Guest Column

DA at a crossroads: Ideology versus growth

2018-06-03 06:01
The DA flag is waving. (Nelius Rademan, Gallo Images, Foto24, file)

The DA flag is waving. (Nelius Rademan, Gallo Images, Foto24, file)

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Rapule Tabane

I remember veteran journalist Ken Owen writing in the Sunday Times just before the 1994 elections that “I stood by the liberals when they were almost extinct. I will not desert them just because they are confused.”

Owen was making his electoral choice ahead of the historic elections when black people were, for the first time, given the vote. He had dissected the ideological confusion of the then Democratic Party, but still felt that they were the best choice for the future of South Africa.

More than 20 years later, I feel that we have been saddled with the same problem: The DA, the DP’s successor, still expects that the media must “stand by them” because they are “the only truly non-racial party with the best economic policies that can save this country”. But the media’s role is not to stick by any political party, but rather by the Constitution. That is the only guiding ideology that it should swear by. Anyone or any institution, such as then Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, that best upholds and promotes the values in the Constitution deserves the support of all South Africans.

The DA has done excellent work in shining the light in the dark corners of corruption. For years since the days of Nelson Mandela to these days of Life Esidimeni, its public representatives have been indefatigable in exposing the wastage of public resources. And their work has been duly highlighted everywhere including, for example, forcing former president Jacob Zuma to finally face trial for corruption and fraud. And I am sure there are many other good patriotic acts they perform.

However, I am getting the sense that they expect to be rewarded by the media with what they call good publicity. This means they should be treated with kids gloves in relation to how they handle matters that could potentially generate “negative publicity”. It simply does not work that way. It should be the South African voter who entrusts them with his/her future in recognition of all the (good) work they might have performed. But alas, the DA is sensing “ingratitude” from the media who, for obscure reasons, are expected to sing their praises.

The truth is, the DA is in trouble currently. The reliable Ipsos survey says support for the party has dwindled from 22.3% in 2014 to 20% now. For a party that envisaged taking the levers of national government in coalition with other parties in 2019, this is totally shocking. It honestly means they are living in cloud cuckoo land regarding that objective. And the DA knows the reasons, which include a changed political landscape after the disappearance of Zuma as a central ANC figure and the emergence of Ramaphoria.

But, for the most part, the damage is self-inflicted.

Despite knowing the real reasons why they are regressing so much, they are looking for scapegoats. They know that a large percentage of their voters are fed up with the same ideological confusion that Owen referred to. But, mostly, the influential, historical DA constituency is unhappy with their leader Mmusi Maimane, who has found his Black voice.

When Maimane attacks white privilege, it causes serious consternation among their constituency and some of the leaders who feel that he is dabbling in ANC lingo and ideology. When he boldly stands up to support rugby legend and commentator Ashwin Willemse in a dispute with two white commentators, DA supporters take to Twitter to express outrage and vow never to vote for the party again.

Whether Maimane has reached his Damascus moment or is simply being realistic and opportunistic by targeting the massive black vote that can change his party’s fortunes, the fact is, he has rattled the cage. He is no longer the “nice” priest who reminded them of former US president Barack Obama. He is now no different from ANC politicians, who are held up as the worst standard in politics.

But the problem for his critics is that the DA has recently held its congress, where they strategically chose not to challenge his leadership. It is now too late to properly rein him in. Other than biting riposte on Twitter, Maimane is running loose in a manner his internal party critics cannot handle. And they are deeply worried that his continued commentary will further erode their support base. But the one small problem is that he and a coterie of mainly black leaders around him feel that this path he is choosing will achieve the opposite: it will bring on board many more black voters who have hitherto viewed the party as white. This is an unavoidable tension.

When they do use federal executive and caucus meetings to try and pressurise him to tone down, the information is leaked and their agenda exposed. So what do Maimane’s critics do? They quietly start exploring the possibility of a party that will largely reflect what they feel the DA should be: A liberal, non-racial party that believes in meritocracy. They then consult sympathetic political analyst Frans Cronje to help them with a feasibility assessment. Cronje’s confirmation of the approach by these DA forces stands uncontradicted.

With ten months to go before national elections, this is where the DA finds itself: at a crossroads where ideological purity clashes with practical imperatives of growth. With our history, it inevitably takes on racial connotations. They probably need a special conference to resolve these tensions. Or else the fights and divisions will be drip-fed to a gradually disaffected support base right till the elections.

The DA has a responsibility to find a way to work around the ideological clash that has set the party on a collision course. That is far more fundamental and useful than trying to manage the message.

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