#Zexit has highlighted the opposition party’s bid to assert itself independent of its criticism of the ANC – and it’s no easy task. By APHIWE NGALO, HLUMELA DYANTYI, SUNE PAYNE and MARELISE VAN DER MERWE.
On Monday morning, Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane briefed media on the outcomes of the party’s first federal council of 2018, which was held in Cape Town. The party is taking the public protector’s Vrede dairy farm report on judicial review, arguing that it probed no deeper than much of the information that is already in the public domain.
Maimane further called for the immediate removal and prosecution of President Jacob Zuma, calling the notion of amnesty an “insult”.
The DA leader’s call resonated with widespread criticism levelled at Zuma in recent months. But the briefing raised deeper questions about the South African political landscape. Has the fight to get rid of Zuma been so sustained and dominant that opposition parties are struggling to define themselves outside of it?
On the briefing agenda, as the official address would have it, were five main points: the Vrede dairy farm, the Cape water crisis, Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, the introduction of five new policy documents to be tabled for discussion and the election of federal congress, for which nominations open in February.
President Jacob Zuma received an expected walloping by Maimane. Among other things, the DA leader said Zuma was “holding both the country and the ANC to ransom by refusing to leave”, which showed “how powerful he still is, and how deep-rooted the network of corruption that he built runs”.
But beyond this, there were the questions of the removal of the embattled Cape Town mayor and the Cape water crisis. Both were viewed through a familiar lens: juxtaposed against the corruption of the ANC, with DA supporters claiming these crises revealed just how different the DA was from the governing party, and detractors saying they revealed the parties were actually the same.
But in both instances, the impact on citizens – and a solution-oriented narrative – were lost.
As for policy? Maimane said five new policy documents were tabled for discussion at the weekend – on higher education, safety and security, immigration, human settlements and social assistance. These, he said, were aimed at “creat[ing] opportunity and jobs for the millions of South Africans locked out of the economy”.
It wasn’t a long discussion.
In fairness, Maimane made it clear he wasn’t keen for politicking to dominate the discourse of the morning. Asked about the ongoing leadership challenges surrounding De Lille, he indicated that his tolerance was reaching an end, saying: “It must be settled.”
But it is not quite as simple as moving past an issue that, in reality, has had an effect on the management of, and the discourse surrounding, something as significant as the water crisis. And judging by the arguments used against De Lille, surely one cannot gloss over significant issues of accountability? If the accusations are true, the actions merit discussion. If they are not, the accusations themselves merit discussion.
Within the discussion of #Zexit, Maimane appeared defensive when asked by journalists whether – as a parallel example – De Lille could be ousted by her party. Maimane told journalists the party’s federal council had ratified a decision made by the Cape Town DA council caucus to hold a motion of no confidence on Thursday, 15 February.
Over the weekend, De Lille launched an urgent application with the Western Cape High Court to allow members of the city council to vote using a secret ballot. Councillors will be free to vote without any consequence, Maimane said.
Discussing the leadership crisis in the city, Maimane said it was “time for fresh leadership”.
Throughout De Lille’s disciplinary process, Maimane and the DA’s leadership have emphasised that it is a transparent attempt to root out corruption rather than cover it up, positioning themselves, in this respect, as the antithesis of the ANC.
“Unlike our opponents, we will not sweep under the carpet difficult or embarrassing issues, and we will act to uphold integrity and the faith of the public. This is the standard we hold the ANC to, and we hold ourselves to, and it is amply demonstrated in this matter,” Maimane said.
De Lille, for her part, has said there is no substance to the charges and has complained of a lack of transparency. She has enlisted advocate Dali Mpofu to lead her legal team.
During this process, as Maimane has acknowledged, resources are invested in matters other than service delivery – regardless of who is or is not at fault. And this is becoming an all-too South African story. A journalist from Rapport labelled the ANC and DA’s leadership struggles as “destructive uncertainty” and a result of a lack of political discipline.
Maimane responded, “You are right… but let me give you the distinction. How long has this Zuma issue been going on? You and I can agree this has been going on for a number of years.”
As for water, this narrative was also dominated by blame-shifting and juxtaposition against the identity of the other, rather than details of the solutions being sought.
This is significant because Cape Town (and the Western Cape, more broadly) has long been the DA’s “crown jewels”. Now the flagship metro is facing the potential of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, and some of the other DA-run metros are facing similar challenges. This may be the culmination of several factors, but if the DA is to keep citizens on its side, it can scarcely afford a poorly communicated identity or strategy.
The water crisis was defined as “minister Mokonyane playing politics with the lives of our people”.
“The national Department of Water and Sanitation – under the leadership of minister Nomvula Mokonyane – is crippled by cadre deployment, financial mismanagement, inefficiency and corruption,” Maimane said, reminding journalists that “the responsibility for bulk supply and storage of water is 100% the responsibility of national government, as per Section 3 of the National Water Act.”
Besides this repetition, the only details Maimane provided about the situation was a reminder that Day Zero had been pushed back – and one line stating that “[a]s I outlined last week, the augmentation projects earmarked by the City of Cape Town to provide additional water are all on track, with the first projects coming online later this month”.
Where it counted, at least for the citizens of the city where he was delivering his address, Maimane was using criticism as a mainstay.
Asked how the challenges may affect the party’s voter base, federal chairman James Selfe responded that it was too early to tell.
Which raises another important question: where the opposition parties have framed themselves as corruption busters, how will they define themselves if the ANC undergoes radical reform post #Zexit?
How will they define themselves in critical moments such as the De Lille debacle or the water crisis, where issues of leadership and governance raise their heads outside of the governing party?
How will they communicate with citizens if there’s not a scandal a minute?
It’s worth considering, because the political pie is likely to be sliced up a little differently – locally and nationally – in the years to come. DM
Photo: Leader of the opposition DA (Democratic Alliance) Mmusi Maimane address the media at the formation of the Freedom Movement, in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, 20 March 2017 (reissued 12 February 2018). EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK
"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine