Where to now for the DA?

Waldimar Pelser says opposition is in troubled waters and can no longer coast along on an anti-Zuma ticket

Remarks to DA political development programme by Waldimar Pelser, The Blades, Kameeldrift, Friday, 19 January 2018

It might not be the fault of Patricia de Lille or the DA that Cape Town is experiencing its worst drought in living memory. But in April millions of residents of a supposedly world class city will open their taps only to hear something truly horrible: The hissing sound of hot air. Businesses and factories will close down, and some might not reopen. Toilets will not flush, showers will not work, hotels will not operate, tourism will grind to a halt. And when the SABC and eNCA and the BBC and CNN broadcast footage of women in blouses and men in office suits standing for hours in queues to collect water in buckets, South Africans from all corners will ask: Did the DA administration in the city, which is beset by scandal, infighting and media leaks and governs with a majority of 66%, do enough? Global news networks have run stories about the first major global city ever to run out of water. The city is DA-run in a province which is DA run.

The fact that 50% of South Africans already live without water piped into their homes, or that national government failed to do its bit, will do nothing to mitigate the political fallout.

I live in Cape Town but thankfully commute to Joburg, so I can still make plans, at least to shower here once a week and possibly wash my socks. But most Capetonians will have no escape. They will scrutinise the bureaucrats and politicians who only in January introduced higher water tariffs and who promised in October: “We will not allow a well-run city to run out of water.”

Quoted there of course was the DA mayor of Cape Town, although it’s not always clear she regards herself as beholden to the party.

Memories of the water crisis of 2018 - a blue crisis, some will say - will be fresh in the memory of Capetonians when they queue to vote in 2019. And let’s face it: 2019 has been the DA’s focus for years.

In a popular 2015 YouTube video the DA imagines a general election in which the party wins 59% of the vote in 2029, “a resounding endorsement of its performance over the last 10 years”. I must admit I was moved by the energy and optimism in the video. Who doesn’t want harmony, proper health care for all, and 8% growth?

But after the euphoria of August 2016, when the ANC lost Johannesburg, Tshwane, and Nelson Mandela Bay, observers have been asking, and I’m sure the DA has been asking, what it will take for the DA to not only hold on to its existing voters, but attract millions of new ones, lest the DA’s Vision 2029 is consigned to some fantasy archive.

In the cities the DA co-governs, it would be reckless to assume sustained loyalty from coalition partners.

Consider the EFF, whose leader never misses an opportunity to remind you how much he dislikes you. In Polokwane on Saturday 13 January Julius Malema renewed his threat to “remove one mayor of the DA” in order to “demonstrate that we are not friends with the DA”. He added: “We know very well who they represent and whose money they are using to exploit our people for control. Voting with them permanently they will end up thinking we are friends. The DA is a party of racists, that perpetuates white supremacy against black people. We cannot be friends. You cannot be a friend of a criminal. Because you are defined by the company you keep.”

So far, these have turned out to be empty threats: The ANC in Joburg were certain the EFF would support its motion of no confidence in mayor Herman Mashaba and council speaker Vasco da Gama on November 30th and they were wrong. But the EFF has still produced no evidence to suggest they view their relationship with the DA as anything more than a fling. This is no marriage. Nor could it be, many DA voters argue, given the vastly different constituencies the DA and the EFF are trying to reach.

Other coalition partners are causing headaches, too. In Nelson Mandela Bay, the DA is discovering if you want to govern but lack the votes, you have to canvass support among partners you may not really like or respect, and who make no secret of the fact that the feeling is mutual.

But long before the DA has to convince the EFF and UDM to stick around, it has to convince 4 million existing DA voters to stay with the party and show up on voting day in 2019. To reach the 50% threshold, moreover, you also need to persuade six million additional citizens to swing to the DA in order to garner 10 million out of the 20 million votes likely to be cast in 2019.

A colleague wrote that the DA does not need to ever win an election, the ANC simply has to lose. Which is another way of saying: A DA majority in 2019 was never really a possibility. The DA should not bank on winning, but instead should hope the ANC loses, by failing so epically that more and more of its base decides to stay at home, or switch.

