South Africa


Making the DA white again?

Making the DA white again?
Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

When Mmusi Maimane resigned as Democratic Alliance leader it was not merely a leadership change but a return to a direction that had been discarded, where ‘merit’ is everything and being representative of the population as a whole is depicted as antagonistic to non-racialism. The DA returns to a path that will make it unelectable, being ‘colour blind’ and losing black, especially African trust and support.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Many have remarked on the ANC being in deep crisis but the DA, after substantial gains in municipal elections in 2016 and not being in a position to take advantage of this disarray, is itself falling into a crisis that could impact on its own existence.

I have a background in the forerunner to the DA, the founding organisation, the Progressive Party that emerged as a breakaway from the United Party, in 1959. My parents were founding members, and I became a Young Prog and remained one until about the age of 18 when I moved closer to the Liberal Party and universal suffrage and ultimately to the ANC/SACP. I have been unaligned since 2006, i.e. unaligned to any political party, but aligned with values that I believe are common to those who are committed to an ongoing enhancement and amplification of our freedom in all aspects of South African life.

I mention my background because, despite the Progressive Party being in some respects more conservative than the DA in believing in a qualified franchise, many of its leading figures were men and women of great compassion and integrity. There was not one iota of racism in the consciousness of Donald Molteno QC, Colin Eglin, Zach de Beer, all of whom I knew because they were based in Cape Town. (I did not get to know Helen Suzman at that point, but when she used to visit political prisoners she took important steps to improve our situations.) They and Ken Andrew, who was closer to my age, set about their work with dedication and selflessness, for there was little to gain from being a Progressive Party member at that time. I also remember, as a young man, how carefully Colin Eglin listened to what I had to say, how he made me feel that I ought to think out what I had to say more precisely if a key figure in the party was so interested in listening.

The DA of today speaks with multiple voices. Still, there is little sign of compassion, of the “ethic of care”, and what was striking in Mbali Ntuli’s announcement of her candidature for the DA leadership was that she specifically mentioned kindness, compassion, fairness and empathy. It is true that the DA policy document has a small section on page four on “compassion”, but it comes across as soulless and technocratic.

The DA of recent times has grown in numbers, before the recent setbacks, and one of the prices paid for this electoral growth has been the swallowing up of previous opponents. The humanistic character of the former Progressive Party has now assimilated some who were in the reactionary United Party of Sir De Villiers Graaff and the New National Party (NNP). This is also the case with the ANC, with very mediocre political figures being made ANC ministers or deputy ministers, and others rewarded simply for “crossing over”. Because the ANC has lost its political commitment to ideas and values, there was nothing much into which the former NNP leaders and members needed to be inducted. It would be interesting to know how these people articulate their political understanding.

In spite of gaining more votes, the DA lacked one crucial quality, i.e., electoral appeal to the majority component of the electorate, Africans, and to a significant extent other sections of the black population.

This led, in the Helen Zille period of leadership, to a DA version of toyi-toying, dancing and singing. Despite what may be said about not putting people in positions because they are of a particular race, there is no doubt that apart from their competence, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane were made leaders because the DA needed to change its imagery, the idea in many people’s mind that it is a white party.

In both cases, the African leaders were not given the space to lead, and Mazibuko has withdrawn entirely from electoral politics. Maimane gave his best, it seems, to make the party succeed but was very conscious of the need to alter its imagery and to demonstrate greater sensitivity to the lived experience of black people who could potentially support, or were already in, the DA.

But Mmusi Maimane was not allowed to succeed. He was not a very experienced politician, but instead of helping to augment his qualities, he was undermined by a divided caucus and leadership, some supporting him and others undermining him.  

Mmusi Maimane resigned after an internal report called for his resignation, among other reasons, for being “conflict averse”. My understanding of leadership is that one advances a vision based on the policies of a party and has to win over the membership of the party to advance that vision. The notion of a vision is not exactly the same as the policies of a party. Indeed, the policies of a party embrace a common outlook and approach to the present and the future. But leadership, to be emancipatory, needs to go beyond the wording of party policies and elaborate on these in line with the basic values of the party. It is part of leadership for the leader to enhance the vision of the party and to take it to a new place, to have its principles enriched through drawing on new ideas and possibilities for the present and the future.

In building a party, it is surely desirable to build consensus, encouraging the type of compromise that would hold the party together, especially if one wants to move it to a new place within the framework of the leader’s interpretation of its values and policies? In Maimane’s shoes, there were obstacles to building consensus on the part of those who did not want to see the DA realign in the light of needing to appeal to the population as a whole, and win over black (African, Coloured and Indian) support.

At the same time, taking a stand against any single grouping within the party (“conflict”) was risky because of the continued hold that Helen Zille and other longstanding leaders have demonstrated to still have over party support. (See Mondli Makhanya). 

The Zille supporters never wanted the party to change and that is why she never actually retired. Retirement would have meant ensuring that the new leader had space to be a new leader, without continually having to look over his shoulder to see what the former leader was saying on Twitter or other fora, disrupting or undermining what Maimane wanted to do. Ideally, having anointed him, she ought to have been part of his back-up. That never happened.

