Helen Zille was right. The time had definitely come for her to leave. Her decision to step down as leader of the Democratic Alliance marks another significant shift in South African politics since the 2009 elections. The formation of new parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters and the National Freedom Party, the rise and fall of the breakaway Congress of the People, the breakup of Cosatu and now a new leader of the biggest opposition party shows the altering of the political landscape around the ANC. Now it’s all the new kids of the block versus the 103-year-old ANC in a rapidly changing world where the law of the jungle is the only way to survive. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Outgoing Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille knew she was not the right person to lead the official opposition when she started looking for other people to do the job she should have been doing. Why was she not the DA leader in the National Assembly after the 2014 elections? Parliament is the big political platform where parties face off against each other, yet Zille did not want to go and contend with the leaders of all other political parties there. Even the leader of the South African Communist Party, which has never contested an election, sits in the front benches of the House.
But Zille did not want to play in the premier league of SA politics.
She instead went on the wild goose chase after Mamphela Ramphele to be the DA’s “presidential candidate”. Had the ill-fated deal worked – the DA’s version of the deal, that is – Ramphele would have been the leader of the opposition in Parliament. With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious how utterly bizarre that arrangement would have been, with Ramaphele and her negligible support catapulting over every DA leader in the country to be in the number one opposition seat.
But Zille believed the DA needed a black leader in Parliament. And if the DA needed a black leader on the biggest political stage, why didn’t it have a black leader altogether? By trying to impose Ramphele on the DA, Zille was actually conceding she did not have what it takes to be President Jacob Zuma’s opposite number.
Now, 14 months later, Zille has made it official and announced she will make way for a new leader of the Democratic Alliance. She made the announcement just three weeks ahead of the DA’s elective federal congress in Port Elizabeth. The timing, she said, was “an advantage” as the campaign to determine the next DA leader would be “short and sharp” and avoids the potential for a debilitating contest.
“Short and sharp” in Zille’s view might not say much about internal democracy in the DA, as how are structures across the country supposed to interrogate their leadership options in three weeks? What it means is that would have to “settle” for somebody already in the top leadership and high profile enough to be recognisable on ballot papers next year.
There is no possible way to sell the DA as a party for all races if it continues to be led by a white person. While a black leader might unsettle sections of the DA’s constituency, someone with a proven track record of treading cautiously and would not swing the party away from its centre-right, liberal ideology would be tolerable.
All things considered, the process to replace Zille as DA leader would not be a “race” by any stretch of the imagination, but rather DA’s parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane walking up and sitting in an unoccupied chair. While Zille vowed she would have no role in choosing her successor, the time and choices available makes Maimane the walkover candidate.
Should Maimane be chosen, it would signal another major shift in South African politics, with the opposition being led for the first time by a black person. On the face of it, it does not appear to be such a big deal, as Maimane is already the leader of the official opposition in Parliament.
But consider how the political landscape has changed since the 2009 elections.
Zuma became president and power changed to a new faction in the ANC. This resulted in a turnover in the entire administration. The Zuma faction consolidated in the ANC, purging all those perceived to be loyal to former president Thabo Mbeki from positions of influence in the party and government. The Zuma camp, however, began splintering with hostilities developing among key figures involved in his rise to power.
First Julius Malema and then Zwelinzima Vavi ran into trouble with the dominant faction. The fallout with Malema and his subsequent expulsion from the ANC led to the establishment of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), not just an opposition party but an agitating force in an increasingly restless nation. The EFF has changed the political ballgame, introducing rebellion as its primary means of engagement. From Parliament to occupying land illegally, and planning uprisings of students and mining communities, the EFF has shunned conventional politics.
Vavi’s recent expulsion from Cosatu, after a destructive battle in the federation, could lead to the establishment of an alternate political home to draw the working class away from the ANC. The ANC has maintained support of workers in all elections up to now, but the split in Cosatu and disenchantment of poor communities makes the ground fertile for a working class party with a real left agenda to take root.
New parties springing out of established ones and offering fresh leadership and new ideas have the potential for growth, as was proven by the National Freedom Party (NFP). The NFP broke away from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in 2011 and firmly established itself in KwaZulu-Natal and other parts of the country. It won six seats in the National Assembly in last year’s election and is the biggest threat to the 40-year-old IFP, already making a big dent in its support base. The Congress of the People (Cope), a mass breakaway from the ANC in 2008, was initially a major success, winning 27 seats in the 2009 elections. However, it went into self-destruction mode a year later and by the 2014 elections became a farce, winning just three seats.
Now the DA has the opportunity to turn over a new leaf and reinvent itself in the changing political milieu. While Zille grew the party from 16.7% in 2009 to 22.2% in 2014, her ability to grow the party any further was limited. Her divisive leadership and confrontational personality could have in fact begun reversing the gains the party has made. The new leader would need to step out of her shadow and establish his authority quickly to shake off perceptions that he is an endorsed puppet leader.
It is not just the parties that are changing but the nature of politics. In an increasingly difficult economic climate, with violence prevalent all around us, many people feel under siege. Promises of a “better life” sometime in the future no longer cut it. People are fed up with waiting for jobs and basic services, and they express their anger through violence. Politics can no longer be business as usual when the law of the jungle applies.
The EFF is walking the talk in such communities and maximising on people’s grievances. The ANC’s response has been to fight fires where they emerge while talking up “radical economic transformation” to pacify frustrated sections of its constituency. The DA has been trying to assert itself as the “rational” alternative with market-friendly interventions to resolve social and economic problems. It has also concentrated a lot of its attention on Zuma, with a protracted battle to have his corruption charges reinstated and to hold him to account for the scandals that plagued his presidency.
The EFF captured the Nkandla issue from the DA with its “Pay back the money” demand and has unsettled the ANC more in a few months than the DA has been able to do in years.
For as long as Zuma remains president of the country, the DA and EFF will keep him as the primary target as his weak leadership and scandals are easy campaign points. But once Zuma begins to fade off the scene, which is likely to happen if a new ANC leader is elected in 2017, opposition politics will be a lot more difficult. The new ANC president is unlikely to allow a R246 million state-funded upgrade of their private residence, for example – manna from heaven for an opposition leader. They will have to find his or her weaknesses, which in all probability would never be as bountiful as the incumbent’s.
The ANC for its part will continue to fight to maintain its dominance and try to repair the damage to its image over the past few years. It will not surrender easily to new opposition tactics or go easy on new leaders and parties entering the fray. The ANC got to 103 years old by being able to constantly adapt and use its experience and power to survive. It may have been caught off guard by Malema so it will seek to put the new DA leader in his place from the get-go.
The easiest thing for the incoming DA leader will be to step up to the podium next month and wave goodbye to Zille. And that will mark the end of the good times. From then on, it will be a fight for relevance, for support and for airtime in an increasingly crowded and chaotic political space.
Good luck, Mr Maimane. You’re going to need it. DM
Photo: Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille, accompanied by the party’s parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane (L) and DA MPs stage a protest in front of Parliament in Cape Town on Thursday, 20 November 2014. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA
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