Why the survival of DA matters

William Saunderson-Meyer says strong, centre right opposition, is critical


As the dust and confusion swirl around the trio that toppled the Democratic Alliance into an existential crisis, there is at least one thing that we should realise.

Contrary to Herman Mashaba’s explanation when resigning as Johannesburg’s mayor, it is not primarily because the return of Helen Zille — like a pesky jill-in-the-box who just will not tolerate having the lid closed on her — “is a victory for people who stand diametrically against my belief systems”. 

It may have been infuriating to some that the abrasive Zille’s “retirement” was so brief and that she won election as federal council chair so effortlessly. But her return was not, as Mashaba claims, the restoration of an ideological dynasty.

While the dispute around the centrality of race in DA policy is certainly an issue, it was primarily the DA's organisational dysfunction and disastrous electoral performances — both in the May general election; by-elections since; and, potentially, in the 2021 local elections — that made it impossible to continue with business as usual. Zille’s return was simply the ill-timed tap of the hammer that finally cleaved the DA along those long-existing fault lines.

Mashaba is perhaps the greatest loss, not only to the DA and to the people of Johannesburg, where he was doing an admirable job in establishing a functional city administration, but potentially to SA. Here was a potent vote-getting counter to the governing party’s welfarism — a black, socially conservative, unabashed capitalist who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps. This was an entirely different animal from the African National Congress’ empowerment billionaires and looters of the state fiscus.

Unfortunately, by his own admission, Mashaba got on better with his coalition partners in the Economic Freedom Fighters than his own party’s councillors.

It rankled in the DA that he was acquiescent to an EFF veto on minorities being appointed to top municipal posts. It also caused DA consternation that the EFF was parlaying its political co-operation into lucrative city contracts. And as a successful multi-millionaire entrepreneur, Mashaba was temperamentally ill-suited to having every decision he made interrogated and challenged by a caucus, instead of simply being obeyed by pliable underlings. 

The resignation of Mmusi Maimane as DA leader should have come as no surprise. It’s been unavoidable since the May election. 

An utterly dismal election performance in May sealed his fate in a party that (unlike the African National Congress) demands accountability. The party’s post mortem, which concluded that the primary problem was “a failure of effective leadership”, was a formality that Maimane should not have waited for.

When Maimane went, the departure of his close ally, Athol Trollip, became similarly inevitable. There are almost certainly going to be further high profile resignations and Zille’s first challenge will be to ensure that what started as a changing of the guard does not become an irretrievable party schism.

There is further an irony in Mashaba ascribing to Zille and her supporters an innate racial hostility. It was Zille’s disastrous, essentially race-based interventions, too hastily catapulting into top leadership positions people selected primarily on skin colour — Mamphela Ramphele, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane — that set the stage for the debacles that followed.

Meanwhile, the DA’s basic problem remains unresolved — how to balance the relative prominence accorded in the party’s policies and practices to race and merit. It’s that knotty South African conundrum of tackling the clear need for affirmative action without undermining aspects of equal opportunity and a non-racial society. In that regard, the DA is unfortunate, in that it may be the first post-1994 party to founder on this issue, though it is unlikely to be the last.

Finding that golden mean is not simple. The ANC's stress on skin colour has been enormously successful at drawing into the machinery of society those hitherto deliberately excluded. It has, however, also reached the stage, by excluding and demonising race minorities, of risking the destruction of the entire New South Africa concept.

So, the commentariat’s widespread schadenfreude over the DA’s plight is sadly misplaced. At least that party is wrestling honestly with these realities, whereas the government, business and — most shamefully — academia, pretend these are not challenges which are basic to our survival as a successful nation.

What happens next in the DA is critical to all South Africans.

Not only does good government depend on strong opposition. It matters also where on the political spectrum the strongest opposition lies. For that is the direction of compromise, the ideological direction in which the government is pushed, in order not to lose votes to its strongest rival. 

SA needs a strong, centre-right opposition to counterbalance the threatening growth of the other major opposition party, the radical-left EFF. One of the unfortunate results of the “rally to save Cyril” appeals to reformist voters in the past general election, is that, comparatively, it weakened the DA while strengthening the EFF. Relative opposition strength is important, also, given that within the ANC alliance, policy and practice continue to be influenced by the antediluvian theories of the SA Communist Party and the Congress of SA Trade Unions. 

The DA’s value is not as the government-in-waiting that it egotistically and delusionally claims to be. No matter how previous electoral vote proportions have flattered the DA, depending on the ANC’s supporters’ turnout on the day, the size of the liberal vote in SA is probably pretty close to its numerical ceiling.

For the foreseeable future, the DA’s most important role at a national level is to stake out pragmatic but principled alternatives to existing government policies — alternatives that will have enough voter traction to influence the good angels of the ANC.

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