South Africa

Shifting sands: DA comes of age in fast changing political landscape

By Ranjeni Munusamy 25 April 2016

The Democratic Alliance (DA), like the ANC last weekend, made a strategic choice about where to launch its 2016 local government elections manifesto. Johannesburg is one of the metros the DA wants to wrestle away from the ANC, so it had to make a big splash. This was the first event the DA had hosted in a stadium and the party demonstrated that its support is not insignificant. As desperation and infighting continues to define the dialogue in the ANC, the DA, while still occasionally tripping over its shoelaces, is finally growing some chest hair. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

There are not many politically mature leaders in South Africa. Political maturity is not about a person’s age – Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi would win the contest hands down if it were.

Gauteng ANC leader Paul Mashatile has political maturity. He does not hide behind his organisation but stands by what he believes in and says what he thinks he ought to say. He often gets into trouble with the ANC leadership and its storm troopers as a result.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was able to accomplish the enormously difficult task of negotiating South Africa’s Constitution through his ability to give and take, and work with opposition parties – which included a heavy right-wing contingent at the time. Since his return to active politics in December 2012, Ramaphosa has been so restrained and careful not to display his ambitions that it is difficult to gauge his political skills. His one attempt to negotiate a working relationship with opposition parties in Parliament in November 2014 collapsed as he did not have the support of the ANC leadership and caucus.

United Democratic Movement (UDM) leader Bantu Holomisa is an astute politician. In the short speaking time he has in parliamentary debates, he is able to state the UDM’s position on issues as well as offer a way forward as a political elder. His wise counsel was appreciated by former president Nelson Mandela, which is why he was involved in handling Madiba’s affairs even after his death. Holomisa is probably the only opposition leader that ANC members, including in the parliamentary caucus, seek advice from – and he is never tempted to betray their confidence.

Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema has political savvy but not maturity. He has shaped himself as a firebrand politician and that is the drawcard of his constituency. He recently projected himself as a defender of the Constitution when he led and won the Nkandla battle in the Constitutional Court. But he always returns to type, as was evident in his interview with Al Jazeera, broadcast on Sunday night. Malema told the international broadcaster: “We will run out of patience very soon and we will remove this government through the barrel of a gun.”

Asked by Al Jazeera’s Johah Hull how far he was willing to go in his war with President Jacob Zuma, Malema said: “We will fight… We have the capability to mobilise our people and fight physically.”

Mmusi Maimane became leader of the opposition in Parliament after the 2014 elections with very little experience in national politics. A year later, he became leader of the DA. The 2016 elections are his first swing of the bat to try to convince voters to support his party, while he is simultaneously trying to change the DA’s image from a white to a nonracial organisation.

Maimane has been struggling to define what kind of politician he is exactly. He is trying to shake off the neat, boy-wonder package he was initially presented as, to carve the image of a street-smart, modern, middle-class politician who embraces his humble beginnings in Dobsonville, Soweto, and who has the mettle to take on the mighty ANC.

In South Africa, whoever is the party leader defines who and what the party is – as is evident by the ANC’s image under Zuma’s leadership and the EFF under Malema. The DA has been struggling with its image since the switch from Helen Zille to Maimane, and for a while tried to be everything to everybody.

Maimane is now finding his feet, and so is his party.

At the DA’s manifesto launch on Saturday, Member of Parliament Makashule Gana said it was their first mass event in a stadium. The DA is always judged harshly in its marches and rallies as they appear too stage-managed, particularly when it comes to the racial mix. Saturday’s launch, which saw about 20,000 people converge in a 30,000-seater stadium, presented the DA as a party with mass appeal, particularly among black people. They cannot, of course, compete with the strength of the ANC – 62% in the 2014 elections compared to the DA’s 22% – but they did better on the aesthetics and organisation of the event.

In the SABC’s live broadcast, wide shots of the stadium initially gave the impression that it was a full house with a crowd of people also on the pitch in front of the stage. Pan shots on both eNCA and the public broadcaster later showed that sections of the stadium were covered by huge sheets so that empty seats were not visible. Like with the ANC rally, people also began leaving during Maimane’s speech, possibly due to heat exhaustion.

