DA’s current moves might determine its future

By Stephen Grootes 21 January 2019

DA’s Mmusi Maimane leads a march ahead of unveiling a billboard ‘The ANC is Killing Us’ on 16 January 2019 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Leaders of the DA accompanied by party supporters marched through the city ahead of the unveiling of a billboard, remembering the victims of the Life Esidimeni tragedy and the 2012 Marikana massacre. (Photo by Gallo Images/ Netwerk24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

The Democratic Alliance has over the past few days raised the hackles of many with its by now infamous Joburg CBD billboard. Its mayor in Tshwane, Solly Msimanga, has now indicated he will resign from his position in order to concentrate on campaigning for the Gauteng premier job. As the party appears to be gearing up for a tough electoral slog, the control of the national conversation remains one of its biggest problems. The fight is not going to be easy.

Last week, with much blue fanfare, DA members and their leader Mmusi Maimane unveiled a new billboard. It states boldly that “The ANC is Killing Us” and includes the names of those who died in the Esidimeni tragedy and in the Marikana massacre.

The condemnation was swift. The organisation that represents the families of those who died in the Esidimeni debacle say they are deeply unhappy that the party did this and that they do not appreciate their relatives being used for political purposes. Almost anyone should be able to sympathise with that position.

There was much debate on social media about whether the DA was right to do this. For what it’s worth, the Sunday Times made Maimane their “Mampara of the Week”.

On the face of it, all of this is bad for the DA. Alternatively, it could also have achieved what campaign managers intended — in a crowded political field people are talking about the DA. And the subject of their discussion is a billboard that claims the ANC is “killing SA”. This means that every time someone discusses the topic, whether on Twitter or talk radio, that claim is being aired again and again.

One of the problems the DA has had over the past few years is its inability to dictate the national conversation. The power is incalculable and the EFF leader Julius Malema is a grandmaster of this sometimes dark art. Malema regularly dictated the national interest, especially during the Zuma era. Now, even under fire, the DA is showing some signs of success in this regard too.

They are building on previous successes which include adverts run during the 2016 local elections campaign which suggested that Nelson Mandela would have now endorsed voting DA. It was hugely controversial at the time. But in the context — the DA was having to deal with the “race card” being played against it — it made sense. Instead of people focusing on then President Jacob Zuma’s use of race against the DA (he claimed Maimane was a scarecrow and the DA did not know if it was white or black), they were discussing the DA’s advertising campaign.

It is obvious that the DA would like to make ANC’s track record in government the focus of this election. This would allow them to play the track record of Zuma against the promise of Cyril Ramaphosa, a bold first step.

But, of course, it could still misfire — the ANC, and other groups, may attempt to make the election about how the DA does not care about poor black people who are victims of bad governance and that the DA would use black voters the way it used Esidimeni victims.

The party also has other problems to worry about and other strategic choices to make.

On Friday it emerged that Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga has decided to resign his post so that he can concentrate on his Gauteng premier campaign. But as Malema said in his response, Ramaphosa seems able to lead the country as president while fighting an election at the same time, so why can’t Msimanga?

Msimanga’s announcement must be seen against the backdrop of the problems in the Tshwane Metro Council, where he stands accused of appointing a chief of staff without the proper qualifications, while another executive director appeared to have more gym qualifications than political experience.

However, the key problem may be his relationship with the EFF caucus in the council. And this is where life gets complicated for the DA. Malema’s decision after the 2016 local elections was always constrained. He could be kingmaker, but could only decide between the DA and the ANC — and he had campaigned against the ANC.

Rumours abounded that the EFF is supportive of Herman Mashaba in Joburg because of some tender manipulation. The DA, the EFF and Mashaba have denied the claims. However, the relationship between the EFF and the soon-to-be ex-Tshwane mayor are not so cordial. A threat by the EFF to vote against Msimanga in a confidence vote in Tshwane was called off at the last minute after some kind of behind-the-scenes deal between the EFF and the DA.

To be elected mayor, a council has to vote you in. This means that because the DA does not have an outright majority in the council the party is going to have to ask the EFF to support its candidate to replace Msimanga. This may not be as easy as it sounds, considering the tensions.

And there are other tough choices ahead for the DA.

Ideally, the party would like to go into this election campaigning period contrasting its governance track record with that of the ANC. But it may feel hampered by its reliance on the EFF in Joburg and Tshwane. At the same time, it has already lost power in Nelson Mandela Bay. Life is not easy when another party holds you back. And if it is true that the EFF is forcing the DA to make bad choices through its use of the balance of power, the DA could find itself politically embarrassed in the near future — the EFF could pull the rug from under it any time, making it look weak.

One way to counter this problem is to tell the EFF, in public, where to get off. The EFF would in all probability mount motions to remove the DA in Joburg and Tshwane, but the DA would at least dictate the timing of that action, which is better than living in continuous fear. Any information it might have against the EFF will be twice as powerful if released during the election campaign. If it is successful in making the election about corruption, this could be to its benefit.

There is, of course, one huge problem with this option. It would essentially give up power in two metros. And giving up power, as Jacob Zuma would tell you, is almost always a bad idea — there is no guarantee that you will ever get it back.

Much is said about how important this election is for both the ANC and the EFF. But it could also be a turning-point election for the DA. Should it lose support it may spell doom for Maimane’s leadership. A party that is suddenly on a losing streak will always face more problems in the future and ultimately more divisions.

The DA needs to make its next few decisions very carefully indeed. DM


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