Opinionista Yonela Diko 26 March 2018

What Would Tony Do: How the DA’s unsung hero would stop the party’s race to the bottom

Of the Democratic Alliance’s three leaders in the democratic dispensation, Tony Leon has been their most capable. Competing against strong ANC leadership, he still forged ahead. Today, the DA is being tested once more, against a ruling party recovering under Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership. Will it measure up, or will it flounder?

The Democratic Alliance has had three leaders in the Democratic dispensation. Without any hesitation, Tony Leon was their last and maybe only true leader. This is based on Leon’s remarkable success up against arguably the best ANC leadership, the best leadership in the world even, Nelson Mandela and his successor Thabo Mbeki. Against the odds, Leon still managed to find gaps, to press forward and pull rabbits out of his hat to give the DA new life. One need only read the heated written exchanges between Mbeki and Leon on critical issues that could not be fully canvassed in the limited parliamentary time to realise that you may not have agreed with Leon, but he was intellectually capable.

After Tony Leon, the party indeed grew substantially but over and against the worst of the ANC leadership. Post-Leon, the DA leadership’s capabilities were never really tested because in 2007, when Helen Zille took over, Mbeki was on his way out, substituted by arguably the worst ANC leader in the party’s glorious history. As a result, three months into the era of the ANC’s Ramaphosa, cut from the same cloth as Madiba and Mbeki, the DA is self-destructing at a much faster pace.

Tony Leon, long retired from active politics, felt an urge to offer advice to his old party on how to deal with Ramaphosa, since he may well be the only leader well placed to stop the party’s confusion. In an address in Durban to DA members in January 2018, Tony Leon said:

Cyril Ramaphosa’s election has been a game changer for everyone, for the country, for our economic fortunes, and indeed the DA will have to up its game because Ramaphosa is a very different proposition. The DA should actually be very open and generous towards Ramaphosa, and say to him ‘you have brought a huge change, and we saw it on the weekend with (the new) Eskom board’.” 

No sooner had Leon made this speech than the DA leadership in Durban lambasted him for what they called a “DA leader asking for DA members to support an ANC leader”. These are young DA leaders who were barely in high school when Leon led the party and could only react childishly to his advice. They don’t know any better.

Since that Leon speech in January, the DA has seen massive erosion and a shift in public sympathy, even from its long trusted white constituency, towards Ramaphosa. This has largely been because of Ramaphosa’s charm offensive but also because the DA, instead of heeding Leon’s advice, have been looking like fools, scraping the bottom of the barrel, criticising Cyril for nothing. With Zuma gone, the DA has lacked strategy, direction, policy certainty and leadership. 

This has resulted in reported internal squabbles. The biggest consequence of all this is a DA that has moved from a party wishing to govern more provinces and even nationally, to a party that could even lose its longtime and only base, the Western Cape. 

This fear of losing the Western Cape explains, in part, the irrational and relentless persecution of Patricia de Lille, and if the so-called leaks from some FedEx members are anything to go by, the DA has finally met its “inevitable demise” moment. This may well be the beginning of the end.

According to the leaks, the DA has done a poll on its chances in the Western Cape for 2019 with its current Western Cape chairperson, Bonginkosi Madikizela, as the premier candidate and face of the party for the Western Cape. The polls came back at 47%. The people of the Western Cape are not ready, it seems, for a very dark, black and relatively un-metrosexual leader like Madikizela. By contrast, the very white Alan Richard Winde, currently serving as MEC for Tourism and Economic Affairs, came back with better results than Madikizela. It seems Western Cape voters don’t have confidence in black people because of the daily media assault on black leaders for corruption, performance, or the ANC; just being black does it.

These polls are said to have been done by an independent poll company, so they have no sense of bias. The question for the DA, it seems, has been what to do with Bonginkosi, who is a rightful heir to the premiership, but has poor prospects of leading the party to victory. The next best thing is mayorship of the City of Cape Town, which is already 60% of the province in any case, but is safe from elections until at least 2021.

Unfortunately Patricia de Lille is there until 2021. This means Madikizela may have to settle for an MEC post again even as he is the leader of the party in the province, something he does not seem to favour. The party, however, does not owe De Lille any position, since she resigned as party leader and currently holds no position in the party. The DA does owe Madikizela, as the current leader.

So the whole marathon assault on De Lille seems to be based on the DA’s need to survive and retain the province. They are ready to take the backlash on De Lille in the City now rather than lose the province later with Madikizela.

The DA finds itself in this compromised position of playing black and coloured cards to lure these groupings squarely because of Helen Zille, and is unlikely to have found the same problem had Leon still been at its helm.

First, Leon appreciated that the ANC’s timeless and great appeal to black voters was not only based on race affinity but on the undeniable truth that the ANC was always led by the most talented, educated and smart leaders from its founding through its century of existence.

Pixley ka Isaka Seme, one of the ANC’s founders and president, was the first black South African lawyer from Oxford University. Solomon Plaatje was the first black South African to write a novel in English. John Dube founded the newspaper Ilanga. Saul Msane was an intellectual, a prominent member of the Wesleyan Methodist Church and a newspaper editor. Since then the ANC has never let up.

Leon went to work to win the black hearts. The last thing Leon could have done, which Helen Zille immediately did, was to think that the shortcut to grow the DA was to get a black leader to do the job and get the DA the black votes. This had immediate negative effects. First it meant white people were not prepared to show black people that they had changed and were building the future, working hard to earn black people’s trust even as they desperately wanted black votes. It also communicated the message that white people think black people are stupid. There could never be a shortcut. Leon understood that black people needed to join the DA of their own accord and not be manipulated through a black proxy. Leon’s programme would take time but would be sustainable.

Helen Zille chose the shortcuts because, of course, Zille has a very toxic view of black people (and maybe of white people too). This shortcut seemed to work because the ANC had its worst leadership in history, turning black people off. If Maimane thinks there are black people who voted DA because they saw a capable and talented leader in him, he is about to get the worst rude awakening.

Using coloureds and black leaders to lure their votes, whether through De Lille or Maimane, was always bound to crash at some point.

The biggest challenge for the DA, however, which permeates all their current quagmires, from how they govern Western Cape and their wayward premier to their relationship with the EFF, is how to honour that part of the Constitution, stated clearly in the preamble: “Dealing with the injustices of the past”.

As a party that was part of the country’s ugly past and today a party of choice for all the beneficiaries of that past, the DA’s strategy has been to try to focus the nation on the injustices of the present as if this will wash away the sins of the past.

The confusion around just what the DA’s policy is on land is hurting the party. The over-politicisation of tragedies like Life Esidimeni, on the day of the Sharpeville massacre, again a strategy which seeks to render the injustices of the past meaningless and give those who perpetuated it a pass because of injustices of the present, has always been a foolish proposition.

This has turned black leaders to exactly what Tony Leon wanted to avoid, puppeteers whose job is to protect the white master from persecution for his past sins and protect his evil gains.

The truth is that with Ramaphosa at the helm of the ANC, the DA is going to be reduced to exactly where Tony Leon left the party. Here the DA will be forced to grow genuinely and organically, with white leaders proving themselves as repentant change agents who are ready to win black hearts with no manipulation – just sheer skill and talent. DM

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