The Democratic Alliance’s problems, says Stephen Grootes, only seem to be getting worse in the aftermath of the 2019 general election. He points all over the place, from the not-so-recent loss of EFF support for DA mayors in the metros to the resignation of another DA mayor in Tshwane, and the Twitter brawl between former DA leader Mmusi Maimane and DA MP Ghaleb Cachalia.
If the DA had not undertaken fundamental and far-reaching changes after the election, each of the events Grootes points to might have been cause for panic. But the DA is on a course correction and turbulence is to be expected. What the EFF does in the metros, what political commentators think this month and what happens on Twitter is far less important than the DA holding its nerve and seeing through the decisions the party has already made.
Every party has its problems. The bigger the party, the bigger the problems. The EFF has Daily Maverick’s Pauli van Wyk, and the link between the high lives of EFF leaders and the looting of VBS Mutual Bank. The ANC has the collapse of the economy, rolling blackouts, the fightback by forces formally aligned to Jacob Zuma, and profound confusion about whether South Africa should be a modern industrial society or a miserable rural backwater. Come to think of it, if only the ANC had the DA’s problems, South Africa would probably be in a much less miserable state.
The DA has been remarkably candid about what went wrong in 2019. The losses were a turning point for the party. We were forced to admit that the country’s growing sense of incoherence and lack of confidence were reflected in our own leadership. After growing in every election since 1994, and overturning ANC majorities in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay in 2016, the DA suddenly lost its gravitational pull.
In reality, the drift had set in even before Maimane’s election as party leader. At first it was a mistake of strategy, but it came to distort the party’s vision and dilute its brand. We thought that the country could be saved from the ANC and its dominance eventually broken, without the trouble of challenging the assumptions that underlie the ANC’s worldview. So instead of offering South Africa a bold, distinctive liberal democratic alternative for the future, by the 2019 election, the DA eventually presented itself as something similar to the ANC minus Zuma, misrule and corruption.
Political commentators were pleased. In 2016, voters were eager to rid themselves of the local ANC barons who were bankrupting the metros. Even the EFF was prepared to help elect DA mayors and pass DA budgets, without demanding seats in government, so strong was the antipathy to the ANC.
By 2019, the party’s brand had been diluted, leaving potential DA voters indifferent and existing DA voters increasingly concerned. The EFF also came to reveal itself in the metros – not as a fellow opposition party of the DA, but as a faction of the ANC for whom cooperation with the DA was simply an expedient power play. Every absurd and contradictory EFF gambit in metro councils – from the removal of Athol Trollip in Nelson Mandela Bay for his “whiteness” to their trenchant protection of Tshwane’s city manager against a probe into tender rigging – confirmed that the EFF’s agenda was irreconcilable with the DA’s mandate from voters.
The DA is now set to elect a new, permanent leadership. We will also hold a policy conference where the long-deferred debates about who we are and what we offer to South Africans can at long last be held. As we refine our distinctive offering to the South African people, there is much work to do and turbulence to endure. But there are also old mistakes to avoid.
First, there is no pleasing the political commentariat. They have always preferred ANC-lite to DA-heavy. So do not expect much editorial or academic support for a serious debate about the merits of a redress policy based on socioeconomic needs instead of racial classification.
Second, there is no outbidding the ANC for the EFF’s affection. Being able to govern well is far more important than holding on to government positions. The fact that DA mayors are being replaced by ANC mayors is an opportunity to show city-dwellers that if you vote EFF, you get ANC.
The DA can play a decisive role in reversing South Africa’s decline. But only if we can muster the vision and the courage to look beyond the policy choices and value judgments of successive ANC governments. DM