Two questions arise.

Is the DA doing as well as it can, given the party’s 50% target for 2019?  And is the ANC doing as badly as the DA needs it to do in order to lose Gauteng and possibly South Africa in a mere 16 months, not considering the possibility of an early election?

Firstly, the DA question.

I'm just a journalist. We are trained to be sceptical, to reject spin, to question. At Rapport, the largest Afrikaans newspaper in South Africa and the second largest Sunday paper with some 900,000 readers who mostly vote DA, we are not loyal to the DA or any other party. We mistrust politicians, even though we realise there are a great number of politicians who are honest brokers who genuinely are trying to improve the quality of governance in dorpies, cities and provincial structures.

We report on municipalities especially in the Western Cape that are well run by the DA, but we also reported in this past year on attempts by DA officials in Cape Town to leak forged documents to a Rapport journalist to settle political scores.

We report on the DA’s enormously impressive record of litigating at great expense against president Zuma and his hopelessly corrupt ANC government, which truly is running the country into the ground, but our readers, who are both white and black but all speak Afrikaans, also ask us why the DA so often merely mirrors the national mood instead of standing up for what they believe is right.

Let’s take the thorny issue of language as an example.

Afrikaans is the third largest home language in South Africa and the language spoken at home by millions of DA voters. We do not know exactly how many of our readers vote DA, but we have reason to believe it is a vast majority. Like all voters, they want corruption to end or at least diminish. They want the sewerage plant in Emalahleni to work. They want to see Jacob Zuma in court. They want to feel safe at night. They want to use their skills to solve problems and earn a living. They want Eskom to be a going concern and keep the lights on.

But many of them also want to exercise their cultural rights enshrined in the constitution, including the right in section 29 to be instructed in the language of their choice where reasonably practicable.

Events at Hoërskool Overvaal show how fraught this issue is. The ANC government has failed to build enough schools in Gauteng for the province’s mushrooming population. Many public schools are in disarray. Only 33% of grade six teachers in South Africa have critical reading skills, according to 2013 research. Only 34.7 % of the 1.1 million pupils who started grade one 13 years ago passed matric last year.

In the 10% of South African schools which are single medium or parallel medium Afrikaans, the matric pass rate is 10 percentage points higher than the national average. 12 of the 20 schools with the highest proportion of distinctions are Afrikaans, including the top four. Among the 20 schools with the best performance in maths, 10 are Afrikaans.

All schools ought to perform this well. Not all school communities have the means, though, to appoint additional teachers from governing body funds, without which classroom sizes balloon and teaching quality often declines. Where government fails the majority of pupils, parents step in where they can to boost the quality of teaching. Afrikaans parents - DA voters - whose schools are often flourishing, want these schools to continue to flourish.

They regard Panyaza Lesufi’s insistence on accepting English pupils, as in the case of Overvaal, not as a bona fide attempt at solving problems and integrating the next generation, but as a punitive measure designed to bring Afrikaans teaching in public schools to an end.

How does the DA react?

A newspaper like Rapport has the freedom to publish vibrant debates on the topic and even take a stand for mother tongue education, which educational experts have argued for generations is better for the child. But the DA is hoping in 2019 to attract many voters who do not speak either English or Afrikaans - the languages of “traditional” white and coloured DA voters - at home.

As true as it is that many non-Afrikaans speaking black parents also value mother tongue education, their views on the issue of Afrikaans schools may differ quite substantially from those of Afrikaans DA voters.

The DA knows this, and has chosen a careful middle road. Its mission is to offend no-one. Midvaal Mayor Bongani Baloyi was quoted as saying the department and school should meet to find an “amicable solution”, which sounds nice but there’s no substance there. He did emphasise the importance of integration but didn’t once mention the High Court judgement that found that Hoërskool Overvaal is in fact full, and that the school acted in line with the constitution and the Schools Act when it denied 55 English pupils access.

