Getting ready for 2014

2010-08-17 00:00

A YEAR after the national elections, parties should be looking afresh at what they did and did not do last year with a view to beginning a process of consolidating and growing their support bases. With the Congress of the People (Cope) in the doldrums, focus should be on the African National Congress (ANC) and the Democratic Alliance (DA).

While the ANC has not stopped mobilising support after the elections, hoping to reach a million members through its imvuselelo (revival) campaign, the DA seemed initially too focused on the difficult politics of the Western Cape, its important power base. But in the run-up to its elective conference a month ago, the DA began mobilising support again.

Helen Zille is making her party aware that it needs to break the racial ceiling if its long-term goal of taking power nationally is to be realised. She made this point rather zealously at her party’s recent elective conference, hoping that the party would emerge with a demographicall­y representative leadership.

But the delegates failed this first test by not electing a single black African into its top echelons and by electing only two coloured people, one as chairperson and the other as one of the three deputy leaders. They also did not give a clear directive to the party leadership on how racially inclusive opportunities in society should be achieved concretely in the near future.

The challenge the DA faces is a sense that its leaders have placed much more emphasis on the racial profile of its top leadership than on changing the very culture and public perception of the party. This is about how the party aligns its ethos, language, message, values, strategies and face with the needs, norms and expectations of the majority of South Africans, especially blacks.

For as long as its programmes and the tone of its spokespeople suggest that the party represents white minority interests against the transformation agenda of post-apartheid South Africa, no amount of gerrymandering faces in its national leadership will breach the racial ceiling.

It is not that Zille has not tried, but she seems isolated in this campaign with regions and provinces failing to follow her tune. Of course, she has not pushed this as strongly as she does other typical DA messages. This is a mistake.

It is very courageous of her to criticise her members for failing to elect a racially mixed leadership collective. She probably knows that she may be alienating important constituencies by pushing for representivity.

Her drive to consolidate the opposition under the DA banner is gathering momentum after months of behind-scene negotiations. The announcement on Sunday of the merger between the DA and the Independent Democrats (ID) is a bold step forward for the DA, but a face-saving exercise for the ID.

Because the ID has been in decline for years now, the DA stands to gain very little from ID membership, even if it was guaranteed that all ID supporters will now join the DA. But the main alternative party can score symbolic victories if voters see in this a willingness on the part of the DA to build bridges and create a multiracial alternative to the ANC. But then, the merger may simply confirm the DA’s expansion to no more than the coloured constituency, meaning this merger is not as significant as it is being made out to be.

But if the merger attracts other predominantly black African political parties, principally the United Democratic Movement (UDM) and Cope, the DA-led platform may finally break through the racial ceiling.

The support behind the UDM and Cope is significant in numbers and in terms of political perception. But to draw the two parties in, Zille must persuade them that she will accommodate their values and agendas significantly.

Until then, with better contact with ordinary people outside the Western Cape, stronger messages on issues that concern black constituencies and stronger accommodation of black constituencies across the party, the DA will slowly grow.

As for the ANC, the biggest challenge is that of internal rot as pointed out in discussion documents to be put before the National General Council in September. Recently, Julius Malema has also posed questions about intergenerational issues in the ANC, suggesting that the imvuselelo campaign should not just be about reaching a million members, but also about infusing youth into the top echelons of the party in line with international trends.

If the ANC does make stronger inroads into the youth constituencies, it may even grow its political power provided that the DA-led platform fails to materialise in the next five years. The DA will have to consider sacrificing its name for a new nomenclature for the platform, symbolising a fusion of ideas rather than incorporating others into itself.

Both of these developments will require courageous leadership.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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