Where to for the DA, and SA?

Helen Zille explains the best and worst case scenarios she set out at the recent BizNews conference

At a recent BizNews conference in the Drakensberg, I was invited to speak on the “crystal ball” topic: Quo Vadis South Africa (Whither South Africa)?

On the assumption that most Politicsweb readers will only have RW Johnson’s interpretation of what I said, it seems appropriate to speak for myself.

My conference presentation was compressed into the mandatory time limit of 20 minutes, with a digital clock counting down the seconds in front of the podium.

During that compressed time-slot, I set out the skeleton of my analysis.

Then, the next 40 minutes provided an opportunity for a deeper discussion, in conversation with BizNews editor, Alec Hogg, as well as interactions with the audience. I was then able to add the contours and caveats to the bare bones of my initial talk.

The opening presentation was based on the point, recently re-stated in the State of the Nation address by President Cyril Ramaphosa, that a battle is raging for the Soul of South Africa.

I described that battle, in political terms, as a contest between the values espoused by the Democratic Alliance on the one hand, and the EFF on the other.

Both these parties, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, know what they stand for.

The DA is rooted in liberal political philosophy, which I condensed into four core principles: 1) constitutionalism and the rule of law; 2) non-racialism; 3) a market economy; and 4) the separation between party and state with an independent, meritocratic public service.

The EFF stands for the exact opposite: an autocratic system in which 1) The leader controls the party; 2) the Party controls the state; 3) the State controls the economy and society; and 4) Virulent racial nationalism blames minorities for the country’s problems and governance failures.

The political battle for the Soul of South Africa will increasingly polarise South Africans between those two diametrically opposing ideologies.

The ANC, a huge brooding presence trapped between these poles, is caught in a death spiral, and will continue to disintegrate while its warring factions gravitate to one side or the other.

The DA’s key objective is to contribute to building a new majority around the values we espouse, because we believe South Africa’s dramatic decline can be halted and then reversed. We are already demonstrating this where we are able to govern with a clear majority.

In contrast, across South Africa, where the ANC governs, the collapse of infrastructure and basic services signals that state failure has already engulfed much of South Africa.

This is slowly - too slowly - starting to reflect in voter choice. The 2021 local government election marked a watershed for South Africa as the ANC slipped below 50% of the vote for the first time, ending up with 46%, its worst election result ever.

Corrupt to the core and paralysed by its warring criminal syndicates, the party still has enormous electoral brand value. In 2024, despite everything, it will emerge as the largest party once more (if it does not tear itself apart before then). Although its decline and long-term collapse is irreversible, the death spiral is a lengthy one. As Tony Leon used to say in a different context: “The Weak are a long time in politics”.

As with all institutions, disintegration happens imperceptibly at first, then slowly -- and finally very quickly. The ANC is currently making the gradual transition from slow to rapid dissolution. The only thing still keeping it together are patronage networks and access to state resources.

Where the ANC is ousted from government, as it has been in most parts of the Western Cape, its decline escalates exponentially.

The only unpredictable factor is precisely how long this process will take in the rest of the country. There is no crystal ball to predict the catalytic events that will accelerate the ANC’s demise, or what will fill the vacuum.

It would also be entirely wrong to suggest that the ANC’s expiry will result in the emergence of two strong parties crystallising around the DA, on one end of the spectrum, and the EFF on the other. The real world is never as neat as that, especially in proportional representation systems of government.

This system inevitably drives political fragmentation and the concomitant need for coalitions -- a phenomenon that has been graphically illustrated in the recent local government elections.

The coalitions that emerged after the 2021 local elections demonstrate that fact. While the DA emerged as the “anchor tenant” (the biggest party) in 22 local governing coalitions across 7 provinces -- we had to rely on scores of tiny local parties that sprang up in municipalities across South Africa to reach the 50% plus one council seats to form a majority coalition government. In several municipalities we govern in minority coalitions, which is even more challenging.

At local level, the fracturing of politics is resulting in the proliferation of unwieldy multi-party coalition governments that are extremely difficult to stabilise, in order to drive a delivery agenda.

By comparison, in the 12 local governments where the DA governs with an overall majority, we are able to move boldly ahead in implementing our manifesto commitments.

Some analysts welcome the emerging plethora of new parties. They describe this as a reflection of multi-party democracy in action. These commentators have clearly never tried to run a complex coalition government. The general rule of thumb is that the more parties in a coalition, the more difficult it is to run an effective government. In some municipalities there are coalitions comprising up to nine parties. Inevitably excessive amounts of time, energy and resources are spent merely trying to hold the government together, rather than on driving a delivery agenda.

