South Africa


When policy proxy battles and ideological contestation collide, the DA splutters amid its own messiness

When policy proxy battles and ideological contestation collide, the DA splutters amid its own messiness
PORT ELIZABETH, SOUTH AFRICA – SEPTEMBER 05: Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane during a media briefing to announce the party’s Eastern Cape premier candidate on September 05, 2018 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The DA’s Eastern Cape leader Nqaba Bhanga will lead the party’s 2019 election campaign as the province's premier candidate. (Photo by Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Lulama Zenzile)

DA debacles over billboards, policies and tax revolts have put a harsh spotlight on South Africa’s largest opposition party. And that’s just January 2019. From within party ranks come questions whether at least some of these crises have been orchestrated, amid other uncomfortable questions about the DA state of play.

Insiders acknowledge some donors have raised concerns. There is a level of messiness the DA has not experienced before or at least had been able to conceal behind what has up until now been a smooth-running, election-winning “blue machine”.

In late November 2013, the troika of DA leaders – DA national leader and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and DA Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille faced the media after what had effectively been the party’s first-ever official policy conference. It had for the first time affirmed race – not “race” as it was consistently written in policy proposal documents – was a “legitimate proxy” for disadvantage and the need to redress apartheid legacy. It came in the same month Zille had swooped in to castigate her parliamentary caucus for having voted in the National Assembly in support of Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) Bill and the Employment Equity Amendment Bill, which she had described as “Verwoerdian” at the Cape Town Press Club on 14 November 2013.

In late November 2013, the DA remained adamant racial quotas are roundly rejected – it’s all about extending opportunities and encouraging diversity through incentives, be it tax breaks or relief from regulatory compliance.

And although self-described true blue liberals almost instantaneously criticised the DA that, by accepting race as a legitimate proxy for disadvantage, it had sold out its liberal heritage to join the ranks of so-called racial nationalists, this approach with just a few tweaks has been the policy perspective since. DA policies continue to tout the open opportunity society where red tape is reduced, and access to jobs is facilitated through, for example, job seekers’ exemption certificate that would give “the right to take a job at a wage they find acceptable”, effectively a way to sidestep the R20 per hour national minimum wage. On BBBEE, the DA unswervingly continues to talk diversity rather than representativity, the rejection of quotas in favour of education and training opportunities and incentives like tax breaks for employers to become diverse and, for workers, tax credits if they are supporting adult dependents.

Forward to August 2018. In an embarrassingly public black economic empowerment blow-up, DA policy guru and MP Gwen Ngwenya and long-serving DA federal executive chairperson James Selfe publicly contradict each other. In keeping with her previous employer, the South African Institute for Race Relations (IRR) where she was a chief operations officer, Ngwenya said the DA had ditched BEE, quoting DA leader Mmusi Maimane, in an opinion piece for Business Day. Ngwenya also quoted extensively from the IRR, particularly how its 2016 survey showed not even black South Africans believe BBBEE or affirmative action had improved their lives, and that is revisited annually on the institute’s policy platform.

This is important. It raised the question of whether Ngwenya was head-hunted with a view to re-orientate DA policies into a more classic liberal perspective where race is not a distinguishing and key feature – socio-economically, philosophically, or ideologically. And, crucially, the IRR research Ngwenya quoted is fundamental to the institute’s character, in a direct challenge to DA policy perspectives on race and empowerment.

The IRR does not believe in BBBEE, but empowerment for the economically disadvantaged (EED) that “no longer uses race as a proxy for disadvantage” – a direct refutation of the DA November 2013 decision – and instead uses income and other socio-economic status indicators to identify those who need assistance:

This allows racial classification and racial preferences to fall away, instead of becoming permanent features of the policy. This, in turn, will reduce racial awareness and potential racial polarisation, helping South Africa to attain and uphold the principle of ‘non-racialism’ embedded in the Constitution.”

After the August 2018 public contradictions – then DA MP and former policy boss Gavin Davis came out in support of Ngwenya’s position empowerment, apparently with the backing of Maimane – Selfe and Ngwenya issued a joint statement that it was the ANC-style black economic empowerment that’s rejected as it just benefited a politically-connected elite:

Our (DA) goal is to advance the empowerment of disadvantaged South Africans, the majority of whom are black. Therefore, the DA unequivocally supports the empowerment of black South Africans.”

All sorted, right? No. In January 2019, at a strategic and politically important time when the DA was in election registration publicity hyper mode, Ngwenya’s resignation letter of over a week earlier is leaked. That timing, like Zille’s Twitter mobilisation for a tax revolt unless corruption is stopped immediately, has raised suspicions of factional machinations within the party.

The resignation letter revisits the August 2018 BBBEE disagreement debacle, and Ngwenya fingers the DA for being spineless. “Instead of having the courage of its convictions, at the mere whiff of a debate on BEE the party felt it best to attack the head of policy than to own up to its own structure’s decision…” wrote Ngwenya in her widely circulated resignation letter dated 18 January 2019.

This talks to the flirtation with the IRR and its more classical liberalism, perhaps even lean towards libertarianism, at the highest echelons of the DA. It’s part of the internal contestation – yes, the unified all-pulling-in-the-same-direction amid claims there were no factions in the DA is shattered – as the party must straddle a spectrum of liberal views and approaches. And those range from the fundamentalist minimal government, maximum individualism libertarianism, classical liberalism in which liberty, particularly personal liberty, is central, and what’s known as new liberalism that allows for the concept of social justice, and redress through interventionist policy-making.

Outside the battlefields of liberal ideology, the verbal somersaults around race and empowerment are sophistry. But it matters in the ideological contestation within the DA. Outside groupings and personal networks may yet more aggressively push their interests. At least one insider this week acknowledged moves by some who wanted “to be to the DA like the EFF is to the ANC”. Daily Maverick understands this involves at least two online publications, at least one of which has links to the IRR, and social media.

The use of dedicated partisan online platforms like the alt-right Breitbart news outlet, and social media, have been successful in capturing politics. Breitbart editor Steve Bannion became an adviser to then US presidential candidate Donald Trump, although that relationship subsequently soured and Bannion was asked to resign in August 2017.

But while there are libertarians in the DA parliamentary caucus – a tiny minority, although a few more than those who really, really believe there should be absolutely no social grants for any South African – the realpolitik of South Africa’s political landscape requires a good dollop of pragmatism. Not so in the world of academia, research and think-tank-ism.

Still, it appears Zille has become the poster girl for a libertarian-inspired push. Tax revolts fit right into the libertarian ideology. That the party that issues statements at the drop of a hat hasn’t issued a statement regarding Zille’s tax revolt is telling, even if Maimane finally tweeted his opposition.

A party insider and a senior official have confirmed Maimane this week called Zille. It would have been a difficult conversation, and not only because of a belief he has to tread carefully as Zille still enjoys significant support:

If he takes her on, there will be war in the party,” said one insider.

The DA leader is favourably disposed to such tax revolts, being on public record to support a boycott of Gauteng’s e-tolls in 2014. Daily Maverick has seen Maimane’s tweet dated 9 June 2016 which featured the SMS notification of an overdue TV licence payment, saying:

Why should I fund Hlaudi’s and sANC (sic) apartheid project of turning a public broadcaster into a state broadcaster”.

So where do the DA fault lines lie? It’s unclear.

Not helping is Maimane’s flip-flopping on internal DA matters – be it hanging his hat onto the Western Cape election list, effectively paving the route to premiership, and then doing a U-turn when it became public in September 2018, or the parachuting in to Western Cape and Cape Town Day Zero affairs as his explanation that as national leader he had a role to play even in provincial and local government failed to convince. Not helpful has been the handling of the politically costly saga over De Lille’s exit from the party – or as one party senior put it at the time: Maimane caught up between the aunties’ fighting – while softballing on Zille’s 2017 tweets that colonialism wasn’t all bad.

Yet it’s not like Maimane does not have the support or professional backing. DA CEO Paul Boughey is widely regarded as loyal to Maimane, as is Jonathan Moakes, the DA leader’s former chief-of-staff, now 2019 national elections campaign manager. Boughey and Moakes are the heart of DA administration and also strategising – and have been for years, having served under three leaders all the way back to Tony Leon.

With chief strategist Ryan Coetzee, whom Leon brought into the party administration in 1997 when it was still the Democratic Party, they have worked together as a cohesive unit, particularly in the restructuring of party operations with the tumultuous years after the establishment of the DA in 2000 and the ultimate departure of the New National Party to merge with the ANC in 2004.

Boughey was Leon’s chief of staff from 2004 and went on to work in the same position for Zille when she became party leader in 2007. Moakes, who was part of the fundraising team where he in mid-2007 had replaced David Maynier – the DA MP turned Western Cape DA election boss, and a keen eye on a Western Cape cabinet post – and went on to become executive director of political activities and campaigns before taking over as CEO from Coetzee in 2009. Boughey took over as CEO from Moakes. Coetzee in September 2012 left to take up a strategic adviser position with the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom.

Between Boughey and Moakes there is institutional memory of party strategy, an iron grip on the administration, the finances, and on other aspects of what the DA fondly calls its “blue machine”, internal polling and the focus groups.

It is a level of command and control across a spread of responsibilities not often seen. And if Ngwenya complained in her resignation letter of not getting job specs for a semi-independent policy unit with unfettered reach, budget and experienced staff, it may just be part of an internal power game. It is against this stand her resignation comments:

The party spends more on temporary billboards and other marketing than it does on developing a longer-lasting comprehensive policy blueprint for the country”.

Co-incidentally, not too long ago those focus groups favourably polled Maimane, which led to him asking all the questions and follow-ups in the presidential Q&As in the House, even if MPs with topic-specific knowledge would be better placed.

By now Maimane should have learnt that making nice, eloquent speeches from prepared platforms is not what makes a leader. And that flip-flops both in public and in the affairs of the party he’s been leading since May 2015 are not good. These inconsistencies have left many MPs and others confused or, as one put it, “tired of fighting”. Concern was expressed the impact of the infighting and factionalism were showing up the DA badly, just at a crucial time ahead of elections.

It is understood internal polling is reflecting such concerns, while recent by-elections do so in the public domain. Even where the party maintained its wards in the DA-controlled Western Cape hinterland contests the margins shrunk, as it does in Cape Town where the DA controls the council with a two-thirds majority. For example, while the DA retained its seat in a recent by-election in Bonteheuwel on the Cape Flats, its support dipped to 61,8% down from 81,7%. The ANC did not benefit; it was the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) that picked up almost 20%.

And so other opposition parties may benefit from the DA’s troubles. One senior member of such another smaller opposition party expressed confidence in gains. The instability and ineffectiveness following a series of elections now, had people saying they would not vote DA again. While such accounts of personal level during day-to-day interactions are anecdotal, other opposition parties are hoping to bring back at least some of the votes the DA has taken off them over the past successive elections.

For Maimane, the 2019 elections will be crucial. DA inside heavyweights in 2015 strategically ensured he’d lead the party to the 2016 local government elections – remember the rather abrupt and short notice announcement by Zille she’d not stand again? – and it paid off in the context of the time of turning back on the Jacob Zuma administration. The municipal poll saw gains though DA-led coalitions in Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, although the latter unravelled in 2018.

If Maimane becomes the first DA leader in 20 years not to grow the party, it’s unlikely he’ll be given the easy ride Zille got last time round in 2014. She escaped censure because although the DA’s much-touted 30% support levels failed to materialise, the party nevertheless grew to 22,2% national support from 16,6% in the 2009 elections.

Whether anything would be quite as easy as Maimane being ousted by one faction or another, remains to be seen given the nuanced dynamics and continued liberal ideological contestations. But there will be a political price to pay, regardless of which way it all goes. DM


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