South Africa

The rumble in the DA’s jungle – and the future of the opposition

By Ranjeni Munusamy 7 May 2015

There was a time when opposition politics in South Africa was rather pedestrian. All the drama and intrigue was inside the ANC, with factions going head to head in various succession battles. For the first time, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is caught up in a divisive leadership race and the ANC is a distant, somewhat disinterested observer. As the DA undergoes a leadership makeover, the structure and role of opposition politics is changing too. Candidate Maimane or Candidate James could lead the newly configured opposition or get carried away by it. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

Remember when the Congress of the People (Cope) was the biggest thing to happen to opposition politics? Remember too when the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) was a serious player – serious enough for its lifelong leader and senior party members to be included in the Cabinet? And remember when Mamphela Ramphele burst onto the political scene aiming to be the next big thing?

The political machine is ruthless, and if you’re over the hill or don’t know what you’re doing, you can be chewed up and spat out. Within a few years, Cope went from being the biggest threat to the ANC to a negligible voice in Parliament. The IFP continues to its downward slide, with the ANC and upstart National Freedom Party chomping at its support base. Ramphele has been dispatched into the political wilderness, her short foray in politics serving as a lesson in how not to fall for your own propaganda.

While the ANC majority still appears indomitable for any opposition party, the changing scene could alter the balance of power over the next few years. The emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), displacing Cope as the second biggest opposition party in Parliament, shows how quickly things can change. The EFF is competing with the DA to be the stronger opposition voice, even though its representation is smaller. It has introduced a new spirit of defiance, which has disorientated the ANC and resonated on the ground.

After several years as a somewhat sedate party, the DA is now in the throes of a leadership race as it tries to adapt to changing dynamics in society and a tougher economic and political climate. The fissures that have been exposed in the DA show that they are no different from any other political organisation in terms of factional clashes and internal ructions, despite concerted attempts to project themselves as a cohesive and squeaky-clean unit. Within two weeks of Helen Zille’s announcement that she was stepping down, what appeared to be a reluctant gentlemen’s duel has turned into a messy brawl.

The camps around Mmusi Maimane and Wilmot James have gone to war within a short period of time, despite Zille’s attempt to avoid a divisive battle by announcing her decision to quit so close to the elective congress. The latest salvo in the battle is an opinion piece by Maimane’s campaign manager Geordin Hill-Lewis aimed at exposing James as a flip-flopper on issues such as Black Economic Empowerment and the National Development Plan. He said James’s claim to be a “liberal stalwart” rang hollow as he had never been a member of the Democratic Party or any of its predecessors, only joining the DA in 2008.

James retorted in a statement saying the Maimane camp had promised to run a “positive campaign”. “Under pressure after losing the leadership debate on Kyknet, Mmusi Maimane’s campaign has finally gone negative. This represents a major about-turn in Mmusi Maimane’s campaign strategy, which, up to this point, has been positive,” James said.

“If Mmusi Maimane has something to say about this issue, then he should have the courage to say it himself, rather than hiding behind a proxy,” he said.

In a few days, the DA’s leadership question will be decided and the two factions will have to try to put the genie back in the bottle to work together as a caucus. There will no doubt be a magnanimous gesture from the winning leader – you do not have to be a gypsy to see a tall, dark and handsome man in the future – to reach across the divide and embrace the opponent’s camp. And it is also a safe bet to assume that Zille’s valedictory speech will contain an ardent wish that the party reunites and ends all forms of divisiveness.

That will be easier said than done. The newly elected leadership will have to rise above the internal squabbles and deal with the challenges around them, particularly with the approach of the 2016 local government elections. One of the major challenges is the competition in the opposition space. Besides the EFF and its militant agenda, the DA has to contend with new opposition activity outside parliamentary politics.

The split in Cosatu and mission by its axed general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi to stir things up on the ground means that a new group will be on the attack. Since Vavi, leaders of metalworkers union Numsa and activists in the United Front will for the first time by taking on the ANC, it is likely that they will hog a significant amount of airtime. While there is as yet no certainty about what level of participation they will have in the 2016 elections, this group will certainly look to go on the attack when the ANC is vulnerable.

The 2016 election will be the EFF’s first local government campaign and they will also seek to shake things up to target their core support base of people fed up with the ANC. With militant speak and campaigns to challenge the status quo, they too will be out to monopolise attention.

The ANC is well aware of its vulnerabilities in the 2016 elections. Last year’s election results was a major shock, particularly the party’s performance in the metros. The ANC will direct its machinery to target areas where they are susceptible to losing their majority status.

Next year’s election is therefore bound to be the most competitive we have seen up to now. It will require parties to close ranks and make strategic deployments to campaign across the country. National leaders will be the biggest draw-cards, but they will also need provincial and local leaders to work as a united force.

But it is what happens after the elections that will be most fascinating. In areas where there are no clear winners or if opposition parties win control of municipalities, there is a possibility of coalitions. That will require deft footwork and horse-trading skills by the parties’ leaders, with some having to work with parties they previously shunned.

Depending how these deals work, they could pave the way for further co-operation arrangements in 2019, either as pre-election or post-election pacts. Considering how opposition politics has evolved over the past five years, the scene could look dramatically different to the way it does now.

Opposition parties in Parliament have in recent years tried to co-operate on several fronts, teaming up on matters such as opposition to the Secrecy Bill, motions of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma and the Nkandla matter. Whether they will continue to do so will be dependent on common agendas as well as how the leaders relate. Maimane, as the leader of the Opposition in Parliament, has made headway in getting opposition parties to work together against the ANC.

Whoever emerges as the new face of the DA this weekend needs to be mindful of the fact that he will take over the party in a time of flux. He will be tested not only on how he runs the party but how the DA under his leadership measures up to other parties, as well as how it leads the opposition. There are no certainties as to what happens next, and this will be the last time he faces just a single opponent.

From Parliament to the election stump to the backrooms where deals are made, he needs to be in the game constantly. If he fails to lead adeptly and decisively, others will do so and run away with the opposition. That could prove to be more mortifying than losing the leadership race this weekend. DM

Photo: Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema (L) and DA Parliamentary Leader Mmusi Maimane are seen during a debate in Parliament on President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address, Wednesday, 18 June 2014. Picture: GCIS/SAPA


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