South Africa

DA Federal Council

As DA bleeds support, will Zille’s win push it into the space of a Freedom Front Plus lite?

Helen Zille shortly after being elected DA federal council chairperson. (Photo: Greg Nicolson)

In the party, the race for DA federal council chairperson position at the weekend was read as a referendum on the leadership of Mmusi Maimane. Zille’s win is a throwdown against his direction for the official opposition.

In less than two weeks of campaigning, former party leader Helen Zille won a convincing victory, beating Athol Trollip to the role of DA Federal Council chairperson by a significant margin of 15 votes. The reason she did so is that the DA is bleeding votes in almost every by-election it has contested since the May election in which it achieved only one of its key goals.

Will Zille now turn the DA into a Freedom Front Plus-lite to stem the haemorrhage of white Afrikaans-speaking voters to the moderate right-wing party?

Independent election analyst Dawie Scholtz calculates that the DA has lost 20% more of this voting bloc since the national election in May 2019. This may be because the FF Plus’s clear anti-ANC and anti-affirmative-action message resonates with a voting bloc that is still key to the DA’s fortunes.

If you break up (the DA’s losses) in June, July, August, September and October, it’s getting progressively worse and (the losses) are the biggest we’ve seen. The trend is intensifying and getting worse,” says Scholtz.

Neither has the DA made significant inroads into black voter support, even after it moved its headquarters to Gauteng. The party failed to come close to winning the heartbeat province in 2019 and lost a total of 150,000 voters to the Freedom Front Plus in the May election.

The party’s internal review, led by election strategist Ryan Coetzee, Tony Leon and Capitec founder Michiel le Roux also found that the DA lost and is continuing to lose black support as its potential voter base gives President Cyril Ramaphosa the benefit of the doubt even if they feel alienated from the ANC.

Two centres of power

Zille’s election now sets up two centres of power in the DA. While previous incumbent James Selfe saw his role in a far more strategic and less political fashion, Zille has said her bid was made to save the party.

Speaking on Sunday 20 October after winning, she struck a conciliatory and subordinate note.

I respect the leader (Mmusi Maimane) and the leadership to take the DA to the next peak we have to reach. The stakes could not be higher. The vision is make or break for SA. The role of the DA is so important.”

While Zille pledged to “stay in my lane” and said “I am quite happy to play a background role and stick to my knitting”, she also said:

The DA is not an autocratic organisation — no leader gets up and determines what the values of the DA are. We make policies on the basis of those values and principles and all of us serve those principles in different ways.”

This was a clear message to Maimane — a senior source told Daily Maverick “(the contest for Federal Council chairperson) is a referendum on Mmusi Maimane’s leadership. (Zille) is the front person of the band playing that tune (to remove Maimane). She can say what she likes about being a unifier”.

Zille is now likely to use her position to push the party away from its positioning as an ANC-lite party. This position interprets its slogan of “One South Africa for all” as forthright support for black empowerment through workplace affirmative action and in other policy measures too.

Since stepping down, Zille has been reading a lot about identity politics and theories of whiteness (which are about white privilege and white supremacy in the US, but are often uncritically adopted in South Africa) and joined the Institute of Race Relations which now operates as a super political action committee (Super PAC) inside the DA, pushing for a return to more traditional liberalism.

This puts the individual at the centre of politics and policy rather than advocating for group rights, which is where the DA has moved as it tries to attract black voters.

Zille’s own political brand has moved from a position of traditional non-racialism to a more libertarian stand that eschews the identity politics that define South Africa’s political culture today and can be seen as protecting privilege.

In other words, she is more conservative than she used to be and more often speaks up for white and other minority rights than earlier incarnations of the Zille personality. Will she move the DA in the same direction? To answer the question, it’s worth looking at why the DA is losing support in one of its largest constituencies.

Why is the Freedom Front Plus making gains on the DA?

Three tweets or sets of tweets help understand what has happened. In January 2019, Schweizer-Reneke teacher Elana Barkhuizen tweeted images of her classroom which appeared to show that she divided her little learners by race. In fact, they sat in language groups for a part of the day and the full set of images revealed that mixed racial groups were another norm.

But before researching context, the DA youth leader Luyolo Mphithi joined an incendiary Twitter campaign to condemn her as part of a viral campaign of black fury. This alienated DA voters in droves.

Daily Maverick confirmed this with two sources in the DA, who say it came up in research.

In May 2018, when Ashwin Willemse dropped his mic at allegedly being patronised by Naas Botha and Nick Mallet in a SuperSport studio during live rugby commentary, Mmusi Maimane tweeted about the links between white privilege and black oppression. This did not sit well with DA voters for whom Botha and Mallet are revered figures because of their leading roles in South African rugby.

At the other end of the spectrum, Zille drove away black supporters with her tweeted thread on why colonialism had both positive and negative legacies which she wrote on a trip to Singapore where Lee Kuan Yew built on the colonial infrastructure to create an economy admired around the world.

The political landscape is changing. Two or three years ago people were still thinking there were two dominant parties and that the opposition in a two-party scenario would have a chance of winning and coming into power,” says Werner Weber, the Freedom Front Plus Mpumalanga leader where the DA lost significant support in by-elections in Bethal and Lydenburg this month.

For Weber, this signals a shift in SA politics where coalitions of parties can be an electoral threat. He says:

We had a tremendous change in the May election. (Since then) we have had two by-elections where the FF Plus has beaten the DA and won wards.” In Mpumalanga, for example, FF Plus support went from 8% to more than 30%. In Bethal, a traditionally DA ward, the party beat it on what Weber calls DA home ground.

These two by-elections were not about local issues. These are about the things that are hurting us [white Afrikaans-speaking people] like affirmative action, BEE, marginalisation at universities, language issues,” says Weber, adding that “people do not feel the DA is looking after those issues”. In the Schweizer-Reneke case, he says “People [white people] viewed the DA driving a racist agenda against their members.”

Crystal-clear values?

In the post-win press conference on Sunday Zille said:

The DA’s values are crystal clear,” but in fact for all of this year, different factions of the DA have contested these values. The party is a divided house on economic policy, on land redistribution, on group identify politics versus the liberal humanism of its constitution and on whether its tactical alliance with the EFF in Johannesburg and Tshwane is a good or a bad thing.

In the past two weeks, the DA in Gauteng has campaigned to show how its multi-party government in Johannesburg has been good for residents while Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba has defended both co-government and his friendly alliance with the EFF. His view is these alliances allow him to get things done without the fear of a string of EFF-led no-confidence votes that, for instance, saw Trollip tossed after a few months as Nelson Mandela Bay metropolitan mayor.

But, at a national level, this tactical alliance with the EFF is hurting the DA as the red beret party’s race rhetoric — where it called the displacement of Trollip an act of “slitting the throats of whiteness” — is disliked by the DA constituency.

There are now two clear centres of power in the DA and the party will go into next year’s elective congress as a house as divided as the ANC did when it went into its 2017 presidential elective congress. DM


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