DA challenged with growth

2012-10-13 00:00

THE establishment of the Democratic Alliance as a party of good governance, not just good opposition, is Helen Zille’s major goal in the run-up to the next elections in 2014.

“It’s a very difficult process to transform an election manifesto into workable government policy.

“The only way to do that is through team work, the best strategy and the right people in the right positions.”

She said growth brings its own challenges, especially in politics.

“The challenge is to grow while retaining your commitment to principles. Those two things must take place simultaneously.

“As you grow you become more attractive to many people who are pursuing their own interests rather than principles. That is the case in politics everywhere, and it has to be properly managed.

“I can assure you of one thing,” Zille said with a fleeting smile, “the problems of a growing party are preferable to the problems of a shrinking party.”

The growth of the DA among all population groups, the establishment of workable coalition politics in the opposition, and a successful merger with the Independent Democrats (ID) have been highlights for her since her re-election as party leader by the DA’s national congress in 2009.

“An increasing number of people of diverse backgrounds understand and support our party’s philosophy, as can be seen from the diversity of young people who gave us a majority of 75% in the recent student council elections at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University [previously UPE] in Port Elizabeth.

“The young people there understand that they are voting DA to protect others’ rights, not only their own, and for true non-racialism.

“We are establishing coalition politics in city councils throughout the country. The merger with the ID went extremely well — so much so that people have even forgotten how unthinkable it was at one stage, and what it required.”

For Zille the low points in her terms of office were the times when, in her opinion, she harmed the DA personally. “I had to learn that one does not tweet unthinkingly,” she said, with regret in her voice.

“Other people, sometimes wilfully, but that’s politics, read things into your tweets you never intended.”

Several of the country’s opposition parties are getting smaller. Why is the DA the only one that is growing?

She ponders the question for a long time and said: “The DA stands for a seasoned, proven, important political philosophy that applies to everyone’s daily lives.

“In a country where abuse of power and jobs for pals are so common, examples abound of how people’s chances for opportunities are undermined. So the opportunity for political success through firmness of principle is there — the gap exists.

“The other secret to success in politics, as elsewhere in life, is unremitting hard work, and we now have so many people — experienced people, young people — who are truly prepared to sacrifice everything for the party’s political ideals and philosophy. As soon as self-interest supplants the political ideal you have trouble in a party. As long as the ideal remains the strongest factor, people can deal with personal disappointments and defeats.

“In addition, we have strong systems in place, and professional party personnel who are strictly managed and work hard every day.”

But how does the DA’s renowned philosophy work out in practice?

“The young DA supporters I spoke to in Port Elizabeth specifically emphasised the fact that they want to use hard work and brain power to achieve success in their careers, not political connectedness.”

It is also important for Zille that each person should have the ability to live out who he or she is, where it doesn’t limit someone else’s ability to do the same.

“A further very important principle is freedom of speech — not only for us, but also for our opponents, because it is a universal principle.

“That is why the DA immediately objected when the police undermined Julius Malema’s right to address strikers at Marikana.

“There were people who revelled in what was happening to him, but the principle stands: if Malema’s freedom of speech and constitutional rights are restricted today, whose will follow tomorrow?”

This brought us to a key issue, and a hot potato if ever there was one: How do you handle racial diversity within the ideal of non-racialism, especially given our country’s unequal, racially divided past and present?

“We create the opportunities, and then offer them to those who have the potential to succeed. We strive for diversity, but not exact representivity, as the ANC does.

“One has to be diverse in a diverse country, but it is unacceptable that your chances in life should be determined by your demography.

“That is why the DA increasingly uses objective criteria for performance measurement. You learn, of course, and you sometimes make mistakes. Then you try and do it better next time.”

Is it not quite a challenge to retain the support of racial minorities and win the support of black voters at the same time, given the country’s obsession with race?

“Not really. The best plan for all our voters, regardless of background, is for the party to win elections, protect people’s rights and let the country move forward,” she said.

“If we get stuck on racial interests we all know what the outcome will be. We will have a power state in which the government will never change. We must build our politics on values for a new type of majority, so the identity and race of the party leader becomes less important.”

How does she remain so motivated and on the go, with people saying she works 20 hours a day, every day?

“Well, not really every day. I do have a husband and children,” she grinned.

Then she becomes serious, saying: “I have an incredibly great love for this country, because without this country my parents [refugees from Germany] would not have survived World War II. For that I am grateful…

“To have the opportunity to get up every day and help build the country is a privilege, and gives me a goal.

“So my day ? always makes me excited. How on earth can I be tired or give up hope?”

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