South Africa


The DA: Better or worse than expected?

The DA: Better or worse than expected?
DA supporters at a campaign leading up to the closing rally in Umngeni municipality in Howick, attended by party leaders John Steenhuisen, KZN leader Francois Rodgers, national spokesperson Siviwe Gwarube, KZN chairperson Dean Macpherson and mayoral candidate Chris Pappas. (Photo:Mandla Langa)

Can the DA galvanise its elected representatives and get them to use the next period of our politics to make a positive difference to Parliament, provincial legislatures and councils, which ultimately resonates with voters — or is the party like the current ANC — a party in a slow, but consistent decline?

The Democratic Alliance (DA) won just shy of 27% of the local government vote in 2016. The party had mayors in four of the eight metros. The DA was very different from the one led by Tony Leon in its formative years when it seemed destined to be a reliable and effective opposition, and where its rule would not extend beyond the Western Cape.

The DA getting just shy of the 27% mark in 2016 meant that it was now large enough to be blessed with its Cope moment. Three high-profile leaders quit the party and started their own organisations. Patricia de Lille started Good, Mmusi Maimane founded the One South Africa movement and Herman Mashaba formed ActionSA. 

It was highly improbable that the party would match its 2016 performance, but its 22% share of the vote on 1 November 2021 was well shy of its 2011 result, when it won 24% of the vote. The party ousted Mmusi Maimane after its decline in 2019. If this is the precedent, will the same fate befall current party leader John Steenhuisen? There are some differences as this was his first election as a leader and he stepped in when the party was nosediving. So while the axe might not fall, Steenhuisen will have to think long and hard on whether he is the best person to lead the party into the 2024 elections. 

Gauteng: Magnificent Midvaal and a mauling in the metros

Gauteng has three metros and six local municipalities. Midvaal  (Meyerton) was the only municipality that was not hung after this election. Voters broke again for the DA as the party won two additional seats and increased its majority in this relatively small municipality in southern Gauteng.

There was also a Midvaal effect in neighbouring Emfuleni (Vereeniging), where the DA increased its seats from 21 to 24 and closed the gap between it and the ANC to 14 seats, compared with the 30 seats it had previously been. Despite losing ground to the Freedom Front Plus in the suburbs, the party managed to increase its support in townships such as Evaton and Sebokeng. Its advances in the south did not replicate itself in the metros. 

In Johannesburg, the party lost more than a quarter of its seats, ending up with 71 after going into the election with 97. ActionSA was the main cause of this crash where its message caught on in the suburbs, and Herman Mashaba’s party also won over some of the DA voters in the townships.

The DA continued to lose coloured support to Gayton McKenzie’s Patriotic Alliance. It also lost some Muslim support to Al-Jama-ah and Afrikaner support to the Freedom Front Plus. In Ekurhuleni, the DA lost 11 seats, ending on 65. Here the party lost support to ActionSA, the Freedom Front Plus and the PA. The Freedom Front Plus had a bigger impact on the DA in Ekurhuleni than it did in Johannesburg. 

The result in Tshwane was strange. The DA lost more than a quarter of its seats, bagging 69, after going into the election with 93. The ANC finished ahead of the DA after losing 14 seats, ending up with 75. It regained the first spot it lost in 2016. Here the DA was hurt in almost equal measure by the Freedom Front Plus and ActionSA. Despite this woeful result for the DA, the party has a much clearer path to a stable coalition this time around.

The party is unlikely to continue being held hostage by the EFF as it can form a coalition with ActionSA, Freedom Front Plus, the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) and Cope. The party would have more seats than all the other coalition partners combined and would have a legitimate claim to the mayoral chain. The DA leading a stable coalition could help it arrest its decline in Tshwane and use both Tshwane and Midvaal as potential models of DA excellence in 2024.

Western Cape: The curious case of Cape Agulhas

The DA’s trump card in this election was the Auditor-General’s report. The loss of its majority in Cape Agulhas was emblematic of the DA’s woes in this election.

The party’s three biggest drawbacks were the above-mentioned ActionSA, Freedom Front Plus and also local parties.

In Cape Agulhas, the Freedom Front Plus won a seat and a local party gained an additional seat. The DA lost its outright majority in one of its flagship municipalities. The party lost ground in Cape Town, but was still well ahead of all the other parties.

The DA lost small bits of support to parties like Good, the Cape Coloured Congress, the Freedom Front Plus and the ACDP. Having said that, it has in excess of 90 seats more in the Western Cape than its closest challenger — the fading ANC.

In George and Drakenstein (Paarl), the party lost support to Good, the Freedom Front Plus and local parties. The DA will be more vulnerable on the provincial ballot here in 2019 and while the ANC is in continual decline in the Western Cape, and no single party has emerged as the likely successor to the DA in the province, it will have to reduce the loss of voters to Good, Freedom Front Plus, the PA, the ACDP and so on.

