DA, racial identity and local government elections

By Stephen Grootes 11 January 2011

Many trees have lost their lives carrying ink over the question of when, how and if the DA will ever seriously challenge the ANC in a national election. The questions usually revolve around racial identity, class, the economy and service delivery. And in a municipal election year, it is an issue that will come to the fore again and again. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The DA has openly admitted several times it understands that the SA politics is about race, that it’s also about gratitude to the ANC for liberating the country from apartheid. Its leaders and strategists are acutely aware that having a blonde leader doesn’t necessarily help. The fact that during its last leadership elections all three of its candidates spoke isiXhosa (Joe Seremane, Athol Trollip and Helen Zille) hasn’t made a blind bit of difference. Zille herself would be willing to stand down in favour of a leader more palatable to the population, if such a person could be found. And there’s been a major effort to “darken” its public image. Lindiwe Mazibuko may have a “model C” accent, but at least she’s not white. And Mazibuko is very comfortable in her own skin about the whole thing.

There’s a tendency to claim the DA has missed the point, is too liberal, doesn’t elect black leaders, doesn’t try hard enough. This is, of course, bollocks. It absolutely knows the level of the problem it faces. It has spent much intellectual capital in trying to get around it. Hell, it’s even run help-desks in townships in a bid to show that it’s not evil. The fact is, that in most African countries it’s taken at least 20 years for the liberation movement to even be challenged. And that’s in countries where racial identity has not been such a divisive issue! The task for the DA is much harder than for other African opposition parties.

Having said that, its core group of voters has nowhere else to go, so perhaps it can move slightly to the middle. But it seems to have made the calculation that getting its core constituency out to vote will lead to more votes in the end than the black votes it may gain. And its calculation is probably correct; the DA has a very sophisticated polling operation.

Of late, the party has scored a few victories in Tembisa wards and one or two other areas. This seems to be a protest vote: people voting against the ANC when they know the party won’t really be affected. It’s a way of saying “We’re still ANC, but right now we’re really pissed off with you.” It seems unlikely it can be translated to the national stage.

For the DA, local government elections could actually be more important than national elections. Municipalities are where it’s really all about service delivery. It’s about getting the water running and the lights working, and yes, making sure the actual billing system works. It’s also where the ANC is getting weaker. By Gwede Mantashe’s own admission, the ANC has major problems with its local councillors, and can learn something from the DA.

Logically, if service delivery is better under the DA, and they’ve had five long years in Cape Town to prove that, then surely they will do better in these elections. And they probably will. Cape Town is theirs, along with a few more Western Cape municipalities. The real question is how will they do elsewhere in the country. The most fun is probably going to be in Gauteng. That’s where more rich people live, and where service-delivery problems get the most media attention. To put it bluntly, if you live within the City of Joburg, and you get a monthly bill, you’re probably going to vote DA. If you don’t get a monthly bill, you’re voting ANC.

It’s simple really: if you get a bill, you’re middle-class anyway, in that you live in a dwelling connected to the city’s services, and you’ve probably been stuffed around by the billing department. You’ve probably spent hours in the queues at Jorissen Street, and lost a few grand in an incident involving a pothole. If you don’t, well, you’re poorer, and you probably live in a township, where life has improved for you. Your roads are now tarred (unless you’re in Alexandra).

This broad brush stroke would inevitably seem to lead to the ANC coasting to victory in Joburg and Tshwane. But the real question is how will their majorities change? The DA can claim victory if it gets close to 40% in these cities. The demographics are against them, but black middle-class people get incorrect bills too. And their children will see how a wrong bill can affect your life.

At the same time, our society is today less about race than it used to be. Go to Melville on a Friday night, Rosebank on a Saturday night or any parents’ meeting of a model C school and you’ll see that people get on better with each other than ever before. The DA needs to capitalise on the shared interests of the middle classes. It’s a process that appears to take forever, until you look back and think about where we came from.

The DA needs to become less about identity and more about class. The middle-class is growing, more rapidly than we sometimes realise. It is also a definition that is pretty broad. Even Mantashe has said (at the ANC’s local government summit, nogal) that in the Western Cape the DA is “fulfilling perhaps 80% of the ANC’s own election manifesto”. That means it’s helping black people. And as that process continues, along with de-racialisation and a growing middle-class, its prospects will continue to improve. The question that remains is how long that process is going to take. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille is mobbed by supporters as she arrives at Cape Town’s airport, April 24, 2009. REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly.


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