The ANC was at a distinct disadvantage last week with its election messages being delivered by the person causing the most reputational damage to the party. Whatever Zuma said was viewed through the prism of his own scandals and bad leadership. Most of the ANC’s election messages were also lost due to the focus on the poor turnout in the stadium.

Maimane’s address was a move away from his combative anti-Zuma speeches in Parliament and an attempt to focus on the DA’s messaging – punting their track record in areas they govern and targets for the major municipalities held by the ANC. But the weaknesses in the ANC are still a gift for all opposition parties in this election, which is why Zuma did feature at the end of Maimane’s speech. He said the 3 August poll was a referendum on the future of the country.

The election is an opportunity to send a message to President Zuma and the ANC that we are sick and tired of their empty promises… The more votes we get at this election, the more we can change the direction of our country,” Maimane said.

He said voters had the power to hire and fire politicians. “You are the boss – not the Guptas!” Maimane said, referring to the president’s friends accused of capturing the state.

The week after its own manifesto launch, the party in power should still dominate the national dialogue. The DA has never before been able to take attention away from the ANC in the heat of the election period. But ANC supporters, including government spokespeople who also express themselves on behalf of the party, took to social media to discredit the DA event. It is hitherto unheard of that government employees comment on opposition party events, particularly during an election period. It is revealing of the desperation in ANC circles, as well as the conflicted roles of public servants in political battles.

At the mass funeral for nine of the 10 ANC volunteers who died in a bus crash on the way back from Port Elizabeth, the party’s internal factional battles were at play. The Sunday Independent reported that some ANC leaders used the funeral to lash out at Zuma’s detractors in the party. Free State Premier Ace Magashule, ANC Women’s League president Bathabile Dlamini and Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association chairman Kebby Maphatsoe all lashed out at those in the ANC who had spoken out against the president in the wake of the damning Constitutional Court judgment against him. This focuses attention on the enmity within the organisation at a time when the ANC could have united around the tragedy.

The political astuteness of all the leaders will be in contention throughout the election period and particularly in the post-election period when deals might need to be made. While the ANC was in the past able to enter into coalition governments, including with its arch enemy in KwaZulu-Natal, the IFP, it is unlikely that any significant party would want to partner with them now. Maimane has been holding offline discussions with many political players, including former leaders and his counterparts in opposition parties, to prepare the ground for discussions post the elections.

The Sunday Times reported that Maimane had met with former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi in February to discuss co-operation between the DA and the United Front social movement coalition in Nelson Mandela Bay. Through his Twitter account, Maimane refuted the suggestion that he was trying to recruit Vavi by meeting with him. Also on Twitter, Vavi said he could not speak for the United Front but dismissed co-operation with the DA.

Coalitions across the world are formed between political opponents and it will be a test of character for all party leaders as to whether they will be able to secure deals with their rivals to be able to govern key municipalities.

The DA flexed its muscle this weekend to show it is a real contender on its own strength as well as a lead partner in opposition politics. It is still making major mistakes, such as choosing the politically inexperienced Herman Mashaba as its mayoral candidate for Johannesburg. Its exuberance over the selection of Ghaleb Cachalia, who is not widely known himself although his parents are ANC royalty, as the party’s mayoral candidate for Ekurhuleni also showed that despite the chaos in the ANC, the DA is unable to recruit any real heavy hitters from the ruling party. The DA must also give its own activists the opportunity to grow in the party rather than parachuting big names with no constituency to the top of their election lists.

But the DA is now showing it is a big league player and how it handles this election campaign and any post-election deals could take the party to new heights. To do this, the DA needs to be more than the “safe” option but prove to be the better option. It still has some distance to get there. DM

Photo: Leader of Democratic Alliance (DA) party, Mmusi Maimane, speaks at the launch of the party’s election manifesto in Johannesburg, South Africa, 23 April 2016. EPA/KEVIN SUTHERLAND.


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