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What is the DA doing to win my vote as a black man?

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

It’s been 16 years of democracy in South Africa, and we’ve spent at least 10 of those years mired in some ANC controversy or the other. And yet the Democratic Alliance has consistently failed to make any significant inroads into the most important voting bloc: black people. Why?

The Mail & Guardian recently published a survey by Ipsos Markinor, which shows that the African National Congress is still the party of choice with the majority of voters. None of the other parties came close to its 66% majority. The DA, the official opposition, received between 12% and 13% of voter support.

This does not bode well at all for any of the opposition parties in the upcoming 2011 local elections.

Nor does this bode well for democracy either. It would be far better for all of us if the ANC became a lot weaker and the DA a lot stronger, but that isn’t going to happen in a hurry.

The DA has a problem. A huge problem, and it is one of perceptions. Black voters still view it as a party of whites, pandering to white fears and seeking exclusively to protect white interests. This perception may be erroneous, but it exists nonetheless, and the DA is simply not doing enough to change it. 

At its recent congress, the position of federal chairman was contested and Wilmot James, a coloured, won. Of his deputies, only one is coloured. Sizwe Mchunu, Sej Motau, Khume Ramulifho and Bonginkosi Madikizela were not elected to any of the open positions. I am using the crude qualifier of race as an example because this is one of the main reasons why the DA is viewed by black voters in the way that it is. Black people don’t get elected into the very top positions in that party. When pressed as to why, the standard response is that the DA elects people on merit, not colour. Which is all good and well, except it’s been 10 years since the DA was formed, and they still can’t find a black leader “competent enough” to be elected to a top position. If the problem was that there weren’t any good black leaders (and that is not it – how much better can you get than Joe Seremane?), then 10 years is more than enough time to groom competent leaders.

The most racially diverse party in the country you say, Helen Zille? We’re not seeing it in the senior leadership structures.

The DA believes that by raising up a crop of young black leaders – and there is a good crop of black leaders in their youth formations – the black voting constituency will eventually be won over. That is only partially correct. There is the entire question of these leaders’ involvement in their communities, but that’s a column on its own. Seeing more black leaders rise to senior positions within the party will only convince black voters to take a closer look at the party, and then they will be deterred by the DA’s policies.

Consider for a moment who the ANC’s constituency is. Its members are more likely to be living in a township, taking taxis to work in a factory somewhere. They are probably members of Cosatu or its affiliates. If not, then they are in the informal sector, or not employed at all. These are people with not many guarantees in life, least of all their jobs. They rely to a great extent on South Africa’s beefy labour regulations to keep them in bread and butter. How will the DA’s unflinching dedication to capitalism wash down with these people?

The DA is not the party for such people. If they were to make serious attempts to elect senior black leaders with good track records and rapport with the people, they would most likely win over some of the UDM’s or Cope’s constituency: Black people with tertiary educations, who live in city apartments and frequent News Cafes. There’s no majority vote there.

If the DA is serious about gaining a majority vote anytime this century, it needs to rethink its policies. I don’t see it ascending to the Union Buildings in its current form.

The party also needs to rethink its tone and stance. It comes across as being simultaneously paranoid and arrogant. As Zackie Achmat put it, “The DA campaigns are often based on racial fears. Its much-vaunted party machine is based in white, Indian and coloured areas. All its so-called election victories in Western Cape illustrate this. These are choices that its leadership makes.”

Forget about the ANC. Simply pointing at Nyanda, Yengeni and Zuma’s numerous wives and expecting me to place my mark next to Helen Zille’s face in the ballot is not enough. The DA needs to come down from its smug ivory towers and woo black voters. It’s that simple, really.

What is the Democratic Alliance doing to win MY vote?


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