The DA runs with the ANC’s ball

2011-04-30 13:56

It was the English psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott who first came up with the notion of the “transitional object”, a description of any material item that can help a child or adult make an important psychological shift from one stage of life to another.

The transitional object is in essence about continuity, but also about a break in continuity.

One hesitates to equate a political party with early child-parent relationships, but I have been thinking a lot about Winnicott’s concept while on the campaign trail of DA leader Helen Zille and even more so after her Freedom Day speech at Solomon Mahlangu Square in Mamelodi this week.

In essence, political parties and the state fulfil the role of surrogate all-powerful parents who provide (with our taxes) houses, schools, medical care, social grants, roads, electricity and, occasionally, moral leadership.

Zille is the DA’s transitional object to the future, a ­future that is very soon going to include a black leader and many more black members in the party’s top echelons.

These young leaders are being fast-tracked as we speak.

Zille is a different political animal from her predecessor, Tony Leon, and this election has provided her with a national platform to display her party’s future vision.

The trajectory was set in motion in 2006 in a document titled ­Becoming a Party for All the People, authored by the party’s then chief executive, Ryan ­Coetzee, and stalled somewhat by the establishment of Cope in 2009.

With Cope almost dead in the water this time round, Zille’s Freedom Day speech marks a public turning point for the DA and its attempt to secure left-of-centre ideological ground.

By opting to use a space named after MK cadre Mahlangu, who was executed in 1979, and titling Zille’s speech A Luta Continua (The Struggle Continues), the DA has endeavoured not only to make a symbolic connection with the country’s struggle history but an all-important emotional one.

The DA’s campaign kicked off significantly in Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was adopted in 1955, and will end at a rally at the OR Tambo Hall in Khayelitsha.

Throughout the campaign, Zille has drawn on the symbolic accoutrements of “struggle” – the songs, the chants, the dances and, where necessary, opting to wear traditional garb.But this week, invoking ­heroes “who inspired us” – including Luthuli, Gandhi, Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu, Suzman and Hani – Zille acknowledged, “we have not erased the past” and that “feelings of anger and resentment” remain.

Identifying two residual components of this past – poverty, and the emotional and psychological scars of apartheid – Zille pledged “to vanquish poverty in our country, so that every person can taste the fruits of freedom”.

This would be achieved, of course, within the DA’s core philosophy of the “open opportunity” society and, at this point, hopefully through the party’s proven service delivery track record where it governs.

“We must also ensure we provide a safety net for those who cannot access an income and life’s necessities on their own.

We must care by doing,” she said.

This is a far, far cry from the customary DA strategy of negative campaigning, attacking the ruling party and “fighting back”.

Weirdly enough, at the ­moment, the new DA could rightly be mistaken, in some ­respects, for the old ANC.

But what exactly does Zille represent to her old supporters and potential new ones?

Who are the people she is helping to “transition”?

 Why does she care about them and will those voters the party hopes to lure find traction on this stepping stone?

From her speech this week, it is clear the party is pushing the notion of inclusiveness and non­racialism, an ideal it believes the ANC pays lip service to.

Juggling this ball, Zille needs to convince the party’s traditional funders and supporters (old progressives and the clutch of inherited old National Party “fight back” faction) that while the DA of the future will not look and sound like them, it will share their “values”.

On the other hand, in repositioning the party through acknowledging and appropriating the county’s “struggle” past, Zille hopes to convince the black majority that the DA offers an alternative to the ANC, which has ­entered this election, according to Zwelinzima Vavi, “with its tail between its legs and its back against the wall”.

It is bridging these divides outside of the DA while at the same time holding and managing competing influences within the party itself (white members will have to learn to stand back if the party is to survive) that are Zille’s greatest challenges.

The results after May 18 will prove whether the country is willing to step on her transitional stone.

» Thamm is an award-winning columnist, editor and journalist

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