost and at the expense of its ability to focus on new markets and growth. In turn, both the ACDP and the Freedom Front Plus seem to be hurting the DA in various different places across the country, the result of some fragmentation of the DA base, after 18 months of infighting.
But all the DA internal battles seem to have now mysteriously vanished. Now, enemies embrace on the stage and sing each other’s praises on social media. All those disciplinary hearings have gone, leaks have stopped and, without regular caucus meetings, you are even left with the impression Maimane and the party’s various MPs are all of one mind. A few months ago there was very real talk of no less than a breakaway. That too is gone. Forgotten. The show must go on.
All weight must be applied to that door. The cupboard must be kept closed.
The problem with all this, in an environment defined by a 24 hour memory, is that the idea of the DA, as epitomized by its election campaign, is very different from the real DA, which was on display for a good few years prior to 2019.
The truth is this campaign is intended, in essence, to bring the party’s base back on board. This is as opposed to growing, in a meaningful way, into new markets - of which the black vote is most elusive. Tony Leon grew the DA’s black support to just under 3%. Helen Zille more than doubled it, to 6%. But 6% is where it remained in 2016. For all the fanfare that marked the DA’s metro-successes, no significant inroads were made on that front.
When Maimane was elected, he said, if you don’t see I am black, you don’t see me. He was the party’s “great black hope”. But, as it turns out, he achieved the very opposite, and now has been forced to get out both Zille and Leon, to win back those core supporters his particular brand of “ANC-lite” politics has alienated. There will be no watershed breakthrough among black voters in this election.
But he does have the DA machine. It has had its own problems, primarily a total lack of strategic coherence or imagination. But it does, at least, seem able to deliver an election campaign. Posters go up on time (even if they are barely legible) and its ads are slick and powerful. It has totally taken over the running of the party this year, and it shows. The result will likely be some relative electoral growth. Who knows, on a good day the DA might even breach 26%. It will be an amazing achievement, and the triumph of a fantasy over reality. Such a 3 to 4 percentage point growth in its share of the vote, following a decade of ANC destruction, will then be celebrated like the second coming. Really though, you are kind of forced to ask “so what?”
There are a number of cards the DA can play here. Bring the ANC below 50% in Gauteng and, just as in 2016, there will be more political hay to be made. But really that decline, just as is the case nationally, will be down more to Jacob Zuma and the advent of the EFF than any DA brilliance.
As for Maimane himself, he really has his political timing down to a tee. He will grasp any increase as a golden apple, placed in his hands by the political gods themselves, and emerge with the kind of bluster Muhammad Ali made his own. He taught a titan a lesson, he will tell you. Things have never been better. And he will get to ride another day. There is an argument to be made some small growth is the cruellest fate one could inflict on the DA.
The DA’s strongest argument in this election, as it is in every election, is the idea that South Africa desperately needs some semblance of political plurality and the very real prospect of a change in power. Maimane will likely get that too, looking forward to 2024 and the next local government elections, which precede it.
And so, faced with the fantasy, even aware that the DA on display is held together by band aids and stubborn discipline, you are forced to agree. The ANC does need an alternative. So does South Africa. And the DA, at least, doesn’t steal and mismanagement on scale anything remotely resembling the ANC. So, you may sigh and contemplate “doing the right thing” and voting for them again.
If you are of that school of thought, it is a perfectly justifiable position. Probably the right one too. Beggars can’t be choosers. Only, don’t make that mark with your eyes closed. That cupboard door will burst open soon enough. And out of it will come tumbling all the strategic incompetence, factional grievance, ideological confusion and racial-pandering that has defined the DA for the last three or four years.
In fact, Maimane will likely emerge emboldened. And that is if it does well; if it does badly, things could get very ugly, very quickly. Ramaphosa can afford some loss in support if the ANC majority holds but Maimane cannot afford even a decimal point decline.
Helen Zille’s observation, that, “in its quest for votes, may start to swallow every tenet, myth and shibboleth of African racial-nationalist propaganda”, might have been made in anger but that doesn’t mean it is not true. One must understand what you are voting for: it’s not just the DA’s election campaign, but everything else that comes with it. The risk might be worth the reward. But make sure you understand one very clear risk: what you vote for in this election, is not what you will get.
• Gareth van Onselen is the head of politics and governance at the South African Institute of Race Relations.