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After the Bell: The DA’s thin, populist opposition strategy of bandwagon politics

After the Bell: The DA’s thin, populist opposition strategy of bandwagon politics
John Steenhuisen, leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), during a march to Parliament on 26 July 2023 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

What the DA is doing is this slightly ungainly mixture of latching on to a genuine issue, but also playing bandwagon politics. I mean, fine, you know, it's an opposition political party, what do you expect?  But at least find solutions that are actually genuine. 

The theory is that when you are young, you have what is called “a bad attitude”. When you are middle-aged, you are having a “crisis”. And when you get old, you are just grumpy. 

I think I must have reached that point. By nature, I think I have a positive outlook. I’m definitely an optimist about the economic future of the world, unlike the global majority who think, despite great quantities of evidence to the contrary, that we are all going to hell in a handbasket. But when it comes to politicians, I’m sorry, I just get grumpy. 

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years criticising the ANC. I mean, you know, if you face facts, it’s hard not to. But this morning, the focus of my grumpiness was the DA. The incident was sparked by an email from the DA in the name of its leader, John Steenhuisen. The email is really just an attempt to boost registration, but it does so in the name of the food-cost crisis. 

What irritates me about this is that the ANC might be responsible for an awful lot of things, but the one thing it’s not responsible for is the sudden, global increase in the price of food, except of course tangentially through its mismanagement of Eskom.

Global food prices moved from a base of about 90 in early 2020, with 100 being the long-term aggregate, and they then just exploded, reaching a peak of 160 towards the end of last year. Prices have been coming down since, a bit slower in SA as it happens, than elsewhere. 

The reasons are well known; the Covid crisis wreaked havoc with global food production and distribution, which was then exacerbated by Russia’s war on Ukraine and the global climate crisis. All this was made worse by government-backed direct financial support in some rich countries, which boosted expenditure particularly in the US, which put pressure on food supply. This is not a food production problem; it’s a supply and demand problem. But this 160 level has never been seen before, so it really has been a very unusual global phenomenon.

In some senses, you could argue that the SA government has been really seized by the issue, and has tried a whole range of measures to get prices down. The global figure is down to about 120, which is still very high by recent historical standards. In SA, there is currently an investigation about food prices by the Competition Commission. There is a lobby group trying to get supermarkets to sell some products below cost, or at least no higher than breakeven. 

One concrete action the government has taken is to reduce the import tariffs of chicken. You can tell this has been effective because one of SA’s big chicken producers, Astral, has just announced its first interim loss. Government is generally supportive of the SA chicken industry, but in these circumstances, the plight of the consumer took precedence, and I think rightly so. 

The DA’s solution to the food crisis is to demand that the government expand zero-VAT rating to the food basket by including bone-in chicken, tinned beans, peanut butter and baby food. Fine, but actually this demand has been around for years now, and the economics behind it is questionable. Treasury has actually looked at the issue, while economists have long ago come to the conclusion that zero-rating chicken would not make a significant difference. Chicken is only about 4.4% of the expenditure of poor households, so VAT would be around R154 a year. The social security grant is double that per month, so it’s definitely a more effective food-cost mitigator. 

What the DA is doing is this slightly ungainly mixture of latching on to a genuine issue, but also playing bandwagon politics. I mean, fine, you know, it’s an opposition political party, what do you expect? But at least find solutions that are actually genuine. 

I get the same sense from the DA’s response to the mini budget. Dion George, the DA’s Shadow Minister of Finance, does make one very important point, which is that the mini budget presented no effective plan to accelerate economic growth. But then he fails to articulate what the DA’s plan is. 

So many of the other points about the budget strike me as miss-cued. The press release says the government has demonstrated a “clear disinterest in having South Africa removed from the FATF greylist as fast as possible”. I just don’t think that is true – and neither would it make sense for the government to be “disinterested” because being on the FATF greylist increases borrowing costs, and those are just going skyward in a rocket-like fashion.

It’s not all terrible, but it just strikes me as kinda lightweight, particularly if you consider the DA is technically supposed to be representing the grand traditions of liberalism. For example, there is no criticism of the proposed tax increase. I just have this tiny inkling that DA voters, and South Africans in general, would probably prefer to not pay even more tax, but, you know, I might be wrong. 

I think what has happened is that a lot of the DA has slid into a very oppositional space, where few members really engage and think about the issues of the day because broad, generic criticism does suffice. 

