Opinionista Yonela Diko 4 June 2018

Is the Democratic Alliance facing extinction?

The obfuscation of the Democratic Alliance, on policy, ideology and operations both at party and governance level is the seed to their implosion and demise. People see a leadership confusion there where it is not clear just who is a leader.

History is littered with deceased political parties and most of them follow the same pattern. In the United States, for example, Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party (1790s to 1816) eventually died out after developing a reputation as an elitist cadre that cared more about the interests of its New England base than the national good. (Keith Wagstaff 2013)

Then there was the Whig Party. During the height of Whig power ( Whig Party 1833 to 1860) nobody would have predicted that the party would cease to exist. The debate over slavery, however, ripped the party apart, with anti-slavery Whigs heading over to Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party and “cotton Whigs” defecting to the Democratic Party. Internal divisions over hot-button issues became disastrous.

There was also the Bull Moose Party (1912 to 1916), a Progressive Party which was liberal on a host of issues including women’s suffrage and labour rights. In the end, Roosevelt’s new party split votes with the Republicans, giving Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson the victory. The Bull Moose Party died because of the liberal positions it co-opted from the left. But its demise more generally shows that any prominent Democrat or Republican starting a new party runs the risk of handing an election to the other side.

South Africa’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is showing all these traits. They have shown themselves to be elitist and care more about their base and funders than about the general public (despite the public outcry about Patricia De Lille and the veil of secrecy about her removal, the obsession to get rid of her has not diminished). They have proven incapable of handling hot-button issues like racism, and of course are ideologically confused, with liberal purists pulling one side and the realists pulling to the other.

It is today not improbable, as has been reported, that the DA’s liberal purists want to form a new party. This is because the DA has attracted its new members not on party ideology but on government performance, sold as clean and effective as opposed to the ANC. The result has been that on social issues, on any given day, a DA black leader can say anything he feels is common sense, but finds himself ideologically at loggerheads with the white DA cabal.

In a pure neoliberal sense, Mmusi Maimane was wrong in pointing out the white-black inequality because inequality is recast as virtuous by neoliberals – a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Neoliberals see efforts to create a more equal society (like BEE or Affirmative Action) as both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market will ensure that everyone gets what they deserve.

The first problem therefore with the Democratic Alliance is that it has never really taken time to articulate to voters just what is a neoliberal party’s organic view on a host of things. This may be intentional of course, because in South Africa at least, black people are unlikely to have affinity for neoliberal views in their pure sense.

Even the hardcore neoliberalists will never admit that first generations of any group do not start as neoliberals. It is usually after people have accumulated some personal wealth or middle-class resources, mostly through government policies and interventions, that they start thinking neoliberalism will protect those resources from the heavy distributive hand of governments.

One would see how this thinking would be appealing to those who are already players in the economy, and not those who are structurally and historically excluded who may need the heavy hand of government to open the winners circle.

According to neoliberals, tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers.  (Monbiot 2016)

This of course is the hallmark of DA governance where every service is outsourced to NGOs and companies of friends. Privatisation of public service is at the heart of neoliberal ideology.

It is no wonder that liberalism has always been white in South Africa. White, rich neoliberals, mostly sitting on their parent’s wealth and privileges, who go around claiming they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that helped to secure it. They then pull in a few blacks who have made something of themselves (Herman Mashaba et al), so that they can use those blacks to blame the poor for their failures, even when the poor can do little to change their circumstances.

There is no black person in their right mind who would blame themselves for 350 years of colonialism and 50 years of apartheid, which has given white people a 400-year first mover advantage.

As George Monbiot sums up the mockery that is neoliberalism:

Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers. Neoliberalism can be summed up as an ideology of massive corporate tax cuts, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. That’s about the size of it.”

The second major problem for the DA is their chosen operational model, federalism. Federalism, by form and content, refers to a system in which there is constitutionally established sharing of authority between different layers of leadership. Not managed well, there will always be a crippling tension between the sprawling bureaucracy of the federal executive and the party’s government apparatus.

Federalism more often than not damages the effectiveness of the organisation. If the federal chairman of the organisation and the leader of the party are controlled by rival groupings, then there will be less consensus and the organisation will conflict on key issues. People may not understand why, if Maimane made a mistake by saying the FedEx had suspended Helen Zille for her second colonial praise tirade, why James Selfe, federal chair, did not give Maimane a chance to correct himself but went public to correct him. Who really is in charge of this outfit?

Federalism is usually more than just a preferred model of an organisation but more often than not is as a result of pressures from minority nationalism. It requires no stretch of the imagination which group in the Democratic Alliance would push for federalism as a form of governance in the party. In a federalist organisation, no single individual or body holds supreme political power over an entire organisation. The head of the party is limited in what he can do and many decisions are left to the multiple layers of governing structure depending on the level of autonomy said organ has. It also provides members with an extra layer of authority to confide in. So Maimane can pronounce this punitive measure for party discipline to a particular member, and that member can go to James Selfe for protection.

As Harold Meyerson, writing for American Prospect in November 2009, wrote:

Federalism is more often the refuge of reactionaries than of visionaries, it has an even deeper flaw: setting the nation at cross-purposes with itself, and never more so than during economic changes.”

In this case the different layers of DA government find themselves at cross-purposes with the main apparatus.

This confusion in party structure leaves members unclear as to how the organisation really functions. For example, at the past DA elective congress, one member complained that nobody was quite sure how the party’s constitutional review committee, which recommended many of the amendments, was constituted (it consists of, among others, party CEO Paul Boughey, chair of the federal council James Selfe, federal chair Athol Trollip, and chair of the federal legal commission Glynnis Breytenbach). Then members also complained about the amendments themselves. They were not sure how these amendments came about – whether they were proposed by structures or by individuals – it was all a mystery, one of the delegates said.  (Carien Du Plessis – 2018)

Voters are too busy with their own lives to sink their teeth too deep into politics. All they want is simplicity and honesty. The obfuscation of the Democratic Alliance, on policy, ideology and operations, both at party and governance level, is the seed to their implosion and demise. People see a leadership confusion there where it is not clear just who is a leader.

People do not know what is it that Mayor De Lille has done because it’s all obscure, unclear, and unintelligible, but when they see her being stripped of her powers by a Mayco which she appointed, all they see is a party in self-destructive mode and exhausting to sift through.

Simplicity will always be a virtue and if you cannot achieve it, people will always think you are hiding something. Loss of trust is the end of any organisation. DM

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