It is no co-incidence that the Democratic Alliance’s internal and governance crises are subjected to scrutiny at the exact time that the African National Congress embraces the opportunity for renewal. Jacob Zuma’s morally challenged leadership of the ANC allowed the political crises of the DA and the populism of the EFF to escape media and public scrutiny, given the justifiable outrage at the range of issues defining the ANC over the last decade: factionalism; State Capture; the Nkandla spend; tender scandals; perversion of state institutions, and the placement of compliant officials. The rise of Cyril Ramaphosa to the leadership of the ANC promises to place the ANC on the moral high ground again, where it has been for much of its 106 years in existence.
Ironically, the DA crisis reached its boiling point as the DA Federal Executive first tried to dismiss its Cape Town Mayor, Patricia de Lille, exactly at the moment that the ANC convened its National Conference at Nasrec. It thought that, once again, the ANC would suck the media oxygen from the room, and the DA crisis would go unreported and unnoticed. Departing unnoticed is not part of the personality make-up of de Lille. Her legendary opportunism, brusqueness and capacity for infighting to get her way, previously so alluring to Helen Zille and the DA, was now part of the charge sheet against her. As were many other allegations. But the charges and allegations against her are merely a festival of metaphors: the tip of the iceberg that hides a bigger perversion; the smoking gun that buries an opponent; the fig leaf that conceals an original sin, and the red herring that distracts from the DA’s founding contradiction.
The DNA of the DA
On the right wing of our political spectrum, the DA’s growth has not been organic, but based on the absorption of other parties, often leaving their shells but winning their voters, enticing their politicians, as well as owning a large part of the original sin of South Africa: intolerant racism, colonial dispossession and apartheid’s legacy of institutionalised corruption. A self-professed liberal DA is both the product of those they absorbed and the exigencies of having some power, especially in the Western Cape, but increasingly in the municipalities won in 2016. Power can be corrosive of even the most enduring values – as the ANC discovered over the last decade. The DA shows that it is not immune to the exigencies of power: racialised factions competing for power; entering unholy alliances to gain power; the temptation towards corruption in power; and perverting principle to remain in power. This latter effect was manifested more than 10 years ago, but probably survived till today in the form of the Special Investigation Unit in Cape Town – setting up surveillance mechanisms to keep a fractious and un-anchored party together through fear, blackmail and selective media leaks. De Lille is only the latest victim.
A History of Tolerating Corruption
It is probably quite a neat formula when you get rid of a problem – De Lille and her supporters – and have the opportunity to parade your anti-corruption credentials in doing so. But corruption – in addition to the original sin – has stalked the DA from the moment it gained power in the Western Cape. Helen Zille was part of the NP-DP coalition in which an MEC’s wife was the beneficiary of welfare largesse and in which paraffin lamp holders were foisted on shack dwellers by “former” leaders of the coalition through irregular tenders. Helen Zille was the first to employ the company of “former” DA officials for an excessive communication tender, a practice that continues today in the City of Cape Town. In the mainstream of the DA, there is great tolerance for MECs alleged to be “captured” by construction companies, with one even touted as the next mayor of Cape Town. The DA has also been adept at fiscal dumping by purchasing bus parts on a transport tender that was the subject of a cover-up. The mayor’s residence too, as was strategically leaked by the SIU, was allegedly provided with “security upgrades” from public funds.
These are all in the wash, but notice how words the DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, used against President Zuma echo within his own party: DA tenderpreneurs; captured leaders; security upgrades; tender manipulation, etc. What is missing, however, is the fury, the high-minded morality and the strident calls for suspension, police charges, impeachment and imprisonment that was demanded against Jacob Zuma and the ANC. Some of that fury, it was hoped, could be directed under cover at Patricia de Lille.
The DA – a Cappuccino Party
De Lille’s supporters allege racism, especially against coloureds in the DA. On the face of it, quite a few other DA people got away with a slap on the wrist for colonial denialism, racism, corruption, tender manipulation, perverted HR practices to replace ANC appointed officials with DA ones, and for nepotism. Some of these were not even subjected to investigation. So why single out De Lille in the DA cappuccino? She occupies – and she was recruited for this – a key role in the large brown bottom of this brew, keeping the votes coming. But she was never recruited to disturb the foamy white top, nor to question the visible black sprinkles highly placed to broaden the demographic appeal, should Africans decide they’ve had enough of the ANC.
The miscalculation of the DA lies in being anxious to gain the two birds in the bush, and ignoring the claims of the bird in the hand. Coloured voters have been deemed useful as a transitional vote towards the national ambitions of the DA. But the Independent Democrat components of the cappuccino are not of the compliant and grateful variety of those leaders inherited from the NP. They are not transitional. In their mind, they have arrived. They want to lead the foam and the sprinkles. The DA dilemma is, therefore, about concealing white control, projecting black African ascendency, without disturbing its current coloured majority.
Patricia de Lille is a danger to this project, not because she is a progressive leader, nor because she’s innocent of the charges, but because the very feistiness for which she was recruited is now proving difficult for the DA to manage. She strips the DA of its urbane liberal veneer. She ignores the protocol and suspends the surveillance unit. She replaces and appoints officials without the appearance of sophistication the DA is used to. She does what her premier does, but leaves a paper trail. The DA calculation was simple: get rid of her while all eyes are on the ANC Conference; leave enough time to repair the damage with the Coloured community so that the DA gets their votes again in 2019; and hope that Zuma will remain a big headache for the ANC till then.
The Challenge for the ANC
The fundamental strategic challenge for the ANC is whether to jump into the DA crisis boots and all, or to keep a strategic distance and watch the DA implode; whether to do the DA’s dirty work for them by voting with the top parts of the cappuccino or to deepen the DA crisis by saying: don’t achieve through the Council what is a decision of your Party’s Fedex; and whether to view the DA crisis as a matter of corruption or a matter of racism. Sometimes, by appearing over-zealous in the crisis of your opponent, you inadvertently refocus and reunite them against you as their main enemy. The alternative is not doing nothing, but doing the few things that exacerbate the crisis like retaining the integrity of Council, checking out whether the DA Caucus is split down the middle, preparing for a limited version of Nat-Attack, and not falling into the trap of choosing corruption or racism as the main cause of the crisis. It’s both, but it is always easier to prosecute a pesky person of colour for corruption than to deal with corruption consistently and fearlessly as the DA expected the ANC to deal with some in its ranks.
There is no short cut for the ANC to regain power in the Western Cape. Winning the trust of all the people of the province is still the only way to secure power. The ANC started this trust-building process with the victory of Cyril Ramaphosa. It now needs to put its Western Cape house in order and put its factionalism and infractions behind it. It now needs to project humility rather than opportunistic glee. It now needs to resolve not the “Coloured Question” – how to get coloured voters to the ANC – but to resolve the National Question: where does this community fit into the overall citizenry of SA, how does it address the pathologies rampant in coloured communities such as poverty, homelessness, gangs and drugs, and how do we return to an inclusive, non-racial ethic that stands at the heart of the Freedom Charter and the SA Constitution?
Jumping into a DA crisis is helpful, but not enough. DM
Ebrahim Rasool is former ANC WC Chairperson and Premier. He has served as South Africa’s Ambassador to the USA. He is currently President of the World for All Foundation and Senior Fellow at Georgetown University.
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