There is no chance the DA will have to implement its policies on a national level, so why not just be the party of maximal critique? The party’s political weakness encourages an off-handedness.

Maybe I’m naive to expect more, but if you consider that populist leadership is a failure, then wouldn’t that mean populist opposition is lacking too? I certainly think so. DM

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  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    If John Steenhuizen said the moon was cheese to get people to vote DA I would support him.

    To criticism him for some electioneering in the face of the evil electoral engineering techniques employed by the ANC – vis a vis grants, food parcels, bussing people in and, worst of all, failing to educate and persistently reinforcing racial animosity

    …is from where I sit grumpy and stupid, rather than just grumpy.

    It is patently obvious that the DA is a light years better option than the ANC and the EFF, and yet our educated whiteys seem to love to bash them. Given the critical juncture our country is at it is a psychology that escapes me entirely.

    Do you want a better South Africa? If so, I strongly suggest you encourage people to vote for the optimal party we have right now, rather than dissing it.

    • Pet Bug says:

      I hear you Ricky, but am with Tim on this one.
      I’m just gobsmacked how dumb and wet teabag the DAs public utterances are.

      Every election they manage not to give voters short, sharp indications what their ideas/solutions are. Like “DA will make NSFAS WORK”. Or “DA will ensure trains are back on track”. Or “Your child WILL get a meal at school”. Or “DA towns have less load-shedding”. Or “Zero tolerance for crime”.
      But no.
      The ridiculous advisors the DA use come up with “Vote DA to rescue SA”.
      Okay, cool; so but how and where is this happening?

      It’s just useless, and hopeless and boring.

      And not in SA interest for the official opposition to not get with the program and put themselves out there with workable ideas as a party that wants to fix stuff and govern.

      • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

        Looks like I’m the odd one out here but I place stock what parties do rather than what they say.

        And the fact is there is overwhelming empirical evidence to show that the DA are doers.

        …and that the ANC and EFF are undoers.

        In fact one of the things I like about the DA is that they are a party of people, not a party of inept trough feeders led by a few grandstanding clowns driving posh cars and wearing Rolex watches.

        The DA are not flash, they are not glitzy, but behind the scenes they work tirelessly to protect every right of yours that you can imagine.

        They are literally the only hope we have in this swamp of ANC led sh*t.

        So to you and Tim I can only say, get in touch with the DA directly and help them with their marketing if you think you can, I’m sure they would value your input.

        …and repeat that dropping little personal rants like this in public forums is simply destructive for everyone in – what could and should be – our beautiful country, for all its people.

      • Paddy Ross says:

        Have you tried looking at the policies of the DA on their website? Like Ricky Rocker, I can not understand the antipathy of educated people towards the DA. I could not care less about political personalities. I am very interested in how they govern in the interests of their electorate.

        • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

          100% agree Paddy, thank you. And I will even extend your thinking to the following:

          Voting for any party based on personality rather than objectively against overall party strategy AND delivery against that strategy is to invite a whole world of pain.

      • frances hardie says:

        Stem saam!

  • Kenneth Arundel says:

    Please dont confuse constructive criticism for disrespect. Good solid debate on any subject is welcome, and come on man, everybody knows the moon is cheese! We dont need a politician to tell us that.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      This isn’t about respect or disrespect, it is about our country being in a terrible situation with no time left to correct and people sitting on the sidelines sniping at the wrong things in ways that are not helping our country.

      I am all for debate, but when your nose is all that remains above water on your sinking ship the time for debate is past.

      It is time to do.

  • Sally Laurens says:

    Just for once Tim, try to be less biased against the DA. They are trying to help the poor, and in areas where the DA is in the majority, the poor are benefitting greatly. Perhaps you don’t hear about this positive progress? Perhaps you should take a look? I’d disagree that ANC is not responsible for inflation. They are directly responsible for SA being in the grey list, which has weakened the rand. Which has pushed up the cost of oil. Lets have some positive news about successes and progress, created by any party, so we voters can make an informed decision about whom to vote for.

    • - Matt says:

      Sorry Sally, I agree with Tim here, and with Pet Bug. The DA has the opportunity to state what it stands for and all it comes up with is it stands against the AND and the EFF. There is much to be proud of, and to trumpet, in the work that is has done, and hopefully will do, but I think we’d all be in a better place if the DA would state its position and its planned actions to get there… instead of just criticizing.

