South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: Shifting political ground challenges all parties

Op-Ed: Shifting political ground challenges all parties

South African politics is in flux, following the removal of Jacob Zuma and election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC and State President. No party is as shaken by this change and its consequences as the DA, whose electoral prospects have been dented, though the EFF and ANC itself are also facing challenges. By RAYMOND SUTTNER.

First published on

The removal of Jacob Zuma as ANC and state president and some of the early steps of the Cyril Ramaphosa-led ANC and government has posed challenges for opposition parties, especially the DA.

One year ago, the DA, in alliance with other opposition parties, seemed poised to challenge the ANC’s electoral dominance nationally. But the DA’s internal factional battles, its inability or refusal to reconfigure its identity as a political party more representative of the country as a whole especially of black people has undermined its opportunities.

In addition, its capacity to mount any electoral challenge has been hampered by its disrespectful handling of parties with whom it formed alliances after the 2016 local government elections.

The dominant white faction within the DA continues to accord insufficient salience to race, the importance of becoming a party that is demographically representative of the population, a party that is attuned to issues that continue to affect or resonate differently with white and black. That is why there are some attempts from black members to remove established and long-standing “old guard” white leaders in the DA.

The party electoral process is loaded against attempts to make it more representative and the notion of representativeness is referred to in a derogatory manner as ANC-speak or “groupthink”. The DA plays linguistic and meritocratic games about avoiding race and group thinking of the apartheid era. They fail to understand the life experience of black people which cannot be adequately comprehended or brought into DA thinking without greater numbers of black people in leadership positions.

The procedure for selection of delegates for the DA’s April national congress, where leaders are to be elected, works against township members. The formula selects delegates on the basis of the number of public representatives they have in a particular area at this moment in time. This puts members from the African and other black areas at a disadvantage since they do not have public representatives or very few. The Gauteng leader of the DA, John Moodey, has written a memo lamenting that people who work tirelessly in door-to-door organising – in townships – are hardly represented at the conference.

This means that in black townships that do not have many DA councillors, relatively few delegates go to the party conference even though the districts might have many active DA members.

It is these dedicated DA members who make up the largest contingent at our marches and rallies,” Moodey said in the memo.

These are the people that the DA can depend upon to do the [leg work] in our various campaigns, by doing door-to-door visits and selling the DA vision in often hostile environments.”

If the DA wants to break into black areas and secure votes how can they do this without providing their grass roots workers with adequate representation in their congress? Most importantly, the DA fails to recognise the hard work and risks entailed for members organising in townships.

Part of the DA does not want to break with the reality that it remains a white-controlled party. There is a great reluctance to confront the significance of race and that it continues to entrench the existing power imbalance within the party.

That there is a predominance of white people in the corridors of DA power is repeatedly manifested in its discourse. The white leadership manifests its thinking in ways that are singularly inappropriate and insensitive, as seen in the Helen Zille tweets on colonialism for which she got a slap on the wrist and where DA leader Mmusi Maimane who came out strongly against her view, was undermined.

Likewise, Zille’s remarks on the families of the Life Esidimeni victims, alleging that they had not made efforts to find their relatives or alert government to what their problems were, was both inaccurate and highly insensitive in the light of the families grieving over at least 144 deaths and other hardships that their relatives had undergone. The evidence to the arbitration commission, chaired by former Deputy Chief Justice, Dikgang Moseneke, demonstrates, on the contrary, that the families made considerable efforts to locate or find out what was happening to their loved ones who were moved. (See this report by News24 and this one by Mail and Guardian).

Although Maimane has distanced himself from Zille on this, she has not been formally taken to task. DA Federal Executive Chairperson James Selfe pre-empted this: “The party views Premier Zille’s tweets as unfortunate, but this was done in terms of her personal capacity. This does not transgress the party’s code of conduct.

What appears unclear is what it means to have Maimane as leader of the DA. Selfe repeatedly appears to act as if he is leader of the party and makes most major statements, often standing on his own or with Maimane at his side. His position may indeed be constitutionally senior to Maimane, but when Zille was leader one was not as clear as to their respective status and there was no doubt that Zille was the leader.

The DA seems unaware that “colour blindness” is working against the possibility of ever consolidating a base beyond whites and to some extent Coloured people. Their current actions against Patricia de Lille are markedly different from the lack of energy displayed over the statements of Zille. I am not in a position to comment on the allegations of corruption or legality of whatever De Lille may have done as mayor. It may be that De Lille will ultimately be removed from her post or even charged and legally convicted for one or other irregularity. But the DA has not revealed precisely what de Lille has done and has repeatedly blundered over disciplinary processes and other attempts to remove her as in the failure to pass a motion of no confidence in the Cape Town metro, run by the DA itself.

Surely it must be aware that De Lille is challenging the process on a legal basis and the DA ought to have been meticulous in selecting the disciplinary panel in order to ensure that there would be no cause for De Lille to challenge its composition. Thus far one person against whom she lodged an application for recusal has withdrawn and this has led to an “indefinite” postponement of proceedings. The DA wants to get rid of De Lille – that much we know. But can it not find a process that is fair, operates smoothly and without the likelihood of legal challenge?

Much of the controversy over De Lille overlaps with the water crisis in the city of Cape Town. It is likely that the way it has been managed will demonstrate not only mismanagement on the side of the DA-led local government, but also the national department of Water and Sanitation. But there are persistent references to excessive water usage of Western Cape agriculture, some of whom are allegedly funders of the DA. There needs to be clarity on this because it, too, could further erode support in what is becoming an increasingly damaged “showcase” city and province.

The DA’s identity is also confused as a result of the removal of Zuma and replacement by Ramaphosa, failing to adequately factor in the difference on the part of their head of strategy and initially by Maimane, who said: “The ANC is dead and cannot self-correct, no matter who is at the helm.” Others, within the DA and including Tony Leon, have correctly recognised that dealing effectively with Ramaphosa requires a wholly different orientation on the part of opposition parties.