It is also wrong to assume that the myriad of tiny parties know what they stand for, or that they are all motivated by high principles. The proliferation of parties in a proportional system enables any person with a small local following to scrape together enough votes to win a seat in the local council. And in a closely contested election, that single seat often holds the balance of power.

As tiny parties pursue their interests, the inevitable result is frequent “side switching”, with governments changing on the whim of an individual pursuing better patronage prospects. This instability only exacerbates the country’s decline.

The only way to prevent this, as other countries with proportional representation systems have learnt, is to introduce a reasonable minimum threshold that must be reached in order to win a seat in a Council or Parliament.

One of the great risks in the years ahead is that the proliferation of representatives could extend from local to national government. The determining factor will be the system adopted in order to enable independent candidates to contest national elections, as required by the Constitutional Court ruling last year.

What does all this mean for the future of the country? And is there any chance that constitutionalists will be able to make common cause in coalitions with the capacity and political will to save the values and institutions on which the country’s future depends?

This dilemma is best illustrated by the position of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who, I believe, is a constitutionalist at heart but finds himself besieged between his party’s warring factions, without the killer instinct he needs to force the showdown that will lead to the long over-due fracturing of the ANC.

Taking his State of the Nation Speech at face value, it is clear that he wants to pursue a reform agenda, but like Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, he lies prostrate, pegged to the ground by a thousand strands, hammered down by those defending personal and factional interests.

The result is paralysis within a captured, criminal state.

Despite this, the ANC understands that Cyril Ramaphosa is an electoral asset for them. Their polling tells them that their support would plummet even further in 2024 if they voted him out at their elective conference at the end of the year. That is the main reason why he will once more emerge as ANC President in December (if it takes place at all given the dire state of the party’s internal organisation).

The real contests to watch are those for Deputy President, and the members of the National Executive Committee. These are the sites of struggle for control of the ANC. The outcome of these elections at the December conference will define the party’s trajectory, given that the ANC’s deputy President traditionally succeeds his predecessor in the top job. A wide field is expected to emerge in this battle, ranging from the current deputy David Mabuza (firmly in the RET faction) to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, (from the ranks of Ramaphosa’s reform faction).

Depending on the outcome, the ANC’s line of succession will become clearer. It will also be an early predictor of which ANC faction will retain the name and brand of the party. But it does not imply an imminent split.

Even if the ANC falls below 50% in 2024, the most likely scenario is that it will continue kicking the can down the road, for yet another election cycle till 2029.

If the ANC falls marginally below 50%, no major realignment is on the cards. It will simply be more of the same. The ANC will form a coalition with one of the many tiny parties that emerge in proportional representation systems -- perhaps even a few “independent” candidates who become Members of Parliament -- to reach the 50%-plus-one needed to govern. And the inexorable decline of the country under a failing state will continue.

In contrast, the best-case scenario for South Africa is for the ANC to fall well below the 50% mark, which will force it to look for a substantial coalition partner to govern. The ANC must be forced to choose between the DA and the EFF. Whichever choice it makes would be accompanied by the much needed rupture between the constitutionalists and the race-autocrats.

Of course, there is no guarantee that the reformists will win this battle, but they have the best chance if the DA forms a substantial, consolidated voter block to serve as a stable, capable ‘anchor tenant’ in an emerging coalition of constitutionalists, to govern nationally.

Gone are the days when we think of election results in the “Westminister” winner-take-all frame, where a single party attracts over 50% of votes cast. Indeed, in proportional representation systems, which drive coalition governments, any party that wins over 20% is a major player -- a fact to which the established coalition systems of Europe attest.

These countries have also solved the problem of excessive party proliferation by requiring a reasonable threshold (say 5% of the vote) that a party would have to achieve to qualify for representation in Parliament.

The best scenario for South Africa would be for a few strong and stable parties to emerge after the 2024 election -- with the ANC well below the 50% mark. This would force realignment and make our choices for the future starkly clear.

However, sadly it looks, at this stage, as if the kick-the-can-down-the-road” scenario is much more likely.

Nevertheless, over time, the choice between the two opposing visions of the future -- the DA’s and the EFF’s -- will become increasingly apparent, emerging from the fog, despite the messy, opaque and often violent process of getting there.

The risk is that, by the time voters face up to the real choices facing the country, there is nothing left to salvage.

The worst-case scenario is a massive proliferation of tiny parties and “independents” elected at national level, replicating the profound instability already apparent in many municipalities across the country.

And that is something we should work hard to avoid.

The best case scenario would be a strong DA (with over 20% of the votes) as the bedrock of a coalition of non-racial democrats building a new majority to govern South Africa.

Even this (as hard as it will be to achieve) is not good enough, RW Johnson argues. “There has to be a better way,” he insists.

I am very much looking forward to his explanation of what the better alternative is -- and how he proposes we get there (in the real world).