South Africa


Bullets on the ballot: With focus on guns and local service delivery, the DA faces an existential test in the coming local elections

Bullets on the ballot: With focus on guns and local service delivery, the DA faces an existential test in the coming local elections
Democratic Alliance registration posters in the Cape Town CBD on 22 June 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / ER Lombard) | Unsplash / Max Kleinin | DA leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach) | Voters cast their ballots at a by-election in Boksburg on 19 May 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / OJ Koloti)

While this year’s municipal elections may mark an inflection point in our politics, it is becoming clear that they will be absolutely vital for the Democratic Alliance — a make or break moment for its relatively new leadership, and possibly for the party itself. Strangely, for the moment there is no evidence that it is able to capture the national narrative despite the obvious examples of poor governance in ANC councils around the country.

The Democratic Alliance’s inability to capture the imagination of South Africans indicates that the party may find it hard going during the upcoming local elections which could, in fact, provide more evidence that the DA is losing its way. 

In some ways the major defining factor could be whether the DA fights these elections on issues of service delivery or tries to use identity issues to win votes. At the same time it may be struggling with its own internal stresses around identity issues as it claims to want to represent all groups in the country.

Going into this poll, the stakes could not be higher for the DA’s new leader, John Steenhuisen. Mmusi Maimane lost his position at least partly because of the party’s vote erosion during the 2019 general election. So far, the DA under Steenhuisen has not shown any sign of winning those votes back, and the recent by-elections have shown the party on a losing streak.

It is clear that the party is already campaigning. There are DA posters on display in some parts of Gauteng, saying that people should vote for it to improve service delivery.

In Ekurhuleni, the party is proposing a confidence vote in mayor Mzwandile Masina.

Masina may be vulnerable in that the ANC does not have a majority in Ekurhuleni, but instead relies on votes from the African Independence Congress. The AIC was formed to demand the redrawing of provincial boundaries around the town of Matatiele. So far, those boundaries have not been redrawn despite the party being in coalition with the ANC for nearly five years.

This will surely add more pressure on that coalition.

Masina is not the only vulnerable mayor. In Joburg, mayor Geoff Makhubo has been linked at the Zondo Commission to an act of corruption after he allegedly lied about payments his company received from the City of Johannesburg while he was its member of the mayoral committee for finance.

All around the country the evidence of service delivery failure is manifest — taps don’t work, electricity infrastructure is falling apart, roads are dangerously potholed and even hospitals have to ask NGOs like Gift of the Givers for help with basic needs such as water.

This makes service delivery an obvious campaign issue for the DA.

However, issues around the country’s huge, racialised inequality appear to create problems for the party. Earlier this week, it emerged that the DA has very few black members on its campaign team — most are white.

In an interview on eNCA, the party’s Geordin Hill-Lewis said this was because, while the party was “the most diverse party in the country”,  many of the “young black leaders don’t have the experience of running a campaign. They take hundreds of hours of campaign expertise and experience”.

This may be true. It may also be true that many of the more experienced black leaders have left the DA or no longer have a prominent public profile. People such as John Moodey have left to join Herman Mashaba’s Action SA, while others, such as Stevens Mokgalapa, were forced to resign as a result of scandals.

But the DA also runs the risk of presenting a picture of an exclusionary party rather than an inclusive one. To some voters it may appear that the positions that matter — the jobs that actually have real power in the party — are for white people.

One of the most important lessons for any South African politician is how important inclusion is, particularly because the majority was excluded for so long politically and feels excluded economically. 

This means for a party such as the DA, the image of inclusion is absolutely vital (it is possible that the DA could learn some lessons from President Cyril Ramaphosa on this).

Thus, any image of people being excluded, whether it involves a list of white campaign managers or an image of black children in a classroom at one desk and white children at another, or any other such expression, holds immense danger for the DA.

It may be that the DA is still unable to grasp the importance of this. While it believes its policy position against “race-based redress” is correct, many voters may in fact understand that policy as being designed to exclude them personally.

In the meantime, the DA has tried to drum up support in other ways.

On Tuesday, it held a “Guns Summit” involving people concerned about possible changes to laws around gun licences.

