The Democratic Alliance (DA) and the African National Congress (ANC) have some common headaches, chief among which is the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
After the 1999 elections, the Democratic Party – the precursor to the DA – conducted a re-envisioning exercise following a successful campaign to dislodge the New National Party (NNP) as the official opposition of the country. The next goal was the alternation of power between the ANC and itself at municipal, provincial and, ultimately, national level. Success has been achieved at municipal and provincial level, but the national trophy has, so far, eluded the DA.
But what has given hope to the leaders and supporters of the party is the fact that the DA is the only party in South Africa that has grown consistently since 1994. This it has achieved, in part, by growing its black membership base and support from black voters, albeit from a narrow base. In fact, of all its leaders so far, Helen Zille was the most strategic and pragmatic in her recognition of the fact that black voters are the future of the party. This is what informed the strategy of refusing to treat black voters and South Africa’s struggle heritage as the sole preserve of the ANC.
Under Zille’s leadership, the DA started singing struggle songs and equated liberal icons such as Alan Paton and Helen Suzman with ANC stalwarts like Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. In other words, under Zille’s leadership, the DA tried to give the impression that, like the ANC, it is a product of the struggle against apartheid and colonialism. While ANC members are unlikely to agree with this notion, there can be no doubt that the two parties have one thing in common – the remnants of the NNP are stewing in the digestive juices of both parties. Both parties swallowed different parts of the NNP carcass.
The DA, however, swallowed much more than that. It also swallowed the white conservative voters who, until then, had voted consistently for the NNP and other white conservative political parties. These voters introduced a far more conservative and right-wing strand to the political DNA of the DA. Their conservatism, coupled with the paternalism of white liberalism, is partly responsible for the schizophrenia for which even Zille could not find a cure.
This conservatism is partly the reason some old Progs have become critical of the direction the DA has been taking since the party discovered black voters. For them, the DA has increased its support among black voters at the expense of what they call ‘true’ liberal values. In my view, there are times when this argument is simply a proxy for their racist paternalism. This group has been joined by younger members of the party who are afraid that the day will come when the DA completely loses its original complexion. Some are afraid of the possibility that the policy direction of the party will in future be informed more by what they regard as black imperatives and much less by ‘traditional’ liberal (white) values.
There is now a new group in the DA. Its agenda is about making sure that the DA becomes a black party under white control. Part of this group’s strategy is to capture black leaders of the party when attempts at preventing a black person from becoming the leader of the party fail, as was the case with the candidacy of Mmusi Maimane. In short, this is the story of different strands of opposition to the current direction of the DA.
What is interesting, though, is the fact that there is a so-called black caucus that is opposed to the direction the DA is taking. To them, the party is trying to woo black voters dishonestly through a policy mix that is too ambiguous about redress. We must remember that the DA only discovered race in late 2013, when, at its policy meeting, it adopted a resolution in which it argued that race remained the main indicator of disadvantage in South Africa. The DA made this discovery under pressure from its black caucus, which is pejoratively referred to as the ‘ANC caucus’ by some DA members. These are some of the internal dynamics Maimane has to manage as we get closer to the local government elections.
Another problem is the fact that the problems of racism and racial tensions are not realities that are completely alien and external to the DA. It is not by accident that too many controversies about race and racism have had their fair share of DA cast members. This means that the party must accept the extent to which racism is an internal dynamic.
For its part, the EFF is trying to exploit the incoherence of the DA, and the ANC, on the question of race and racism. Will it succeed?