For the DA the absence of Zuma has become a problem, insofar as much of their political identity has been tied to exposing the wrongful acts of the former president or hauling him before the courts. With Zuma’s removal and the inauguration of Ramaphosa as President, in rapidly unfolding changes, the DA has had to confront the question of how it locates itself in the present.

The gains that the DA made in 2016 were not purely a result of DA political skills but drew on the range of protests and other activities of communities throughout the country and also, in the formal political arena, depended on fragile coalitions with other parties. The DA has failed to appreciate and acknowledge the broader contribution of citizens to the opportunity that appeared to present itself for further electoral gains after 2016.

It has also managed the relationships with other political parties in an arrogant manner, for example in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB), where it alienated the UDM and has yet to produce the documentation that allegedly provided the basis for former Deputy Mayor Mongameli Bobani’s removal on grounds of corruption.

It also angered its supposed allies in the national assembly with the DA calling for a dissolution of parliament last year, without consulting its allies.

The truth of the matter is that the DA has little experience in working on a consultative basis, where one does not act on a matter without ensuring that all those affected, if one is linked to them, are brought on board and will support whatever is decided.

The EFF’s reasons for removing Athol Trollip as Executive Mayor of NMB are unconvincing in themselves, insofar as land was not part of any agreement between the DA and its alliance partners. Nevertheless, that a DA-led alliance/coalition is collapsing speaks to the failure of the DA, as the electorally most powerful partner, to find ways of relating and holding adequate consultations with the other parties to their alliances/coalitions. Trollip demonstrated considerable arrogance at the time of the ousting of Bobani, explaining how he, as mayor, did not have to consult with partners on his state of the city speech and other matters, referring to himself as the dog and the partners as the tail.

This type of language embodies a wider problem of the DA, where it has no idea of how to speak to people outside of its own inner circle, whether allies or within the party itself. This is also repeatedly demonstrated in insulting language used in parliament by DA members, referring to or implying the stupidity of the speaker or other officials. There is an unawareness of racial sensitivities deriving from the apartheid era, where “talking nonsense” or being referred to as “stupid” rings bells that they do not for whites, who have not been referred to as “dom kaffers”.

One of the areas of greatest success, that of litigation by the DA and EFF may also point to their weaknesses. The DA and EFF have brought very important court cases that have had a big impact. But a political gain via the law is achieved through ceding agency to judicial authorities. These have been very important victories, but this is nevertheless not the same as building organisation.

This week the DA has again returned to court over the state being used to pay legal fees of Zuma – an important matter indeed.

It would be interesting to know how the DA and EFF allocated their resources, what proportion of their resources are devoted to litigation and what is allocated to building organisation. These cases are very costly, even if there may be an award of costs leading to their being repaid some time in the future. But at this moment in time that is funding that could be used for transporting members to areas for organisational purposes. Building organisation, especially in black areas where resources are more limited, is very expensive. One needs transport, one needs to provide food and sometimes accommodation. One may need to hire a venue or a speaker system for a venue.

Despite important steps taken to remedy the manifold irregularities and corruption that characterised the Zuma period, the gains remain fragile and incomplete.

It is important to give full credit to what has been achieved since Cyril Ramaphosa’s election as ANC president in December, the clean ups that have been undertaken, prosecutions initiated and important appointments. We all know that this has been incomplete and that consolidating the “new dawn” support base has required concessions and retention of some individuals in government who, in the light of their previous actions or inaction, ought-ideally- to have been removed. Those who would like to see a complete overhaul need to wait and hope that some of those who are still where they should not be, handling public duties, will face potential enquiries that may lead to their stepping down or prosecution. Some of these potential investigations are already reported on or in motion.

The hopes that the DA cherished of robbing the ANC of a majority in 2019 appears to have fallen away with Cyril Ramaphosa possibly winning back support that the ANC had previously lost and evoking positive sentiments from business and other sectors.

A surprising development for the ANC, however, is the “return” of Jacob Zuma to ANC activities. Unlike previous presidents who retired from ANC activities, Zuma has been actively involved in an ANC national electoral workshop, ANC activities in KZN and this week attended the ANC NEC meeting as an ex officio member. It may have been that Mandela once addressed the NEC after retiring -over the question of HIV/Aids, and Mbeki left the ANC space completely clear for his successor to act as leader.

What Zuma has in mind is unclear, though it comes at a time when there are reports of rifts within the organisation and it may well be that his active presence may be aimed at building on this disaffection. In particular, the Premier and ANC Chair of North West, Supra Mahumapelo, who faces an imminent motion of no confidence as Premier, may align with Zuma.

Zuma may aim to mobilise support around his impending court appearances in order to repeat the wellspring of support he drew in 2006/9. Undoubtedly, he retains support and there is a possibility of some individuals who themselves face potential prosecutions, joining their fate with his. That will be a difficult judgement call. A few years ago, when Zuma was unchallenged and the NPA and Hawks were more or less completely captured it was safe to side with Zuma and draw strength from his presidency. It is quite possible that there are people in this category who can erode some of the support base of the Ramaphosa-led ANC and government. But the incumbents represent the future and it will be risky, even where some face potential charges, to join their fate with Zuma, who may face many years in court and possibly in jail not only for current charges but for others that are in the pipeline, relating to State Capture. DM

Photo: Raymond Suttner is a political analyst who served lengthy periods in prison and under house arrest during apartheid. Photo: Chris Snelling

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a visiting professor and strategic advisor to the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, an emeritus professor at Unisa and (until the end of March) visiting professor at Rhodes University. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison was reissued with a new introduction in 2017. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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