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As Steenhuisen’s Battlestar Galactica lumbers into gear, are we seeing a moonshot or a howl in the dark?

As Steenhuisen’s Battlestar Galactica lumbers into gear, are we seeing a moonshot or a howl in the dark?
Illustrative image | Sources: DA leader John Steenhuisen. (Photo: Gallo Images / Darren Stewart) | Rawpixel | Unsplash

It can be argued that the moonshot pact is a creative solution to the existential crisis the DA has had to manage in recent years, and how the party defines liberalism in a society as unequal as ours, particularly with its racial fault lines.

Earlier this week, final preparations for the launch of South Africa’s electoral version of Battlestar Galactica were made public.

The countdown to August has begun, as the Democratic Alliance (DA), the Freedom Front Plus (FF+), ActionSA, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the United Independent Movement (UIM) and the two-year-old Spectrum National Party inch towards their national convention.

According to DA leader John Steenhuisen – lead pilot of the “moonshot” mission – a few other parties are expected to hitch a ride, or at least attend the launch as observers.

As expected, the announcement has added fuel to the excitement among pundits who wager that the African National Congress (ANC) will be brought some distance below 50% at a national level. Depending on where one stands on the political spectrum, such an outcome would represent welcome progress – or an unmitigated disaster.

If the 2021 local government elections are used as a bellwether, it is instructive that the ANC not only dipped below 50% on aggregate, but it also went down by more than nine percentage points in four provinces, compared with 2016.

The ANC had already been trending downwards since 2009.

Mixed DA fortunes

However, the leader of the moonshot pact, the DA, has also had mixed fortunes. In 2021 its overall support decreased by some five percentage points compared with 2016. In the Western Cape – where it is the incumbent – it declined by about nine percentage points.

It can be argued that the moonshot pact is a creative solution to the existential crisis the DA has had to manage in recent years: how to approach issues of racial redress, haemorrhaging support among white Afrikaner and coloured communities, and the departure of senior black leaders. The crisis boils down to how the party defines liberalism in a society as unequal as ours, particularly with its racial fault lines.

Faced with this dilemma, the DA seems to have settled on defending its right flank and fishing from a smaller pond by consolidating white support which had remained solid at 90% in this community. The coalition pact allows it to have its cake and eat it, by pursuing this approach while drawing partners to pad vulnerable flanks and sue for national office.

Besides party mobilisation in the white community and supportive media analysts, all manner of “apolitical” platforms such as country clubs and golf estate community forums are being marshalled to ensure success.

Some of the scenarios being painted in these sessions include:

  • Reducing national electoral support for the ANC so far below 50% that it would not be able to retain political office through a coalition with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the so-called “Doomsday scenario”;
  • Even if this fails in 2024, the opposition pact should ensure a majority in the “main” provinces of the Western Cape, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal and pursue a federalist devolution of powers;
  • Mobilising for the largest voter turnout possible among DA supporters while encouraging the opposite, especially in African townships and among the black middle strata; and
  • Persuading public servants at national and provincial levels to support the pact by assuring them that there would not be wholesale dismissals, even of those perceived to be aligned to the ANC.

This is, of course, the stuff of democratic electoral politics.

But, among those who genuinely wish to see a fundamental transformation of South African society from its apartheid past, there is a genuine fear that such a project would bring an end to the efforts to attain the ideals of the Freedom Charter and the country’s Constitution. This applies particularly to economic and social rights.

This apprehension is about more than just narrow party-political preferences. Leaving aside the claims about effective delivery, which have been so spectacularly debunked in places such as Tshwane, there are two important conceptual issues at play. The first is about the essence of the socioeconomic platform espoused by the leader of the moonshot alliance. The second relates to whether the Constitution is capable of imposing limits on extreme radicalism from both the right and left of the political spectrum.

Given South Africa’s challenges of poverty and inequality, defined largely by race and gender, concern about the DA’s socioeconomic policies attaches to, among others, the promotion of wholesale privatisation of state assets; antipathy towards Black Economic Empowerment, and suggestions of cheap labour through an overly flexible labour market.

On the whole, the DA seems to believe in an unbridled free market, with increased social grants and cash transfers thrown in as a sop. Insulting references to “tribal chiefs”, “tribal boundaries” and “tribal subjects” in sections of its policy documents do underline, to borrow a phrase, the party’s attitude of mind.

Constitutional protections

What about protections afforded by the Constitution against extreme right and left policies?

The starting point is that the basic law of the land is a broad canvas, and South Africa relies on the judiciary to define the limits within which the free will of political players can be exercised. The concern, however, is that policy and administrative actions – at either end of the political spectrum – that may appear innocuous, can insidiously threaten the transformative essence of the democratic order.

