Zille on opposition realignment and the Erasmus commission

Article by the leader of the Democratic Alliance May 9 2008

Realigning politics from the bottom up

This week marked my first year as Leader of the Democratic Alliance.

In the course of the year, I have traveled the length and breadth of our country taking up issues on behalf of South Africans from all walks of life. These interactions have brought home to me just how hungry people are for change. This is particularly the case post-Polokwane. The need for a fundamental realignment of South African politics is growing by the day.

In an edited extract from his recently published memoirs, Alex Boraine makes the case for a realignment of South African politics to bring our country back "from the edge of the precipice."

The core argument of his insightful article runs as follows: there are people in all political parties who believe in a non-racial democracy based on the values of our Constitution. There are others who have "discarded" these ideals.

Those who uphold these principles should come together, from across the spectrum of politics (both from opposition and ANC ranks) to create a powerful new political force able to challenge the current national government at the polls. Boraine argues that, in order to succeed, such a realignment would have to be led by someone of Cyril Ramaphosa's stature. Only then would it have a serious chance of drawing enough black support to create a new majority.

Boraine believes a merging of the main opposition parties would be an important step in this direction and urges me to take up the position as Leader of the Opposition in Parliament in order to help facilitate this political realignment.

I fully agree with Alex that the process of realignment is long overdue and needs to take place as quickly as realpolitik will allow. I argued this case when I announced my candidacy for the DA leadership in March 2007, and pledged to work towards this goal.

But I differ from Alex on two key points.

The first is his assumption that this realignment should be driven from Parliament, in other words "from the top down."

The second is that a black ANC leader of stature with a large following will, in the near future, be strong enough to make the break and lead such a movement.

Both these assumptions are wrong. And without them, Alex's analysis cannot be sustained.

In contrast, I believe that the realignment of South African politics will happen from the bottom up, starting with local government. In fact, it is already underway in the City of Cape Town, where six parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum, have established a multi-party government and kept it together against great odds and despite repeated illegal destabilisation attempts by the ANC to bring us down.  

In Cape Town, we are beginning to build a platform of shared values that are slowly transcending our traditional differences of race, ethnicity, religion and class - while recognising the potency of these forces and defending each others' rights and freedoms to be ourselves. We are forging policies that will address our City's enormous challenges. And we are using it as a test-tube for what we want to achieve across the country. It is a project of national significance.

Many analysts do not understand this, but the ANC certainly does. That is why they are so desperately determined to derail us, using whatever strategy it takes. They recognise the danger to their power base if we achieve "lift-off" from our launch pad at local government. They want to prevent the extension of our base in the 2009 election because they know that, step by step, we are building a viable alternative to ANC dominance. They know this alternative has the potential to extend across the whole country. Progress will initially be glacial but when it reaches a tipping point, the ice of current political formations will melt rapidly.

When this happens, it will be much easier for a black leader with a significant following to make the break, and lead the process. It won't happen yet, because the political price is too high. Unless they get the timing right, such leaders will be vilified and driven into the political wilderness. However, once a substantial base is built, there is a greater chance of attracting such leaders.

If, as Alex Boraine argues, I have a role to play in facilitating this political realignment, starting with opposition parties, then I believe that I should remain Mayor of Cape Town to do it. It is a better platform at this stage than any other for this work of national significance. We need to replicate these efforts in many other local authorities across the country.

This is not to suggest that Parliament is unimportant.  It remains crucial as the arena for debate on major national issues. But local government is the sphere in which I can, at present, make the greatest contribution to the realignment of politics. And this, as Alex correctly argues, is the most significant project in national politics today.

This is the same argument I make to all the analysts who have, during the past week, urged me to give up the mayoralty. I am convinced it would be the wrong choice.

Over the past year, through the management of the Cape Town coalition, I have come face to face with just how difficult the process of realignment will be. This is so even within the confines of opposition politics. Our efforts to build sustainable coalitions have not succeeded everywhere and some have collapsed, most recently in Stellenbosch.

But when we seek to involve non-racial democrats within the ANC, the path becomes really rocky. Shortly after I was elected as DA National Leader, I went to discuss these issues with Ebrahim Rasool, Western Cape Premier, with whom I had always enjoyed a cordial relationship. I assumed he was a leading figure among the enlightened democrats within the ANC, and that he would understand the case for realignment.

He knew he was reaching the end of the road in his own party and listened carefully to my arguments for a bold initiative to bring together democrats from across the full political spectrum. But instead of pursuing the realignment conversation with me, he chose another strategy. He opted to try and salvage his own political career inside the ANC by adopting yet another dubious strategy (the most sophisticated yet) to undermine the multi-party government in Cape Town.

I have been amazed at how many people still believe the Erasmus Commission is a side-issue that does not warrant my attention. They argue that I should be fully focused on the national project of realignment.

Few realise that one of the key motives behind the Erasmus Commission is to stop the realignment process dead in its tracks. The methodology from the start has been to try and divide the multi-party government through the false claim that the DA has spied on members of other parties, and other unfounded smears. To achieve this, the Premier has even been prepared to lie under oath.

Fortunately, our coalition partners believe our irrefutable evidence to the contrary. They understand the Erasmus Commission against the background of the ANC's determination, clearly spelt out by Jacob Zuma this week, that no party other than the ANC should govern Cape Town.

In addition, the Erasmus Commission breaches key constitutional principles (through political abuse of the police and judiciary for example). Maintaining the independence of state institutions from abuse by the ruling party is crucial to every single South African. And we will fight this abuse wherever we encounter it. We cannot simply allow it to continue in order to demonstrate that "we have nothing to hide", as the populist mantra goes. Precisely because we have nothing to hide, we have handed over all the evidence and encouraged the police and prosecutorial authorities to charge us in court if they have any evidence against the DA, the City or myself. The truth is, there is none.

There are very few politicians able to look beyond short-term expedience. I once thought Rasool might be one of them. The events of the past months have demonstrated, conclusively, that he is not. But I do believe such politicians exist, and that they are prepared to face the risks inherent in political realignment. It will be easier for them to take these risks at local and provincial, rather than at national level.

Much work is currently underway behind the scenes where the preparatory work for realignment must inevitably take place. And, being on the edge of the precipice as Alex Boraine rightly says, we do not have the luxury of time. That is why it is so important to make the pioneering realignment initiative in Cape Town work.

This article by Helen Zille was originally published in South Africa Today, a weekly letter by the leader of the Democratic Alliance, May 9 2008