Mayors like Geordin Hill-Lewis (Cape Town), Gesie van Deventer (Stellenbosch), Dirk Kotze (Mossel Bay) and Grant Riddles (Hessequa) are some of the people critical to the DA’s efforts to consolidate support over the next five years. 

KwaZulu-Natal: The Midlands manna

DA 2021 local elections

DA leaders take the stage in dance as they close their rally in uMngeni, KwaZulu-Natal. (Photo: Mandla Langa)

This was a tough election for John Steenhuisen. A real bright spot was the party’s historic victory in uMngeni (Howick) where the party won an outright majority. The election of 31-year-old Christopher Pappas generated much goodwill for him and the party.

This municipality will be vital for the DA as it tries to show voters the difference between an ANC administration, an Inkatha Freedom Party administration and a DA administration. The DA was also the party of choice among Indian voters. The party lost slight ground in eThekwini and Newcastle, but increased its support in Msunduzi (Pietermaritzburg). KwaZulu-Natal was one of three provinces in which the party registered growth between 2014 and 2019, and it will hope that it keeps ActionSA at bay here and continues to grow.

Eastern Cape: It went mostly south

Helen Zille all but relocated to Gqeberha. The party threw everything but the kitchen sink at Nelson Mandela Bay and came up well short of winning an outright majority. The DA lost nine seats in this coastal metro, finishing slightly ahead of the ANC but accruing the same number of seats as the ANC.

To rub salt in the wounds of the DA, the ANC has more options in forming a coalition to win back control. This was devastating for the DA. What made matters worse in Nelson Mandela Bay was that some of the seats lost went to parties that are more likely to work with the ANC than the DA.

The DA’s turnout differential advantage was not as pronounced as in 2016. This will also worry the party as the overwhelming bulk of DA voters is in this metro. If DA voters are no longer energised here, it is a concerning sign for the future.

The party held on to Kouga (Jeffreys Bay), a flagship municipality for the DA, but fell short in Kou-Kamma (Kareedouw) where it lost seats to the Freedom Front Plus and PA. In Beyers Naude (Graaff-Reinet), both the DA and ANC lost three seats each, and while the ANC lost its outright majority, it still has a better path to forming a government there.

The DA would have hoped for a blue wave to spread from Nelson Mandela to Kouga and encompass Graaff-Reinet, Kareedouw, even Cradock. The party largely failed in this regard. In the province’s other metro, Buffalo City, the DA remained the official opposition, but lost four of its 24 seats in the local government election. 

Central South Africa: Free State, Northern Cape and North West

In the Free State, the party mostly held its own, but was not able to exhibit significant growth. Where losses occurred it tended to be to the benefit of the Freedom Front Plus. In the Northern Cape, the party lost support to the Freedom Front Plus, PA and local parties.

In by-elections after the 2019 national elections, the Freedom Front Plus just needed to show up in North West DA wards to walk away with the prize. While the DA lost ground in the 2021 local government elections in JB Marks (Potchefstroom), Rustenburg and Madibeng (Brits) it was not as pronounced as what had occurred in those post-2019 by-elections.

While the DA continued to lose voters to the Freedom Front Plus in this province, it was not as severe as the party would have anticipated.

In the Northern Cape, the DA lost support in places such as Kimberley and Springbok to the Freedom Front Plus, the PA and local parties. The Northern Cape and Free State were two of the three provinces where the DA’s vote share had risen in 2019.

Northern Exposure

Limpopo was the party’s weakest province in 2019. Here, the DA was not just affected by the Freedom Front Plus, but also by not turning out DA voters. The DA was unable to hurt the ANC in a province where South Africa’s largest party is resolute. It was better in Mpumalanga, where the party went up to 17 seats from 12 in Govan Mbeki (Secunda). It also either held firm or lost slightly in places such as Mbombela, Middelburg (Steve Tshwete) and Emalahleni. 


ActionSA rattled the DA in the three Gauteng metros and the Freedom Front Plus, PA and local parties took bite-sized chunks out of the DA’s 2016 voter base. The party is in a precarious position on the road to 2024.

Is the DA in a downward spiral in which it will be overtaken by parties that are perceived to better resemble the 2016 version of the DA? And/or will the party continue to lose voters who see it as trying to represent too many groups, rather than properly representing its specific interests?

How does the party capture the imagination of voters again after two difficult elections for the party?

While the odds are stacked against the DA, for the next two-and-a-half years it is still the second-biggest party by a long way.

It has far more MPs and members of provincial legislatures than the EFF or the Freedom Front Plus. It has many more councillors than all its rivals bar the ANC. It will have fewer mayors between now and the national and provincial elections than it did before 1 November, but at least those mayors are likely to be in more secure coalitions and have a better chance of performing.

