Mail & Guardian
The DA and illiberal liberalism’s
The DA appears to have abandoned its ambitions of 2016 and is set to lose further ground
It is now impossible to find more than two Democratic Alliance figures who ever supported the infamous Phoenix election posters and who believe the episode may not lose the party many votes. But the incident speaks of a wider crisis in the party — and a downward revision of its real political ambitions — that looks set to see the DA’S overall poll results next month drop well below 2016 levels.
The party’s travails have served to thrust the nature of this year’s local polls into the spotlight: it appears citizens are facing a referendum on bad politics from all quarters, with independent candidates eagerly positioned to reap the rewards.
The DA recorded significant electoral growth in 2016, taking 26.9% of the vote overall and securing control of the Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay metros through what turned out to be ill-fated coalitions with the Economic Freedom Fighters and other smaller parties.
In the 2019 general elections it lost ground, taking 20.77% (down from 22.23 % in 2014) nationally and losing its official opposition status in Kwazulu-natal to the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP).
The party has continued to slip in by-elections since 2019 — losing wards to the ANC and the Freedom Front Plus — despite ditching its leader Mmusi Maimane and abandoning its “experiment” of building a nonracial alternative to the ANC.
The trend points to the DA drawing fewer voters than in 2016 and settling for being an opposition party championing predominantly white interests, with the poster debacle signalling a decision to sacrifice black votes to try to retain those of white and Indian voters.
Dean Macpherson, the DA’S Kwazulu-natal provincial chairperson and the party’s literal poster boy, refuses to speak about the controversy, but says he expected the ANC to be gravely punished throughout Kwazulu-natal for the events of July.
“The ANC were responsible for what happened in this province. They cannot get away from that: they never apologised for it; they never took ownership of it,” he told the Mail & Guardian.
“Ramaphosa hasn’t apologised for it and it was started under the guise of ‘Free Jacob Zuma’, which was an internal ANC factional battle that its leadership could not or was unwilling to contain. That then spilled on to the streets, which people paid for with their lives and livelihoods.”
Macpherson said the governing party was responsible for the killing of 356 people and the loss of tens of billions of rands to the local economy because it failed to act.
“There must be electoral consequences for that,” he said, adding that the ANC’S service-delivery record in the province and greater fluidity among black voters there than elsewhere, should do the rest.
“The ANC are set to have major electoral losses across this province that will make 2019 look like a good day for them,” he said.
Macpherson insisted that the DA has not shifted its focus from trying
to win more black voters in the province; nor has the party been distracted or damaged by the loss of Maimane as leader or the departure of prominent black MPS.
Others in the party who spoke off the record are less sanguine, accusing the current leadership of lacking principles and saying the Phoenix furore was an own goal weeks before an election in which losses were already on the cards.
Maimane told the M&G the more he thought about the posters, the angrier he became, because it was simply implausible that the messaging was not aimed at appealing to a racial minority, in an area riven with racial tension.
“If not they would have put up the same posters in Johannesburg, where looting also happened.”
For him, it is the manifestation of the party forsaking its mission to become one that could be home to all South Africans, to one of minority consolidation.
It has meant trading an ideal of
diversity for a reality of othering, he said. “I think this harks back to the ‘fight back’ campaign, which was about a consolidation of minorities.”
Maimane said the DA’S fundamental miscalculation about its direction was the idea that the country’s political future would be a coalition between the “good people” in the ANC, and those in its own ranks.
But this was intrinsically flawed. “Liberation parties don’t split like that. Moreover, the idea rests on the assumption that they can identify who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’. Ironically, if they had been faced with that call early last year, the good would almost certainly have included Zweli Mkhize.”
The wider miscalculation was eventually settling on colour-blindness as its policy response to the corruption and the failure of the ANC’S broad-based economic empowerment. Maimane said he understands the appeal of an ideal of nonracialism, but by discounting race at this early juncture in post-apartheid history it was taking a shortcut.
How it arrived here may have something to do with the personal issue some members of the party may take with race theory, leading them to dismiss criticism as woke or manufactured outrage.