Mmusi Maimane was silent on the issue of Overvaal until Friday 19 January, when he rightly criticized Lesufi, the EFF, and racists, white and black. But he has still not pronounced on the controversial judgement of chief justice Mogoeng Mogoeng on the language policy of the University of the Free State in December. If the DA does indeed care about this, they’ve done nothing to convince voters of the fact.

I’m not suggesting it is simple, which is why I’d rather be a journalist than a politician. Our mandate is to hold those with power and influence to account, and of course to sell newspapers. The DA’s reality is currently defined by a balancing act.

But what I am suggesting is that some Afrikaans voters will expect the party they vote for to be a principled defender of the rights they hold dear. If the DA never tells them what they want to hear, you risk driving at least a portion of them into the arms of other parties who have fewer qualms about pronouncing their views on, for example, the language issue.

It was striking to note that the DA lost 6 points of its share of the vote in suburban Metsimaholo in November, and the Freedom Front Plus gained 4 points in the same areas, even as the DA celebrated a slight increase of 2 points in its township support.

Many Afrikaans voters - of whom the majority are of course not white - will likely stay with the DA for years to come, but the loyalty of all voters can and should never be assumed.

Just as we cannot lecture irate university students about what they should feel when they walk past a statue of a brooding Rhodes, we cannot dictate to sections of the population what they must feel about the past, and about potentially divisive issues like identity and language. Convince, yes, but dictate, no.

Voters expect the DA, which claims to be unlike the ANC, to lead, not to merely to follow. This means sometimes saying unpopular things that might fall foul of Twitter’s thought police.

H&M is another example.

Most DA voters would probably agree that it was unacceptable and offensive for H&M to clothe a young black boy in that awful monkey hoodie, but when the DA issued a press release two days after its coalition partner thrashed H&M stores saying it would lodge an official complaint against the retailer with the International Chamber of Commerce, it smacked to me of reactive instead of principled politics.

There was nothing creative or courageous about the DA’s lame response, which came almost a week after the storm over the ad first broke. The DA merely mirrored the EFF’s outrage, albeit in a more muted way. It showed how afraid the DA is, for reasons one might understand, of being seen to be soft on racism. This fear has come to define the DA. Gunning for H&M will, I fear, not win the DA a single additional vote.

So in answering the question “Is the DA doing as well as it can at the moment”, the answer is probably no, recognising that it’s not easy, and that you have tremendous breakthroughs to be proud of, not least bringing Jacob Zuma to the legal brink, and increasing quite aggressively the diversity of the DA base. It remains the most ethnically diverse political party in South Africa. 

The second question was about the ANC. Is the ANC doing as badly as the DA needs it to do in order to lose Gauteng and possibly South Africa in 2019?

As corrupt and divided as the ANC still is, the party’s new leadership exudes a new confidence. The purported attachment of captured billions by the Asset Forfeiture unit, the belated departure of Richard Mdluli, and even the punctual start to the ANC president’s birthday speech in East London, signal a desire to do one of two things: Break with the Zuma era, or create a belief among voters that they are breaking with the Zuma era.

The bad news for the DA is that Cyril Ramaphosa does not need to really break with all aspects of the era of the venal Zuma to reap benefits at the ballot box next year. He merely needs to do enough to forge the belief that important things might change.

Be sure that the party’s new leadership, meeting in Irene, will not be discussing coalition options after 2019. The ANC believes that with Zuma on his way out - however long it may take - it will win back those tjatjarag blacks who in 2016 threw the party of Mandela and Tambo under the blue and red bus, especially in the one province the DA so desperately wants and needs to conquer: Gauteng.

The ANC under Ramaphosa has already started to forge a post Zuma identity, and if it succeeds, it will make it impossible for the Democratic Alliance to continue using Zuma’s many failings as a campaigning tool.

And boy, has the DA used Zuma.

He has been at the centre of the DA’s message for some years now, cast as the exception to the rule that the ANC had been taking South Africa forward under leaders like Mandela and Mbeki.