To get a gun licence you must provide reasons why you need the firearm. The law allows you to have such a licence for reasons of “self-defence”. An amendment to the law, proposed by the SAPS, would mean this reason is no longer valid. This would mean that many people who own guns now would have to surrender them.

The DA is clearly using this issue to gain political support. For some of its voters — perhaps its traditional white voters — it is a way to speak to their fears and desires.

But the DA’s critics might point to a much deeper subtext. They might claim that the party is using the old trope of a white man in Africa needing to protect himself and his family against black people. And that it all comes down to firing up the DA’s base of white voters.

Considering that the party has shown itself to be very concerned about losing support to the Freedom Front Plus in the 2019 elections, this appears to be an attempt to steal ground from the party. Here, the votes of people involved in farming may be crucial.

But there is a risk this could backfire.

The ANC — and the EFF — could easily make the claim that the DA is trying to encourage gun ownership and that this is about the power of white people. It does not matter that many black people own guns too and are equally concerned about losing their legal access to firearms.

It’s all about the way the issue is portrayed and how it becomes a symbol of the power relations in our society.

Critics of the DA have recently suggested that the country’s biggest opposition party is not interested in national power, but is happy to make do with an enclave in the Western Cape, or among white voters. While this is a startling claim to make, the DA has provided plenty of evidence to support it. Its leaders, unsurprisingly, deny this, saying they want to appeal to everyone.

But there is no evidence, as yet, that the party is speaking to the majority — that it is broadcasting an image of inclusion.

These elections will be a test to see if this strategy works. While it is impossible to make predictions at this point, there is little public evidence that the DA will be able to increase its share of the vote.

Whatever happens at the ballot box this October will have much deeper implications for the future of its new leadership, the DA as a party and for South Africa’s democracy itself. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Stephen, for once I am most surprised by one of your articles. Whilst I endorse everything you say, most readers of newspaper or internet online articles only read what they WANT to see, not what they CAN see. I can already “see” the reaction of two interest groups in this article: 1. Staunch DA supporters, and 2. Those individuals, and lobbying groups like Safe Citizen, who support and encourage private gun ownership. Fortunately, this article appears in DM. Whilst possibly having the highest quality of readership and support of any medium in South Africa, it is relatively small, and therefor will have limited exposure.

    • Jonathan Deal says:

      Mr. Gouws you certainly do hold authoritative views on wide-ranging topics. I’m not quite sure that you are qualified to weigh-in on Mr. Grootes’ article. What I am sure of is that you are carrying an assumption about Safe Citizen. Despite your sage prediction, I have no motivation to react to this article, but I do appreciate the additional exposure that Safe Citizen has garnered via your comment.

      • Coen Gous says:

        Knew you would reply, because it is part of you DNA. But Mr. Veal, I do not think you are qualified to comment on anything I have to say. Nevertheless, wish you luck with your company (consisting of more “Executive Board Members” than any listed company in South Africa). Hope you achieve your objective of having all citizens in this country carrying several guns in person, “American Style”, on the pretence it is for “Self Defence” Bazooka’s, hand grenades, assault rifles, will help. So may you start with kids, 8 years and older, ISIS style.

  • Steven Burnett says:

    It’s obvious that there only way to grow the DA to substantial levels is to increase its coloured and black voting base? Do that right and the white people will come.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    I noticed the writer has dropped his usual dilly-dallying through the use of words like ‘may’, ‘might’, ‘could’ etc etc as he twists and turns around upsetting power as if he’s at a Chubby Checker concert. Much more decisive around DA stories … Anyway, I don’t disagree with Mr Grootes. All you need to campaign on are a) service delivery b) protecting minority rights and most importantly c) getting black South Africans out of their present no-future unemployment hole. If you think you will win black votes with white leadership you are not reading the room. Forget about winning white votes. You have them anyway, and you can always make alliances where you don’t.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    The DA have lost the biggest opportunity in it’s history by letting the Gift of the Givers take social responsibilities where the DA could have scored big time. Stop focusing on being the political policemen and rather get involved with the communities who need it. Not only will the party be doing good but it will win votes faster than Julius can say “ I will kill you outside!”

