A mixed legacy

2008-10-20 00:00

Tony Leon, the terrier-like former leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), characteristically does not pull any punches in his book On the Contrary. Leon prized his successful strategy to corral the bulk of white voters into the DA laager.

The Achilles heel of South Africa’s infant democracy is its lack of relevant opposition parties. There is turmoil in the ruling ANC yet the opposition parties are poorly positioned to benefit. The central problem for any serious opposition party in South Africa is to win a sizeable black vote. Leon rightly believes that South Africa needs to move to the point where “people will vote on issues, not identity”. He wrongly blames an alleged group-vote mentality among blacks for this.

The problem, in fact, is with South Africa’s opposition parties — black and white. Leon himself has contributed to entrenching “identity” politics, by controversially fighting the 1999 election on a so-called “fight-back” platform, which was widely perceived by black voters as whites fighting “back” against blacks or a black government.

Certainly, by adopting this strategy, Leon won over the sections of the white electorate apprehensive of a black government. However, he may have lost the better part of a generation of black voters looking for credible alternatives in the political centre. A better strategy would have been to emphasise the DA’s rich, but more liberal, anti-apartheid past credentials — this would mean projecting itself as a non-racial liberation movement or party — and carve out a post-apartheid position around a non-racial, caring and social justice platform.

The DA’s CEO Ryan Coetzee identified the party’s dilemma correctly when he argued that a DA leader must show that he or she cares as deeply about “delivery issues that affect black South Africans as [it does] about those issues that affect whites”.

For example, Leon would rightly criticise official corruption, but the way the criticisms are conveyed often appear as though the party argues that all blacks are necessarily corrupt. It is the same for crime, which affects black and white people yet the way in which the DA’s anti-crime message is communicated sometimes appears as though crime only happens to white people. In fact, the DA and Leon’s style made it easier for ANC leaders to hold it up as a bogeyman to black voters, especially when it [the ANC] is in trouble.

The former president Thabo Mbeki and Tony Leon were obsessed with each other and each often responded in a most exaggerated manner to even the mildest criticisms. Mbeki’s pettiness towards Leon and other critics and not giving the opposition the legitimacy, respect and consideration it deserves in a constitutional democracy, is inexcusable.

Yet Mbeki many have had a point when he privately argued that Leon’s racially polarised leadership style helped pull the legs from the president’s centre-piece attempt to create a “national consensus” where all political parties would agree — such as in post-war Western European and Scandinavian countries — that they may publicly attack each other, but that they should agree on a fundamental set of core reconstruction aims, for example income support for the most vulnerable. Of course, Mbeki’s own divisive leadership style largely led to the collapse of his “national consensus” initiative.

A few months into his first term, Mbeki even mulled over an affirmative action pact, in which white South Africans would support the policy, while the government in return would agree to consider the exemption of some skills and the protection of young whites. The affirmative action initiative collapsed through a combination of objections by the “nativists” within Mbeki’s inner circle and the president’s exaggerated anger at white criticisms of transformation, mostly those of Leon, of his presidency.

What should be done now to make the DA more relevant to black voters? The answer surely is that the DA should become more ANC in policies than the ANC itself, while sticking to its core liberal principles. It must shed its image as a lobby for only minority interests and reposition itself as a party ready to govern for the whole of South Africa.

The one problem of the DA under Leon was that it was more conservative in its stances than it was liberal, more pre-David Cameron British Conservative Party than Bill Clinton or Barack Obama’s Democratic Party. Yet, for liberalism to be relevant in South Africa, it must be of the Clinton-Obama variety.

For example, in South Africa, the reality for most black South Africans is that the trade union movement is an important protector, not only of their employment, but also of their rights. Surely, to attack trade unions just for the sake of it does not make sense. It would be better to form an alliance with like-minded trade unions, such as the Federation of South African Unions (Fedusa) or the Solidariteit Mynwerkers Unie.

The DA’s support of a basic income grant is one good example of forward thinking. It must come up with more balanced responses to affirmative action and black economic empowerment (BEE), rather than go on about how they disadvantage whites or over-emphasising that South Africans of Indian and coloured backgrounds are now again discriminated against, this time because they are allegedly not black enough.

The way in which these policies are implemented is wrong. Yet the continuing legacy of apartheid segregation (lack of skills, employment and property and social capital) cannot be wished away. However, the DA must — and they have the capacity — come up with a credible alternative to affirmative action and BEE that will accommodate the black expectations of redress and the white fear of losing out.

A major shortcoming of South Africa’s Constitution is what Leon rightly describes as providing “little institutional power” for the opposition. Leon must be credited for going beyond these limitations to keep barking at the ANC.

The leadership transition from Leon to Helen Zille is a lesson not only to the ANC, but to most political parties in Africa. In the DA’s internal elections to elect a successor to Leon, candidates declared their interest in the top job early and publicly. They were given the opportunity to campaign, to tell DA members what they stood for, how they will renew the party and how they will refocus it. Furthermore, DA members could at each stop of the campaign trial directly ask candidates difficult questions about their intentions.

Most importantly, all of this was held transparently and in the open. The contrast with the bitter shenanigans in the ANC is depressing. Zille should take lessons from Leon’s time as opposition leader to heart if the DA under her leadership is to fill the deep hole in the heart of South Africa’s politics, which is still the lack of a relevant political alternative to the ruling ANC.

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