      Paint an attractive picture and show/ state how you plan to get there, and only then make clear where the ANC is failing is a much better approach. The DA is just frustrating me with its inability to state what it stands for (as opposed to who it stands against).

      • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

        Sure, agree / disagree all you like but if you truly want to add value, contact the DA and support their efforts to improve rather than being Nero and sniping (likely in an uneducated way) while our country burns.

  • lancecharlespe says:

    I agree with the the sentiment that Ricky has articulated in his comments. It should be very clear to any thinking and rational South African that the DA is a much better option than the ANC/EFF option. Just look at the governance facts. Compare the Western Cape run province/municipalities to the rest. Look at the Auditor Generals reports. The DA may not be perfect in your eyes but it is by far the better option!

    I cannot understand why so many “intelligent” “progressive” people have a public go at the DA on platforms such as this one. By all means be critical, but do it directly to the DA and give them feedback to help them change. Rather be part of the solution and approach the DA directly and give them advice. Keep the public crticism for the ones that are messing up every SOE and failing on health/ policing/ corruption clampdown/ etc. We need change and we need to be part of the solution.

  • Bruce Q says:

    C’mon people.
    It’s obvious that Mr. Cohen is anti the ANC and it’s disastrous policies.
    It’s also clear that he is extremely keen to see them do better in the election, hence his grumpiness at their poor efforts to actually do so.
    IMHO, his criticism of the DA is well founded. It needs to sharpen up and not simply be a critical voice of the ANC. Anyone can do that!
    The DA has to define exactly how it plans to drag this beautiful country out of the mire into which the ANC has pushed it.
    Voters need to be led by positive ideas. Not by the old, tired and hackneyed berating of the governing party. Heck, we all, well most of us anyway, know how bad they are.
    So, Mr. Steenhuisen, please tell us what you are going to actually do.
    Or get out of the way and let someone with some new and country-altering ideas lead the DA and this country into the positive future it deserves.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      I will say again – there are ways of getting a point across in a way that is constructive, but making the DA out to look like a tired stale party in articles like this is counter productive for both the DA and for our country.

      So it can only be classified as a stupid approach – more so if one actually supports the DA and sees the obvious, which is that everyone would be better off than today if we voted for them.

  • Gavin Wilson says:

    I am sufficiently confident that the DA will lead by example, as they have in the Western Cape. There is ample evidence of this in comparison to anywhere else in South Africa.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      yip – a constructive approach would be to focus on the myriad of good things that the DA is achieving and working to achieve under extremely – some may say impossible – conditions in this ANC racially charged swamp.

      I will say again that race is simply a red herring used by unscrupulous politicians to distract from the real failures caused directly by these same politicians …all ANC and EFF.

  • Penny Philip says:

    I would definitely agree with Tim’s view on the DA. Added to which, however good they maybe at running some municipalities, until their leadership is more racially representative of South Africa they will never win a general election.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      Besides the fact that South Africa desperately needs a meritocracy and race has become a sideshow useful only to unscrupulous politicians to detract from the real issues this country faces, have you actually done a count of the DA leadership representation and can you provide the figures here please?

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      Also just for interest have a look at the picture above and see for yourself the demographic of the supporters in the crowd.

      It certainly looks representative to me, and from these same supporters, of those interested in taking the next step and running the best quality will become leaders – whatever their race.

      Now contrast the above racial demographic to what you see in the ANC and EFF support base and form your own opinion as to which is the most multiracial and inclusive.

  • gavin clayton says:

    Reading the above article criticizing the DA certainly got me thinking.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Here is mine: I reside in Nelson Mandela Bay/ Gwebergha/PE and the place is a shambles due to years of corruption and extreme lack of service delivery mostly caused by ANC dominated councils often paralysed by infighting and jockeying for the top positions where corruption and kickbacks can be arranged.

    Desperate residents are starting to ‘ do it themselves’ where they can…

    Contrast this with the Southern and Western Cape… its not perfect but one can see that service delivery is in progress… these areas are run by the opposition including the DA. I have visited the southern cape area recently and it is like a breath of fresh air!! You can see that taxpayers/ratepayers money is being used effectively. It gives me hope but also reinforces my belief that the ANC in its present form where it is very soft on corruption has to be voted out of as many areas as possible. Just an example: How many VBS looters are in orange overalls.