  • Louis Potgieter says:

    Twee honde (FF+, DA) baklei oor ‘n been, en die derde (Action SA) gaan daarmee heen.
    (Two dogs fight over a bone, and a third takes it.)

    • Fanie Tshabalala says:

      It will take a few years, but I think you are correct. If Action SA can stay away from corruption, build a solid base, actually manage a municipality well, then they have a big future in SA. Still a big if though. The DA are imperfect, but they are tried and tested and have the best ideas in the country.

    • Coen Gous says:

      Love it Louis, I am right behind, and aside, you

  • Gordon Oliver says:

    What the DA lacks is a supportive daily press. IOL serves no purpose generally and other dailies are seemingly eager to confine themselves to the negative issues. No harm in that, criticism can be positive but there is so much going for DA in its policies; i.e. Putting the focus on merit – not race, growing a free market economy – not socialism, better service delivery a la Western Cape, and more powers to the provinces – less centralism and definitely not secession. These are the issues that the voters are concerned about.

  • R S says:

    “But the DA’s critics might point to a much deeper subtext. They might claim that the party is using the old trope of a white man in Africa needing to protect himself and his family against black people. And that it all comes down to firing up the DA’s base of white voters.”

    Critics like yourself perhaps? There is absolutely no evidence to this, and while I am anti-gun myself, I surprisingly support the rights of every individual to own one in SA. I understand we do not live in a utopia where one wouldn’t need a weapon, but in a country where violence is very much a way of life. I may live in (relative) security and not need a gun, but I refuse to to say to someone who needs it for protection “no, you can’t have one either”.

    In regards to national appeal, I think the DA has, in some way, accepted the following:

    There are far too many people who will judge them based solely on the colour of their skin, and not on their actions, and that to try and change their minds is almost impossible due to the scars left by Apartheid on the masses.

    I honestly believe you will have to have an entire generation (or two) die off before we have any chance of another political party taking over SA on its own. I think the DA will do its best to make itself as strong a coalition partner as possible, but they know they will not win an outright majority any time soon but they could have a role in national govt as a coalition partner.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    I posted a comment that criticised the negativity of the heading at the top of this article but it appears to have upset DM’s sensitivities and has not appeared in the comments.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    My suggestion was that rather than conclude the heading with a reference to the poor governance of the ANC, it would have been more appropriate, given that the article is about the DA, to have referred to the good governance of the DA councils.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    Chasing the comparatively tiny white vote is not going to help the DA much. If the party wants to expand nationally, it will have to appeal to a much wider group, especially nonwhites. It would be more popular if it were to concentrate on grassroots projects- infrastructure improvements and developments not just in the urban areas but in neglected townships, job creation, and a decent social grant system that would help alleviate the most impoverished.But is the DA listening?

  • John Bestwick says:

    Mr.Grootes. kindly visit Kouga to see just how a municipality can be turned around by outvoting the ANC rabble and thieves by the DA.

  • Andy Miles says:

    In any functioning democracy the corruption and mismanagement of service delivery at all levels of Government would have seen the ANC ousted. Alas not in Africa. Voters seem blind to incompetence. In SA the overlay of race purists. I agree with other comments that perception trumps reality, the facts. What policies might be election winning? The how of fixing; the corruption, the delivery of services – here the DA has solid examples at City, Cape Town and small municipalities, creating jobs by sound economic policy-do the big stuff, but be different by showing how we can, for example, build from within the township economies and rural rehabilitation, fixing the voilence and the justice system. There are many meaningful policies to win votes. The overall delivery should reflect how the implementation will happen. The party leadership should demonstrate teams that have racial, ethnic representation. Break the it’s all about only the leaders. To win elections broad support is needed from within diverse communities. The delivery, communication of the message of change, must be simple appropriate language not media speak. Talk to ordinary folk with plain truth. I’d try more communication by pictures. Broad communication strategy at grass roots level targeting both the main message but demonstrating handling local priorities for specific communities. It’s a long game approach, poor performance has not sunk the ANC. A new targeted approach required. The devil is in the detail.

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