South Africa

The Big Blue: Captain Zille on the high seas, in search of a victory beacon

By Ranjeni Munusamy 18 October 2013

Why should you vote for the Democratic Alliance in the 2014 election? If you went to a SA Institute for Race Relations seminar addressed by DA leader Helen Zille on Thursday, you might not have found the answer. The DA is apparently a small boat bobbing about in the forceful cross currents of a big ocean, the ANC, and “what happens in the ANC defines what happens to this little boat”. Around this hackneyed nautical metaphor, Zille delved into the turbulence in the ruling party – the stuff you read about in Daily Maverick without us asking for your vote. As for the DA’s vision, from what RANJENI MUNUSAMY could make out, it is to row their boat gently down the stream, even though they don’t always know where they are going.

The one thing Helen Zille gets right is how to engage her audience. Unlike some politicians, who think rattling off a long-winded speech is the only way to get the message across, Zille adapts to the mood of the event she is at. Whether she is at a mass rally, where she is sure to show off her dance moves, with her arms draped over black DA members, or on a walkabout in a township, with her arms draped over black DA members, she makes an effort to adapt to her environment and localise her message.

At an event hosted by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom on Thursday, Zille was billed to speak on “Policies and prospects: what to expect from the 2014 elections”. She did not read from a prepared speech but had speaking points – exactly the right way to connect with a highbrow audience at a think tank event. Zille kept the audience captive from the beginning to the end of her address, although what she was saying, by her own admission, had little to do with her and the DA.

Zille spoke of how issues within the ANC was shifting the terrain below her feet. “We have to chart our course in the sea we find ourselves. Things happen that we cannot control. We have to adjust, refocus and plan differently,” she said. “I don’t think things have ever been this fluid as they will be in run-up to this election.”

She borrowed from a recent piece by the incoming CEO of the SAIRR, Frans Cronje, in which he compared the battle of ideas in the ANC to the conflict between the verligtes and verkramptes in Afrikaner politics of the 1980s over reforms in the Apartheid government. Zille says the verligtes (progressive thinkers) now are those in the ANC who subscribe to non-racialism, a market-based economy, the rule of law and the National Development Plan. The verkramptes (conservatives) are those who advocate racial nationalism and more command economy under the rubric of a developmental state.

“The best case scenario is if the verligtes win out,” says Zille. However, although they will play a pivotal role, they will not be able to win the battles in the ANC as “nobody can save the ANC from the ANC”.

Earlier in the day, Zille said she had been attending a presidential coordinating council meeting at the Union Buildings and was witness to “a lot of tension and divergence in the ruling party”. As Western Cape Premier, she sits on extended national Cabinet meetings and has an “interesting ringside seat” during policy formulation. “The polarisation and camps are inevitably on show although they do their best to hide it from me.”

Zille believes that 2004 was the ANC’s highpoint (it did win 69.7% of the vote in the election that year) and has been in decline ever since. She said though some commentators believe the ANC will finally lose its dominance in 2024, she was working on that happening in 2019, as she didn’t think democratic institutions would survive another 10 years of ANC rule.

Apart from being an ocean with cross currents and storms and sharks, the ANC is also apparently a “wounded animal” at its most dangerous in the process of dissolution. The Marikana massacre, intimidation on campuses and poo protests are all symptoms of the ANC in decline, Zille said.

(As you might have noticed, still nothing on what’s happening in the little DA boat bobbing on the sea and getting chased around campuses by the wounded animal.)

Zille went on to list “catalytic moments” in the ANC such as the breakaway of the United Democratic Movement, the Congress of the People and most recently the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). She said the formation of EFF was bad for the verligtes as they made the verkramptes “very, very nervous”. They are not going to give up anything that will give support to Malema. The terrain is much more difficult if you are trying to be a reformist in the ANC,” Zille said.

The next big catalytic moment is what happens to Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. “That is a really big deal,” Zille says. If Vavi succeeds in getting a special Cosatu national congress convened and wins, he will “capture the ground”. However, Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini was “playing for time” to delay the special congress until after the elections, so that a new labour party that metalworkers union (Numsa) appears to be pushing for cannot be formed before then.

Zille says she has to pay close attention to all these developments as it affects her bobbing boat and how she rows it (yes, she was still flogging the nautical metaphor). She says she has no compass and no map and cannot see the shore.

“None of this is under the control of the DA or myself. It is very, very difficult in this context to speak about our prospects.” She said if the upcoming poll were a local government election, she would have put the DA’s prospects at 30%. But the events of the next six months could change turnout and voting patterns, Zille said.

Up to now, the DA spin machinery has confidently been putting out messaging that they were targeting the 30% psychological barrier in the 2014 elections. It was quite surprising therefore to hear the leader of the party saying this might be a bridge too far. However Zille is optimistic about the chances of her party winning control of Gauteng. She said the province would be the “vanguard of realignment” in the country and it was “entirely possible” that the ANC might dip below 50% in Gauteng.

“It would be a watershed for SA politics if it happens,” Zille said. In this eventuality, the DA would work with other parties to build a new majority by 2019.

Zille returned to her seafaring theme at the end of her address, saying the waters would get “really, really stormy difficult and frightening for many people”. But she was optimistic that democracy would succeed.

During the question session, it became obvious that people had come there to hear Zille talk about her own party, which she seemed to have no desire to do. She was asked about the DA’s BEE policy, foreign policy in the SADC region, her reaction to the Midvaal demarcation issue (she is still awaiting legal advice) and the succession battle between DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and national spokesman Mmusi Maimane, which she acknowledged was happening but normal and within defined rules of contestation.

She was also asked about her views on new player Agang, which she said she did not think would make a big impression in the upcoming election, and went on to explain how she had intended for Mamphela Ramphele to take over the leadership of the DA from her.

Zille was asked how she intended to increase black African votes for the DA. Her response was that votes from all race groups had the same value. “We want to get votes from people who share our vision of the future of South Africa,” she said. “It is up to voters. They’ll get the government they deserve.”

From a party desperate to draw black leaders and members, one would have thought there would have been a better-rehearsed answer than that. This of course is a key question for the party, and a business-as-usual response makes no sense in terms of the DA’s strategic vision.

The greatest surprise came in response to a question on how the DA intended to scrap e-tolls if Maimane was elected premier of Gauteng. Zille admitted that the DA could not undo contracts they inherit and could only stop the South African National Roads Agency Limited from multiplying the number of toll roads in future.

This is a vastly different message from the one Maimane has been campaigning on. “If elected Gauteng premier, I pledge to do everything possible to stop e-tolling in its tracks,” Maimane said in a statement on 9 October, and has been repeating the line consistently in media interviews and on Twitter.

The DA is running a high-profile, high-budget campaign for the 2014 elections and has people fanning out all over the country to build its brand. However, it cannot hope to get people to buy into the party’s vision if it is not clear what it is selling. Granted, nobody expected Zille to give a run down of DA policies at an event such as the one she addressed on Thursday evening. But there is an expectation that the DA should clarify where it is going and how it wants to get there. It cannot rely on merely reacting to everything going on in the ANC and let this determine its way forward.

If people really want to turn away from the ANC and consider a party like the DA, they need to know what they are getting into. The DA cannot condemn the factional battles in the ANC and try and camouflage its own – although smaller in comparison – and try to win people’s favour by promising to do things that they have no power to do.

The DA’s primary role now is to react and condemn, which is normal for an opposition party. But if it wants to win power, it needs a new formula. The little DA boat needs to drop anchor, work out its co-ordinates and chart its direction. It will find more people climbing aboard if it does. DM

Photo: Captain Helen Ahab. (Apologies to Herman Melville)

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