Race and representivity

Furthermore, for any opposition party to grow in the context of South Africa, its history and its population, means that the party has to appeal beyond the white leadership that has always run the party. It has to be representative of the population as a whole. The Ryan Coetzee commission (together with former DA leader, Tony Leon and Capitec’s Michiel le Roux) says that the notion of representivity is incompatible with the values of the DA. The DA policy document, likewise, rejects “race” as a way to categorise people and to understand their experiences.

Gwen Ngwenya, the DA’s policy head, says of race: “Of course, it is important, but I don’t want it to take all the oxygen in the room.”

Now that is an eloquent turn of phrase, but what is its explanatory value? Is anyone suggesting that race is the only relevant question? If not, the salience of race is being presented in a caricature. Without addressing race, in its interrelationship with class, gender and other salient features of our reality, there is no way that a party can proclaim itself as the bearer of non-racialism. (See Raymond Suttner, “Understanding Non-racialism as an Emancipatory Concept in South Africa”, Theoria, 2012 – available on request). In the history of the ANC-led liberation movement, race was never understood in isolation as a singular determining factor. It was always mediated by other facets of  oppression and exploitation in the broadest sense affecting all aspects of life, including class, culture, religion, and in more recent times, gender. Ngwenya and the DA policy document empty race of the context and relationships in which it operates.

Let us break down the issues that the DA embraces and eschews. Thereby it makes itself unelectable as a future ruling party of South Africa, even at a time when the ANC is undergoing a crisis of credibility and survival.

In order to address the question of race one needs to ask and/or raise distinct questions:

Is it desirable for a party in South Africa to have the face that it puts before the public remain a primarily white one, 25 years into democracy? Certainly, many of its leaders are competent and articulate. They have many merits, but these are very different in their reference points from people in the townships or emerging from the townships or deep rural areas.

It is said that race cannot displace merit. But how do we understand merit? It cannot only be that of academic degrees or types of experience from which black people have largely been barred.  

There often is specific merit in coming from the oppressed communities, bearing the imprint of that experience, knowing what it is like to suffer oppression, not just from textbooks but from living it out or seeing it lived out in one’s own family or others.

The DA believes that this entails a quota system and that is incompatible with the “sovereignty of the individual” and individual freedom that the DA wants to advance. But the starting blocks for having or achieving certificated merit or the experience that many professionals acquire are not the same.

Even in organisations that are pledged to equality, those who start with more privilege, as is the case primarily with whites, are not meeting their black comrades or fellow members on the basis of equality. It is an inequality that is inherited and still bears on the opportunities that whites still generally have, in comparison with black people.

When I was in the UDF in the 1980s and the ANC in the 1990s (earlier I was underground so that these questions did not arise in my experience) I needed to be very conscious of where I came from and how I interacted, which was not simply settled through understanding the Freedom Charter or drawing on ANC policies.

I needed to appreciate that I had the privilege of higher education that most of my comrades did not have the opportunity to acquire. I had to use what I had gained in higher education in a way that helped empower others, that brought me closer rather than increasing the distance between us. Too often intellectuals use their minds as weapons to put others down or to assert their intellectual “might” or to evoke admiration.

I had to be conscious in visiting a branch in a rural area or a poor township that I may have been the only one there with a university degree, and I had to speak in a way that did not merely evoke wonder and admiration. I had to express myself in a way that enabled others to engage with, and where necessary, disagree with or criticise me.  

Now I could never achieve the level of accessibility in communication that someone like Chris Hani could, speaking in African languages, especially isiXhosa, indeed deep rural isiXhosa. But even when I heard him speak in English, he knew how to explain things in a way that I had not yet learnt. He knew this because of his rural background and his long years of organising. He would break down what it meant to be without access to clean water, not simply by citing statistics or that there was a spread of disease, but he would go through and break down the facets of the daily activities of a person, demonstrating how this absence of water and lack of cleanliness and hygiene impacted on their lives. That is the type of experience that carries little weight with the DA.

Those of us who were all equals on various structures also had different access to resources. In the 1980s I was a lecturer, and I had a car. After UDF meetings, I would drive Paul Mashatile back to Alexandra Township. It has been noted for the unions how non-Africans tended to have a range of resources, like access to lawyers that created a sense of inequality between them and the African workforce. These are sensitive issues that cannot merely be brushed over through reference to the “sovereignty of the individual”.

It appears that Mmusi Maimane did not inherit the type of social capital that Helen Zille had built up through contact with funders and as a result of having been a DA leader for very long. Maimane was parachuted into national leadership but without mentoring and backing that he could trust. There was no attempt to build on what he brought into the leadership.

The cumulative effect of the Coetzee report, the return of Zille, the resignation of Maimane and the policy document is to attempt to set the DA back on a course where it recovers the white voters that it lost in the 2019 elections. In doing so, it may also return to being a white party. It may or may not gain electoral support, but it seems certain to lose what it had gained in black support in recent years. That will reinforce the (questionable) idea in the minds of many black voters that, whatever its serious shortcomings, only the ANC can be trusted to provide social grants and other gains that have been made. DM

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities.  He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.


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