Di­ver­sity should be DA’s strength

Mail & Guardian - - Comment & Analysis -

Now that Pa­tri­cia De Lille has at last re­signed as Cape Town’s mayor and has sur­ren­dered her Demo­cratic Al­liance mem­ber­ship, the party has had to put on a brave face. Party leader Mmusi Maimane has dis­missed claims of racism by five coun­cil­lors who re­signed and has in­stead spo­ken about a unity of pur­pose. The past 18 months have been gru­elling for the coun­try’s of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion. When it should have been rid­ing high af­ter a very strong show­ing in the last mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions, its in­creased promi­nence has also re­vealed a star­tling vacu­ity in re­alpoli­tik.

Through all the back-and-forth in the Cape Town, Nel­son Man­dela Bay, Jo­han­nes­burg, Tsh­wane mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties and be­yond, the one thing that has in­creas­ingly be­come ap­par­ent is that the DA’s pro­fessed unity is held to­gether by too many plas­ters.

The his­tory of the party, which is rid­dled with po­lit­i­cal merg­ers and part­ner­ships, is in­struc­tive. Since the 1950s, when the Pro­gres­sive Party (the DA’s pre­cur­sor) was formed, the party has had a to­tal of six merg­ers that have of­ten brought to­gether or­gan­i­sa­tions with very dif­fer­ent ide­o­log­i­cal bases.

The most re­cent were with the New Na­tional Party in 2000, the In­de­pen­dent Democrats in 2010 and the South African Demo­cratic Congress in 2011. Throw in a dol­lop of of­fice bear­ers who ar­rived from par­ties that in­cluded the ANC and the United Demo­cratic Move­ment and you have a uniquely South African stew.

Or so you would think.

The mud­dled DA iden­tity is not so much in the dif­fer­ences among DA lead­ers but in how these dif­fer­ences play out. At ground level, the true blue believ­ers seem just as con­fused. Last week, DA sup­port­ers lined up at the Rand­burg mag­is­trate’s court to protest against the ap­pear­ance of cul­pa­ble homi­cide ac­cused Duduzane Zuma, but some ended up fawn­ing over the for­mer pres­i­dent’s son, gush­ing in awe when he turned his at­ten­tion to them. Protest­ing out­side the court was a photo op, with­out any real po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tive.

In the party, the great­est loser is Maimane, who, with vary­ing re­sults, has tried to strad­dle the di­vides. But it is the pub­lic who stand to lose most. A strong, vi­able op­po­si­tion is crit­i­cal to foster democ­racy fur­ther and hold power ac­count­able. The DA should be ap­plauded for what they have achieved in that re­spect in re­cent his­tory. On pa­per, their record on gov­er­nance is laud­able, though se­ri­ous con­cerns have re­peat­edly been raised about their com­mit­ment to the most vul­ner­a­ble in so­ci­ety. There is a wide dis­par­ity be­tween the DA’s sup­port and that of other op­po­si­tion sup­port­ers and it will likely re­main the of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion come the 2019 elec­tions.

But in this, its most se­ri­ous cri­sis, the DA would do best to re­frain from re­ac­tionary be­hav­iour, change tack and em­brace its di­ver­sity of views.

Should the party con­tinue to be torn over its lib­eral iden­tity, its growth will only mul­ti­ply its pub­lic spats, its un­ex­plained tar­get­ing of in­di­vid­ual lead­ers and the lack of co­he­sion among its lead­ers. Per­haps the only way for the DA to solve this iden­tity cri­sis is to ac­cept that the nar­row ap­proach can no longer sus­tain an or­gan­i­sa­tion that hopes to open its doors wider.

In this, the na­tional motto is in­struc­tive: Unity in di­ver­sity.

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