Against the odds, against the prevailing orthodoxy, without significant press support, a very strange thing is happening to the Democratic Alliance. It’s working.
To say the DA is getting it right is an almost certain invitation to be accused of bias. Yet consider the evidence.
Two of the biggest political issues since the election in April have been the continuing Eskom crisis and the ongoing public outrage about ministerial cars. Both have been instigated largely by the DA, whose members have artfully provided a platform for public anger on these issues.
Against that, consider the potential challenges the DA has faced since the election:
- A new, rival opposition party in The Congress of the People (Cope) with the potential to gather opposition votes without the DA’s baggage of being an expression of white, middle class hostility,
- A new leader in Helen Zille, a canny politician no doubt, but whose experience at the national level was limited. Allied to this is obviously the departure of not only the previous party leader Tony Leon but also a host of other senior members.
- The traditional problem for the DA of an extraordinarily dominant governing party, limiting the party’s access to television airtime, funding and patronage,
Against this backdrop, it would have been a brave political pundit who, immediately after the election, would have suggested the DA would have been able to increase its support base, let alone hold its own. We don’t yet know if it actually has, but the omens certainly don’t look negative.
The DA has used its traditional ability to work the parliamentary system, isolate issues of popular discontent and use them effectively to embarrass the ANC. Nothing demonstrates this better than the ministerial car issue, which has made the Zuma administration seem heartless, callous and careless, even among its own supporters. In fact, even if the purchase of all the new ministerial cars were scrapped, the burden on overall fiscus would be no more than 0.01%. Yet, cars have a tangible and immediately recognisable quality among ordinary people, so the campaign is working. Fabulous details have been uncovered, including the fold-away tow bars and the make of the sound systems.
The Eskom campaign has also been a good example of political yap-dogging, with frequent and detailed leaks to the media about the supposedly terrifying internal workings of the parastatal. So loud has been the campaign, it’s easy not to notice that the lights have not in fact gone out for over two years – not yet anyway.
It must be said, some issues have just fallen into the lap of the DA. ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema’s careless outspokenness has been fabulous gift for the DA, a gift that just keeps on giving. The DA’s constituency is just appalled by Malema’s edging-racial outbursts and his faux-socialist outlook.
The leftward shift in economic policy is also a boon for the DA’s managerial class supporters, who equate socialism with nuttiness. (It must be said also that Eskom has managed to instigate many of its own problems.)
Yet, in many other respects, the Zuma administration has been objectively more effective than the Mbeki administration; if not effective then at least attentive, notably about service boycotts and administrative failings.
So the DA holding its own must be considered a success, although a limited one, it must be said. The DA still faces an enormous barrier of long accumulated baggage in attracting black voters on a mass scale. However, Zille’s style is seemingly less haughty and more caring than Leon’s abrasive antagonism, so perhaps some modest potential exists.
The DA’s post-election period has not been without problems, notably Zille’s decision to select a predominantly male cabinet. Yet this may be one of those issues where people say one thing and act differently.
The Western Cape is attracting huge numbers of Eastern Cape residents, partly out of the need for work but also presumably repelled by the appalling Eastern Cape administration. Zille’s decision to regionalise her leadership has been controversial, partly because the DA’s attempt at using its Cape Town base as a demonstration of their superior administrative ability was not a particular success.
Yet, people are voting in favour of Zille in the African way – with their feet.
By Tim Cohen