Opinionista Ian Ollis 11 March 2013

The DA is becoming ‘non-stick’

The Progressive Federal Party was doomed to failure by its inability to shake off the negative labels attached to it by the Nationalist Party. Now, after the attempts, by two successive governments, to control their respective oppositions by similar propaganda, the Democratic Alliance finally appears poised to shrug off the slurs.

At a speech I once attended given by Nicky Oppenheimer, he said: “In the 1980s we [Liberal Democrats] were regarded as more left wing than Joseph Stalin, in the 2000s we have been labelled [in South Africa] as more right wing than Genghis Khan, but in fact I am still standing on the same ideological rock that I stood on decades ago. It’s just that the ground around us has shifted so remarkably.”

It’s no secret that the biggest hurdle that the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), or the liberal movement, had to overcome from 1948 until 1994 was to show that it was not creating a platform for the rise of communism. The “rooi gevaar” was used by the government of the day to rubbish Helen Suzman, Zak de Beer, Van Zyl Slabbert, Colin Eglin and the like. This kind of labelling has been used by two successive governments to attempt to limit and control their respective oppositions. The PFP struggled for years to rid itself of that false mantra.

A possible communist attack on so called “democracy” in South Africa was no idle threat. If one looked at South and Central America, Africa, Eastern Europe, Central and South East Asia, Communism was flourishing in the 60s and 70s and advancing with the financial and military support of the USSR. The idea that the Cubans and Russians would advance on South Africa via Angola and then South West Africa (Namibia) was no pipedream. Troops from Russia and Cuba were landing in Angola daily and proceeded to what used to be called “the border” by the Nationalist government, to fight a bush war in a bid to take Namibia and then South Africa. Proxy wars were being fought close by in Mozambique also and the apparent rise of the South African Communist Party, albeit on the backs of Cosatu and the ANC, was not to be sneezed at. Against this background, the government portrayed the PFP’s calls from 1959 onwards for an end to Apartheid, votes for black South Africans and an end to Bantustans as the thin edge of the wedge that would allow the communists to take over on the backs of the black working class. And it worked!

I remember the rumours at school that the PFP was delivering food parcels to striking workers in Soweto to enable workers to stay away longer and protest against government and employers who were complicit in keeping the Apartheid machine well oiled.  I remember the “rooi gevaar” speeches and the references to Helen Suzman as a “sickly communist” and so on.

Of course, anyone with half a brain could have worked out at the time that, in fact, PFP policy was all about a free market economy and freedom of choice, but that didn’t deter closed minds. The PFP wanted black, coloured and Indian South Africans to own land, get better education and be able to vote, not on a segregated voters’ roll, but on a common voters’ roll. We used to laugh at the craziness of the NP governments attempts to classify Japanese people as “White” and Chinese people as “black”. How ridiculous. The PFP was just as opposed to communism as any western government, apart from the social benefits that any caring society would require including pensions, rights of labour unions and so on.

The PFP over the years turned into the DP and then the DA. The ANC government, as afraid as the old Nationalist Party, used the same labelling approach to denigrate the official opposition. The DA is a “white party”. The DA will “bring back Apartheid” and the DA is just the National Party in drag. The label worked this time around too, made easier by the short-lived (about a year) merger between the DP, the Federal Alliance and the National Party.  So while Martinus “Kortbroek” van Schalkwk and his former NNP cronies lavish the luxuries of an ANC government on themselves, the DA has to endure being the whipping boy for Apartheid when the ANC has no other arguments to proffer for the mess it has made of service delivery. And with too many white faces in DA front benches, for a while, it stuck… Or did it?

It seems as though the DA is starting to achieve what the PFP struggled to. In the early 2000’s the DA crossed the threshold where it gained more black voters and supporters than the IFP, PAC, Azapo and the religious parties. Its membership is now around 70% black and it has begun to train up or recruit significant new black, coloured and Indian leadership. Its merger with the Independent Democrats of Patricia De Lille added to that. The DA has in two elections gained more black votes than the Congress of the People (Cope). Can you really blame Apartheid on Patricia De Lille, Mmusi Maimane, Lindiwe Mazibuko, Sizwe Muchunu (with several bullet wounds), Joe Seremane, Wimot James, or Helen Zille? Helen Suzman’s actions to help Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela, Ruth First and so many others will never be forgotten of course. The debate recently has been whether the DA has “transformed enough” to be given its first shot at running the country? However, the most interesting part is that the DA appears to be achieving what the PFP only started to achieve: shrugging off the negative labels. A large jump in black support happened in the 2011 election for the first time and since then, in by-elections, it appears the trend is continuing. Political commentators still debates the issue, but enough mainstream commentators now talk about “how much” transformation has occurred (some say more, others say less) and, more importantly, it has been ages since any serious commentator attempted to blame the DA, under Helen Zille, for any of the Apartheid ills. It seems that the DA is truly becoming “non-stick” to the labels and slurs thrown at it. But what if history had gone the other way? What a crying shame it is to imagine what would have happened if the PFP had managed to shrug off the label, won a general election and ended Apartheid in 1987 or even 1977 or earlier. Imagine Bantu Education being shut down and replaced with a quality, equal-education system by the PFP in 1977. Where could South Africa be today? It’s amazing how much permanent damage a propaganda label can do to the lives of millions of people. DM

Ollis is a DA MP.

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