Can the DA galvanise its elected representatives and get them to use the next period of our politics to make a positive difference to Parliament, provincial legislatures and councils, which ultimately resonates with voters — or is the party like the current ANC — a party in a slow, but consistent decline? DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Coen Gous says:

    Wayne, interesting article, but you only covered some very broad statistics. In the Western Cape, the only province which is ruled by the DA, there was an overall an drop in support for the DA, and ActionSA did not put up any candidates. There was also a significant drop in support for the ANC right across the board. Apart from the still reasonable support in the Metro of Cape Town for the DA, it fared dismal in the rest of this large province. In Saldanha Bay (which include Vredenburg, Saldanha, Langebaan, Paternoster and St Helena Bay, die DA drop from 61% to 43% (and I know why because I live here, the service delivery simply declined significantly in 5 years). In Langeberg the DA fell below 50%, In Paarl, 66% to 55%. In Vredendal/Vanrynsdorp 54% to 37%. Cederberg, 55% to just 20%. And the list goes on and on. Anybody that comes and tell me that the “axing” of the “experiments”, like Mashaba, Musi, and many, many others of colour, and the return of Zille was not responsible for it, really don’t know what they are talking about. The DA pride themselves on good service delivery, which compared to the ANC might be true. But apart from maybe the other side of Table Mountain, that service delivery is in massive decline, and by and large, the working class coloured population across the board was simply ignored. Hence the massive increase in support for small parties and independents. Not the ANC, not the EFF. The DA, like the ANC, is unlikely to recover before 2024

    • Simon D says:

      Even Cape Town is looking shabby. Here in my suburb of Constantia in Cape Town, the sidewalks and lawns look unkept and dirty – literally right across the road from the councillors offices even. Sadly the DA has become arrogant and trade on “getting things done” but in reality the bar of competition is so low, it could be just throwing one can of coke in the bin and they’ve already done more.

  • John Pearse says:

    I think Daily Maverick is always harsh on the DA, they have a few well known DA bashers among their Journalists who continually turn out untruths. They made a poor weak choice of leader in Maimane and two confirmed leeches in Patricia de Lille and Herman Machaba both of whom joined the party for no other reason than to build personal support and to take it with them, both self-serving politicians. They certainly shed a few percentage points to these three but have emerged from this election, cleansed, focused and in a position to demonstrate their administrative abilities and their ability to uplift the lives of the poor in their existing and new areas of opportunity.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    I see the success of ActionSA as benefitting the DA, but more importantly SA, as if these two parties can make a success of their coalitions over the next three years, it will mean that black South Africans who can not bring themselves to vote for the DA but are content for ActionSA to work with the DA will give SA a real chance of at last saying goodbye to the ANC hegemony that has all but destroyed SA.

    • Simon D says:

      If Herman Mashaba’s ego and arrogance can fit into the room when negotiating coalitions.

      But I think John above hit the nail on the head, as peeved as I am for the DA.

  • Just Me says:

    @Coen Gous, you are sounding like a planet ANC or FF operative.

    Given the attack that the DA has come up against, mostly through the invested efforts of the ANC and the EFF, the DA has done remarkably well in spite of Mashaba, De Lille and Maimane, who were also acting as if they were in the ANC’s payroll.

    So, we will see, but I think you are just to blinded to see straight and you comments reflect it.

  • Hans Wendt says:

    Coenie , my man. Wherever the letters DA appear in a heading you have your gripe about the party.
    Good. Go for it, but leave the commentators to their opinion.
    I personally feel the DA is the best we have. The rest are just a bunch of gangsters in it to enrich themselves. Should you ever travel through the country it becomes a travesty to see what the ANC has done to the country, besides all the institutions which got plundered by the billions. My gripe. Peace brother.

    • Coen Gous says:

      Do you think I am a fool for NOT knowing it. The ANC has ****** up this country. Period. But that does not mean the party or Steenhuisen and Zille is the saviour of this, my beloved country. I have been severely criticised, insulted, by other commentators on another article on DM today, and again by the very same individuals in this very article, like the no name person just before your posting. Whatever your opinion might be, just tell me why then, why, in no uncertain terms, why the DA has lost so much support in the WC municipalities when the ANC has also gone backwards in the same municipalities, and the EFF has remained the same as before, like zero. I can’t vouch for other municipalities, but I know mine, which is Saldanha Bay. Municipal delivery service has dropped to pathetic levels in the 5 years since 2016. Perhaps not as bad as the rest of the country under the ANC, yet, but as the DA has now set their standard as the ANC, it will, if not already, be soon on the same level of being pathetic. And it is my democratic right to comment on anything that is written here, whether it is an article from the editor, or a comment by someone else. If you do not like criticism on your comment, do not write any. And please, I am not your brother.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    A good article , fact based. Personally, because of all the dire predictions from analysts, journalists and the general literati, I expected a far worse result for the DA, thinking they would just scrape by in Cape with 51-53 per cent. However, when I went to vote, the extremely long queues, admittedly in the leafy suburbs, made me think again. The losses of the party to both the Freedam Front and the Patriotic Alliance, as well as to ActionSA were to be expected for a number of quite different, but obvious reasons.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    The answer to your final question is that it depends on whether the DA acts with a national vision that unites or with a divisive approach based on conservative rhetoric. The country really needs a ‘refreshed’ DA

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