South Africa

Snapshot: DA’s moment in the maelstrom

By Stephen Grootes 22 May 2017

It is by now common cause that our politics is in such a swirl that one gets the sense almost anything could happen. Resignations are now retirements, those who used to be the very epitome of establishment are calling for “radical” change, and Julius Malema sometimes looks positively statesmanlike. In the centre of this maelstrom is the once unthinkable prospect of change in 2019, of the ANC losing a national election. For this to happen, the DA will have to change first, which the party is already doing in many ways. However, it is now encountering several challenges in its way. Whether it is able to overcome them could well tell us what could happen in two years’ time. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

While the ANC’s critics love to recite several numbers from last year’s local elections, and explain with joy how it lost Joburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, they often forget one important detail. While it is true that the ANC only garnered 54% of the national vote last year, the DA only received 26.9%. And it seems incredibly unlikely that a party can go from that figure in a local election to over 50% in a national election in just three years. (Unless the ANC’s implosion is bigger than ever predicted, and there is a countrywide stay-away by the ANC voters, which could leave the DA in power somehow but with perhaps less than a real mandate.) It has become increasingly obvious that coalitions are the only way forward for anyone outside of the ANC trying to clinch national power.

At the same time, though, the DA is slowly making advances. If an election were held today, as the ANC seems so intent on getting itself out of power, that figure would probably be much higher than 26.9%. You see this in the reception that Mmusi Maimane gets everywhere, and the attention he attracts. He is has grown to be more than just the leader of the DA; he is really the leader of the opposition, which makes him the figurehead in the campaigns against President Jacob Zuma. In some ways, through Maimane, the party is now finally beginning to get the national attention it has craved for so long.

However, some serious problems are beginning to develop.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, one of the metros successfully targeted by the DA last year, its mayor Athol Trollip has simply had enough of his deputy, the UDM’s Mongameli Bobani, and fired him from his mayoral cabinet last week. To hear Trollip talk about it, he has done everything he can to stop things getting to this point, while Bobani has been going around laying criminal charges against top city officials appointed by Trollip. UDM leader Bantu Holomisa made the point last week that they would not be treated “as farmworkers”, a barbed comment that would hit Trollip in his underbelly (Trollip was a farmer, and comes from a family which has owned a farm in the Eastern Cape for generations. During last year’s campaign the ANC tried to claim his family had abused their workers, but nothing was proven, and the charges appeared to be politically inspired). While it is possible the Trollip moved too quickly, he certainly made sure his party’s leadership was kept informed. Which means Holomisa may have a case to answer as to why he did not act against Bobani earlier, or at least take the trouble to find out what was going on.

What makes this issue so important is that Nelson Mandela Bay is the one place where the DA is actually in a coalition at the moment. In Joburg and Tshwane and many other councils, it is actually governing through an agreement with the EFF, where the EFF simply gives it its support on a case by case basis. If Trollip and the UDM are not able to make things work there, particularly considering how close are the UDM and the DA in policy terms, then you would have to ask how could they ever govern with someone like the EFF in a formal coalition.

Then there are other problems facing the party. On Sunday the Sunday Times carried a story about the party’s acting Western Cape leader Bonginkosi Madikizela. It said that he was facing questions about whether construction companies had funded a “surprise” party for him at Cape Town’s One&Only Hotel. In a society where corruption appears to have sunk its teeth into every single aspect of our lives, it seems easy to believe. At the very least, it shows how easy it can be for people to be tempted, or pulled in.

However, the DA also appears to be doing something that could be significant in its battle to get more votes. One of the problems it could be seen to have is whether or not it is “legitimate”, in the way the ANC portrays itself. The root of this is the Struggle. It has been very important for the ANC to portray itself as the singular party that won our freedom. It is not completely wrong, or entirely right either.

But one of the questions the DA will have to face from voters is going to hinge on this type of credential. What the party now appears to be doing is to simply, when and where it can, implement the National Development Plan.

There are several benefits to the DA in doing this. First, the plan does chime significantly with what the DA wants to do anyway, it is a remarkably unradical piece of policy created by the ANC that is now itself claiming to be radical. Second, it is a good plan, a product of some of the best minds we possess through the National Planning Commission led by then Planning Minister Trevor Manuel. It is certainly the best plan that we have at the moment. And then we have the fact that it is an ANC plan, that was actually passed by simple acclamation at the party’s Mangaung Conference in 2012. Should the DA face questions about its legitimacy, it can now turn to the plan and point out that it is implementing an ANC document, and implementing it well. And it can then do the pivot, and explain how it is that the ANC as we knew it has disappeared into a pool of corruption and Zuma and and…. if you’ve ever heard Maimane speak, you know the rest of it by now.

In some ways, the NDP could well end up being used by the DA much more effectively than it has been used by the ANC (but then, considering it demands a no-tolerance approach to corruption, why are we surprised?). It is possibly for this reason that the DA has been so quick to implement what it can of the NDP in its Tshwane budget, and is always talking about it. This is a holy grail issue for the DA. It allows it to show it can implement policy better than the ANC while at the same time playing a symbolic function.

Talking of symbolism, it is obvious what one of the major problems for the party is, the fact that it can still be criticised by its opponents as a party for white people, or, as the ANC used to try to claim, the party “that would bring apartheid back”. Helen Zille’s colonialism tweet, and her public defence of it, have not been an asset in this specific field. But it is also possible to overdo the impact this could have in an election. The ANC’s leadership contest, and its result, and the corruption stories we don’t yet know about, are bound to overshadow anything a former leader of an opposition has said. Especially if voters do start to notice a difference between DA-governed areas and those governed by the ANC.

In some ways, the fate of the DA, or whatever it could morph into, is still not quite yet in its own hands. It may sound unfair to say this, but it is probably in the position it’s in in great part because someone in the ANC has decided to push a self-destruct button, rather than efforts of its own. The situation we’re in is about the collapse of the ANC, and the actions of Zuma and the people around him, far more than the election of the DA’s first black leader. But this is often the case in politics. It is up to a party to make the most of its opponent’s failures. This it is doing, sometimes rather well. Only time will show if that will be enough. DM

Photo: Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane speaks at a news conference at Parliament on Friday, 14 November 2014 following raucous behaviour in the House which culminated in fisticuffs and scuffles. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA


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