What happens when you’re the official opposition in a multi-party democracy and have either gobbled up the opposition parties that matter or have brought them in line with your position on major issues? In most balanced democracies, you end up with quite a bit of say in the affairs of the state. But not in South Africa, where the roots of the African National Congress’s national democratic revolution run deep. Here it means that even when the ANC is in the throes of a battle for its soul, the community-based structures, support and loyalty it has built up over the years will see it come up trumps in the next national elections.
For the Democratic Alliance, which finds itself in the unenviable position of controlling most of the non-ANC aspects of political power, and yet still falling short of meaningful influence, the next step is to build up some credibility with the (poor, black) man in the street. This is why we’ve seen the party on its feet and in the street in recent months. The DA has, of late, decided to emulate how the ANC liberation movement co-opted citizen-led organisations, trade unions and other movements to wield the political power it does today. But for the DA, the road has been bumpy, to say the least, and fraught with pitfalls.
At a march last year against the Protection of Information Bill, the DA drew irate glances and sharp rebuffs from other protestors after the party’s members showed up dressed in their signature blue T-shirts, despite the protest organisers declaring red and white the dress code. The only inference protestors could draw was that the DA was there to march for the DA, not against the real threats the bill posed to people’s right to know. An aghast Wilmot James, DA federal chair and shadow minister of trade and industry, took to Twitter to express his dismay that activist Zackie Achmat had called him and the blue-attired DA ‘thugs’ for trying to hijack the protest.
When the protesters reached Parliament, speaker after speaker lashed the state, including the DA-led Western Cape and the city of Cape Town, for frustrating their attempts at gaining access to information. Western Cape premier Helen Zille and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, who also donned the blue T-shirts and marched in the protest, had made a discreet exit by then. But this was not the first time the DA had been made to feel unwelcome at events organised by citizen-led movements.
Speaking to community activists like Mncedisi Twalo, chairperson of the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign, it becomes clear that many of the poor have seen they are only valuable to political parties at election time. As a result, communities stick stubbornly to having their movements be apolitical, which often, according to Twalo, means the T-shirt distributing DA has been kicked out of community meetings and other events. Twalo says DA members, like ANC or any other political party members, are welcome to attend and participate, but only if they leave their political affiliations at the door.
This shows that while the DA might agree with some of the underlying values of these social movements, they’ll have a much harder time branding the movements as DA-approved.
To these and other rebuffs, the DA’s reactions have ranged from incredulous (How dare they? Social movements are powerless without political backing) to the kind of vitriolic outpouring reserved only for spurned lovers. Other times, it has meant ignoring the inconvenient, as it did with the Unemployed People’s Movement’s reaction to the youth wage subsidy, which the DA continues to champion.
Most recently, the party has taken it upon itself to campaign over the shameful Limpopo textbook debacle. The party rescued textbooks that the department was set to destroy, it monitored the much-delayed delivery of textbooks and, on Monday, party members will march to the provincial department of education offices to demand that every child in Limpopo have the books they need, on time and every year. The party has invited Section 27, the human rights organisation that brought the court case against the basic education department, to participate. According to a statement released on Sunday by party spokesperson Mmusi Maimane, what the DA wants “is in line with what Section 27 wants from the department of education, and we therefore are inviting them to stand with us on Monday in solidarity with the children of Limpopo.”
But here, the DA is set to face the humiliation of yet another rejection. Section 27 has turned down the offer.
“We don’t get involved in party politics. Political parties of all stripes frequently opportunistically exploit the crisis that faces poor people. We will march for social justice and accountability of government, but we will not march with any political party,” Section 27 director Mark Heywood said.
So in this struggle for credibility, it’s back to square one and some more head scratching for the DA. DM
Photo: Helen Zille (C), leader of South Africa’s main opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA), gestures during a march in Johannesburg May 15, 2012. (REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)
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