  • Clearly you have underestimated what the ANC has cost this country in Corruption and Mismanagement. EVERY State owned entity is bankrupt. Can you not join the dots and realise how this has caused an inflationary crisis in general in our country? You speak of Food Costs, let’s not start on Utility Cost increases, Health, Education, Security etc. Etc.
    One other thing.. don’t discount the fact that the DA will not be able to put their policies into practice after the May Elections..

  • John Pocock says:

    The ANC has ben systematically and deliberately dismantling this country for 29 years so I agree 100% with everything said by Ricky Rocker. I can’t help getting the feeling that, maybe, the press don’t want South Africa to be fixed. Imagine the loss of journalistic material were that to happen?

  • Anne Swart says:

    Wow. Just wow. I read Tim’s comments daily. My interpretation is that Tim bows to no sacred cows. Yet, he is able to summarise his opinion in respectful prose.

    Then he offers an opinion on an opposition party. My giddy aunt. A slew of responses in the same vein as the far right of the US Republican supporters. One person in particular offers so many responses that he seems positively manic.

    This opinion piece is misconstrued as a zero sum thesis. Just because Mr Cohen offers an opinion about one blue party does not automatically equate to him supporting one red or one green/black party.

    The many responses by one individual lambasts Mr Cohen for opining (which is his job – literally, he earns an income for putting into words his opinion, daily). The outrage suggests that Mr Cohen is to offer his opinion only behind closed doors, directly to the party about which he opines.

    This appears, in my opinion, (which is my constitutional right; I am entitled to an opinion) as a collaborated effort by Hellen’s Blue Party to have zero tolerance for opposing public opinion. Her Blue party councillors don’t tolerate any public debate or interaction with their constituents, unless it is unquestioning submission. This I know, because I am blocked.

    There is no chance that any party wanting to squash public opinion will receive my vote. And don’t “what about them” to me. Whataboutism won’t secure my vote. A practical solution will.

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      Your own “manic” bias against the DA become quite apparent when you go on your unsubstantiated “Hellen’s Blue Party” tirade. But as you said, thats an opinion and everyone’s prerogative. But pls do clarify exactly which of Rickies responses are in the “same vein as the far right of the US”. Yes he is passionate about the DA, but far right wing? Come now!

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      I have no affiliation to the DA Anne, I simply observe what should be obvious to anyone: if you want a better country, you should support the party with the best chance of providing it. Only a complete moron would do otherwise. And empirically, not emotionally, the DA is that party.

    • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

      Also just a note that I am not in any way outraged, I am simply tired of people who should know better pointlessly messing with what little hope remains for our country.

  • frances hardie says:

    Steenhuizen must fall. Viva DA!

  • André Maree says:

    Maybe the anti DA brigade should learn from history. Do not judge on word (talk is cheap) rather judge by actions. The DA is delivering on many fronts. Winning court cases challenging the ANC/EFF. Governing WC & municipalities they won. Attempting to improve legislation.

    It is easy to sit on the side, identify problems and criticise proposed solutions. It is far more difficult to come up better workable proposals to improve the situation.
    We have no shortage of problems in SA, we do have a shortage of workable solutions.
    We have no shortage of politicians stealing, wasting and not delivering on promises, but we do have a shortage of politicians/parties that use limited resources effectively and efficiently to solve real problems for ALL, not just their limited demographic/racial group.

    If you are looking for an individual to vote for hoping that person is 100% perfect, committed and able to deliver on promises, good luck. Everything in life involves some compromise, including a choice of life partner ie the in-laws. The same with a choice of political party. I am a DA supporter based on their manifesto and delivery against it. I am not a member of the John/Helen fan clubs, although I think their positive contributions far outweigh the things I disagree with. We, as individual citizens need to take a cold hard look at the political parties, judge them on their historic actions and then decide which is most likely to govern in a manner likely to produce a better outcome.

  • j9tallyho says:

    Firstly, as the official opposition, it is the DA’s job to highlight failures of the ruling party.
    Secondly, Mr Cohen should look back at DA statements and actions over the years to see they have been beating these drums for a long time, not dishing out T-shirts months before the election. Their policy utterances are not new.

  • Jane Fletcher says:

    John Steenhuizen’s reply to this article suggests Tim Cohen may have flown off the handle without all the facts. I suggest ‘just grumpy’.

  • Jane Fletcher says:

    I’m interested to know how many of those people who complain about not knowing the DA’s stance or policies have ever bothered to actually find out. It’s all freely available.

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