Now that he’s not ANC leader anymore, the DA is fighting to find a new narrative. Last week, after the ANC NEC failed to recall Jacob Zuma as president, the DA national spokesperson said on Twitter: “Despite all of Zuma’s indiscretions, Ramaphosa has failed to recall him, showing that the ANC will not self-correct and that we can only expect more of the same.” A JPEG below the tweet said: “If Cyril Ramaphosa was truly serious about rooting out corruption, Zuma would no longer be the president of South Africa.”

In a later press release, Phumzile Van Damme changed tack slightly, saying that “The failure by the ANC NEC and ANC President, Cyril Ramaphosa, to recall Jacob Zuma yesterday only proves that the ANC is incapable of change.”

She added: “The DA is the only alternative to the morally bankrupt ANC.”

The DA still enjoys reasonably favourable media coverage, and its outsized role in litigation to give meaningful expression to the 1996 Constitution is well documented.

But Van Damme’s comments on Ramaphosa made the DA look out of touch.

It may become true that Ramaphosa will turn out to have been “more of the same”. It might even be likely. But it is not true yet, and it was not up to him to recall Zuma, as everybody knows. It was and is up to the NEC. Only the most idealistic observer truly expected the NEC to recall Zuma at its first meeting for the year, where no reasonable executive would have made a hasty decision mere days before a key date in the ANC’s calendar. It was never going to happen. The DA looked desperate to link Ramaphosa’s ANC to the man on whom it had expended so much political energy - Jacob Zuma.

It didn’t work.

Ramaphosa is going to make it harder for the DA, and for the EFF, to score cheap political points. He is going to try to undermine your narrative of ANC arrogance and impunity by admitting to failings like corruption, and by allowing a few key corruption show trials to proceed. He is probably not going to act like the buffoon his predecessor was.

You know that he is likely to be good for the ANC. And therefore you know he is likely to be bad for the DA.

Because with all his flaws, and despite the fact that his party is indeed corrupted, he is the face of an ANC that is more acceptable to those urban black voters the DA is hoping to attract come 2019.

Will the million additional voters the DA needs to win Gauteng in 2019 rush to join or vote for the DA now that Cyril is in charge of the ANC?

Some still might. But a million?

Ramaphosa is less crude. He has signalled a desire to act against Shaun Abrahams. He might even engineer a cabinet reshuffle, certainly before 2019. He is selling himself inside and outside of the ANC as the antithesis to Zuma.

Your strategists are therefore worried. What will the DA’s message be now that the line “Zuma is a tsotsi” has been rendered obsolete?

How do you differentiate yourselves from the ANC of Cyril Ramaphosa, a man who your leader said at The Gathering in November has taken his economic policy plan straight from the DA?

How do you address the narrative of identity politics, the very real wants of black voters and the concerns of distinct DA constituencies like Afrikaans speakers without becoming too safe, too boring, too generic, and too careful?

How will you convince black voters who regard the DA as somewhat of a grudge purchase they make only because the ANC had become so pathetic, that the DA has fundamentally different and better ideas?

How do you make yourself the party of education while EFF leaders graduate one after another and so called fighters hand out EFF branded water and sanitary towels to students who show up to demand free education? They even have an EFF hotline.

What do you have? You have highly skilled people. You have top legal minds. You clearly have some good donors. You enjoy considerably goodwill among many South Africans who really are gatvol. The DA gives many South Africans hope that a new kind of politics is possible. Some of your people should be ambassadors in key foreign capitals. You’ve also shown that nothing is forever.

But your task has been rendered more difficult by the election of a plausible, modern technocrat as leader of the hapless ANC. Trying too hard to out-Cyril Cyril instead of selling a project of drastic economic and policy reform to traumatised voters, might postpone the DA’s 2029 dream.

Some of these policies might not be popular. But telling voters only what the majority of them say they want to hear is also no way of winning their respect. Because they expect you to lead them, not follow them.

Waldimar Rapport is the editor of Rapport and the presenter of the live current affairs show "KN Verslag In Gesprek", which airs Wednesday evenings at 21.30 on kykNET, DStv channel 144.