Asked if such thinking pointed to an impoverishment in policy-making, Maimane said it was rather the result of it being relegated to those who are not standing for election. “It’s outsourced policy to actors who aren’t engaged in the lives of South Africans, become dismissive of history and ultimately are not themselves standing for elections, like former IRR [Institute of Race Relations] members and Tony Leon.”
Professor Steven Friedman agreed that the party has reverted to type and returned, essentially, to its political constituency of 1999.
“They’ve decided that they want to be a party for white people in the suburbs,” he told the M&G.
It amounts to a departure from Helen Zille’s stab at diversity, which may have been deeply felt but broke down when, from Lindiwe Mazibuko to Maimane, the DA encountered black politicians who, despite points of convergence, dared to hold onto their identity, Friedman said.
“It amounted to ‘it will work if these people would do what we wanted them to do’,” Friedman said of Zille’s tangible effort to appeal to black African voters. This rested on a failed calculation that Maimane, and more particularly Mazibuko, would, as Biko mused, resemble the party constituency sufficiently to be considered “liberals like us”.
“There was the failed assumption that anyone we can work with is going to think the way we do.”
Friedman said without Maimane, and given its tangible shift, the DA had no prospect of going into coalition with meaningful big parties in
metros in which it failed to poll anything near the 50% mark.
“They might cobble together enough support from the ACDP [African Christian Democratic Party] or Cope [Congress of the People] if they poll in the high 40s,” he said, adding that below that the matter was no longer even moot, since the DA itself has ruled out a repeat of its post-2016 coalitions with the EFF.
Those coalitions, Friedman said, were largely a function of Maimane making himself palatable to the EFF, and the third-biggest party being prepared to bet on him. Without him, most bets are off.
Maimane said, for him, it was plain that none of the bigger parties would be prepared to work with the DA this time around.
Friedman expects the party to poll well below its 2016 performance: the question is how far. He said, at this stage, there were no figures to help to gauge current voter sentiment, but the party’s own lowered expectations were writ large in predictions from the IRR’S Gareth van Onselen.
The more uncertain quantity is how the ANC will be affected by the government’s response to the Covid19 pandemic and corruption — and how any slide at the polls will affect Ramaphosa’s bid for re-election as party leader next year.
He noted that the ANC consistently fared worse in elections under Jacob Zuma, but less so under Ramaphosa in the national vote in 2019. This plebiscite could be detrimental to Ramaphosa if the ANC were to backslide for the first time on his watch — and could bolster the boldness of challengers like Mathews Phosa and Lindiwe Sisulu.
The unknown quantity was whether voters were reaching a tipping point at which they may decide that corruption and a failure to deliver was outweighed by the assurance of a welfare grant.
The DA’S Phoenix poster campaign may be the most obvious example of South Africa’s “bad” politics, but the official opposition is not alone in its inability to read the room.
The ANC’S poster campaign carries mainly the image of the party leader, rather than those of the candidates the party is fielding at ward and proportional representation level.
Whether the result of lack of resources, unresolved disputes over candidate choices or a shift in approach by the ANC, this means that would-be ANC voters are not given a chance to know exactly who it is they are being asked to vote for.
Ramaphosa’s handling of the Digital Vibes scandal — failing to fire Mkhize as health minister and his
subsequent praise of the party heavyweight — was also out of kilter with the ANC’S messaging on corruption and a serious misstep.
Right Royal Flop
The IFP, which launched a local campaign in Phoenix this week in an apparent attempt to take advantage of the DA’S blunders, has also shot itself in the foot with its tactics.
The IFP has found itself on the wrong side of public opinion — and the Zulu royal house — over the
use of images of King Misuzulu ka Zwelithini. It had to withdraw the material after the royal house threatened legal action and warned all parties to respect the Zulu monarchy’s party political neutrality.
The smaller parties have, in many cases, been equally errant when it comes to ensuring their messaging addresses issues that local governments have the capacity to resolve.
The Patriotic Alliance (PA) and
Action SA — and the IFP — have focused on the deportation of undocumented foreign nationals — which is a national government function.
In the Western Cape, the DA is seeing a spirited challenge from Patricia de Lille’s Good Party, with the former mayor’s strategists attacking the DA on social housing. It is an easy fight to pick, but De Lille’s track record on infrastructure is poor and as minister of public works she has ignored calls to release nationally owned land for housing.