State Capture is one such instance. Expropriation of land without compensation, combined with state ownership of all land, is another example that would result in such enormous power to state functionaries as to encourage dictatorial conduct and corruption. The DA’s socioeconomic platform does have elements of concerning extremes. Would the judiciary be able to prevent this?

Related to both these issues is foreign policy and where South Africa would locate itself under a moonshot pact.

To illustrate this pointedly: would a moonshot government abandon support for Palestinians’ quest for freedom and statehood, given the DA’s affinity to the Israeli government and its right-wing prime minister, demonstrated, for instance, during then-leader of the DA Mmusi Maimane’s 2017 visit, and Johannesburg leader Mpho Phalatse’s infamous 2018  “friends of Israel” speech for which she had to apologise?

What about the current government’s firm “one-China” policy? Considering the 2016 visit to Taiwan by the DA’s then-mayor of Tshwane, Solly Msimanga, would we see South Africa perhaps becoming a sixth member of the current “Five Eyes” alliance of English-speaking countries (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States) that seems bent on preventing the global rise and pre-eminence of an Oriental power?

True values

All this and more inform the apprehension among those who genuinely care about South Africa’s journey from its apartheid past. Beyond party-political preferences, this concern also relates to our nation’s true values, at the centre of which is a democratic and humane system in which all social rights are progressively and speedily realised.

Of course, the Battlestar Galactica effort may well turn out to be a case of merely howling at the moon. The ANC is striving to reverse its fortunes and emphasising the fundamental changes that have taken place since 1994, acknowledging the wasted years of State Capture which were followed by Covid, and, in government, focusing on immediate challenges such as load shedding, the logistics nightmare and the spike in crime.

Many do believe that, with all the reforms and the focus on implementation, the economy should start growing at 3% of GDP and higher sooner than expected.

However, all scenarios – especially those with the most uncertain variables – deserve reflection. South Africans cannot afford to be caught off-guard. DM

Joel Netshitenzhe is Executive Director at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra).


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • William Stucke says:

    So, we have an ANC NEC member criticising the DA in this article. How much credence do YOU think that we should place on this?

    • Henry Henry says:

      And note that Netshitenzhe’s one big contribution to the New RSA mess is cadre deployment.
      History will remember him for that.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      Super funny. Love the word “lumbering” – you see, this word is more correctly spelled “ANC”.

      Likewise with “useless”, “criminal”, “embarrassing”…

      Eish, the list is simply too long.

  • Steve Davidson says:

    Health warning: this oke is an ANC member, so don’t believe a word he says.

  • Louise Wilkins says:

    The main issue is that the DA is not corrupt and immoral. Just that in itself is the milestone we need to move forward.

  • Glyn Silberman says:

    It is said, He who laughs last laughs longest.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    Get your own party (ANC) in order before criticizing others. As failures go, rarely has there been a failure so complete, so deeply entrenched with so little hope for change as what the ANC has invoked on this country over the last 25 years. Why don’t you read William Gumede article in today’s DM REBUILDING THE NATION OP-ED
    “Why is South Africa so corrupt? We must rebuild our democratic moral values”. The fact that you cannot see these obvious failings tells us all about your own integrity and misguided loyalty that we ever need to know.

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Quite selective nitpicking from the author, although if the DA wants to govern, it has to address these issues – and do it transparently and honestly, unlike the ANC. You can’t choose what you’d like to answer, and what is uncomfortable.

    “But, among those who genuinely wish to see a fundamental transformation of South African society from its apartheid past, there is a genuine fear that such a project would bring an end to the efforts to attain the ideals of the Freedom Charter and the country’s Constitution.”

    This did make me laugh: the ANC has, frankly, done everything in its power to keep the majority of South Africans disenfranchised and impoverished through abysmal education, healthcare, safety and security delivery, lack of access to decent basics such as power, water and sanitation, actual, sustainable jobs (not the bullshit ‘job opportunities’ that the ANC spouts) and callous violence from the state as witnessed this week by Mashatile’s bodyguards, and previously in any number of service delivery protests where the police have turned violent.

    Sorry, Mr Netshitenzhe, but methinks a bit more ‘strategic reflection’ on your part is required to understand just how similar the ANC has become to the apartheid regime in terms of service delivery.

  • Bee Man says:

    DA and its potential allies are far from perfect, yes. But they are vastly better than ANC and EFF whether acting alone or in alliance. We all know first hand and have a thousand examples of the destructive powers of the ANC… nearly 30 years in power and nothing but failure and rampant crime and corruption.
    Anyone in their right mind must know through pure logic and experience that this country can not continue on this trajectory. Something has to happen to change the trajectory. Any intelligent person denying this is being the proverbial ostrich.
    DA has proved a thousand times over that they will do a better job than than the ANC… Let’s all then give them the chance to implement these improvements on the national level.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Apartheid apartheid; the cross on which we are determined to crucify ourselves.

    South Africa can either continue to wallow and ultimately drown in it, or we can focus on things that can actually make a real tangible difference to all of us. Power, clean water, roads, health, education, law enforcement, the judiciary, accountability.

    When these things are achieved the legacy of apartheid will be truly vanquished.

    So wake up and vote for the party actively committed to delivering these things. The DA.

    Duh, it’s just so obvious.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    The ANC is WORRIED! There is no other option to get the ANC out. There will be “operational issues” but with a realistic approach by all parties those can be overcome. The DA must realise that it is the biggest but not the only member of the Moon Shot Pact (MSP) and the smaller parties must realise that they are smaller and less powerful as per their democratic numbers.

    I wish the MSP the best of luck and full success!

  • Paul Zille says:

    Take this from whence it comes.
    Mr Netshitenzhe was a key architect (in Mbeki’s administration) of State Capture and the other ruinous ‘challenges’ suffocating SA. All logical and inevitable consequences of the National Democratic Revolution, the core doctrine of the ANC – which he also co-produced – and which is reaffirmed at every ANC party congress. Think cadre deployment, ‘seizing the commanding heights of the economy (i.e. SoEs)’ etc. etc. etc.
    This is the man behind the Mapungubwe Institute’s political analysis.

  • Change is good sa says:

    Joel, you talk about the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance preventing the global rise of an Oriental power. Who would want China, a human rights tragedy, to be the world power. Tibet, Mongolia, Hong Kong, the Uighurs and now Taiwan. Their successful businessmen have been silenced, there is no freedom of speech. ‘The five Eyes’ alliance are not perfect, but you can write this article because we have their style of human rights written into our constitution. The ANC have destroyed any good that they did early on after 1994. The ANC have not stopped siphoning trillions out of the fiscus for 30 years and it needs to be stopped. I say we need a moonshot and we need change. Going backwards under the DA will not happen, these are just your scaremongering tactics to make people feel insecure. There will never be 3% growth under the ANC, ever. They are not business friendly and you need ease of doing business to have that growth again. The DA is not an ‘extreme’ party, they believe in law and order. This is how well functioning societies work, people have to live within the law. Is this not better than the numerous tragedies that happen everyday in SA due to the ANC allowing law and order to disintegrate and disappear completely in some places. I would prefer a functional environment in which the majority of SA citizens prosper.

  • Elizabeth Louw says:

    Please always post en explanation on what a moonshot is and where it originates from… it is obviously not just aiming at the moon…

  • Martin Ernst says:

    You don’t see the hypocrisy in obliquely critising your so called “Five Eyes” alliance which aims to prevent a country with a well known and documented history of (and continued) human rights abuses, and yet just a couple of sentences later you claim that you seek “a democratic and humane system in which all social rights are progressively and speedily realised”.
    China’s model is most definitely not democratic, humane or at all concerned with any kinds of rights, social or otherwise, and yet you embrace them wholeheartedly, much like the genocial maniac whose coat-tails you hang on to so dearly in Russia.
    You represent a party completely abject of morality, without any sense of humanity left in it, and absolutely no idea how to direct South Africa to any kind of rennaissance. It is a sorry representation of the depths of moral decay and South Africa will be much better off once the dregs of your kleptocracy / kakistocracy are relegated to the rubbish heap of history.

  • Johan Buys says:

    I wish we do get rid of the ANC.

    I am however reminded of the old story of a Danish couple visiting the West Coast and being puzzled by the open crates of crayfish on the beach. “Why don’t the crayfish climb out and escape back to the sea” they asked.

    Came the reply: “Nay madam, these are mos South African crayfish! As soon as one guy gets two legs on the edge of the crate, his mates must drag him back down”

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    Fresh coming from you, Joel, all this spinning in the hope that the dust obscures the dismal failure of your party. You’ve had all the chances in the world to make a massive success of this country. Despite that, we are worse off than we were 30 years ago. It’s a disgrace. (It’s actually a *ucking disgrace). But the truth of the matter is that we are essentially a very conservative society with a very progressive constitution. It’s not a good fit, it turns out. White and Black conservatives are on opposite poles, based on race, which the ANC has done nothing to discourage. We are in a mess, such a big mess not even a change of government, welcome as that would be, would change. Thanks to your party. Rest easy, though, we will not be caught off-guard.

  • khathun says:

    A well thought article, and is not far from truth. Mr Netshitenzhe is not advocating that ANC is a holy cow without problems and mistakes. He is clearly implicating that, it is still the very relevant in pursuing the agenda of reducing poverty and inequality in South Africa. Nobody, including oppositions can soberly dispute that. There is absolutely no reasons for crucify him for this reality.

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