It is sad when a party loses talented people. It is sadder when one has worked for decades to build a party to see it teetering on the brink of a major setback.
Former DA leader Mmusi Maimane during the party's campaign ahead of the 2019 general elections. (Gallo Images)
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It looks as though the DA will play it safer among its minority adherents who are more receptive to issues such as BEE and the rise of racial nationalism. But it's precisely this dilemma the party couldn't quite get right these last three years, writes Daniel Silke.
That the DA has been a party of confusing
mixed messages for a number of years goes without saying. From policy to
principle to practice, few really could adequately articulate its messaging.
While macro factors such as the rise of
Cyril Ramaphosa and the EFF ate into the DA's ability to provide a unique
selling proposition, its own indecision surely didn't help it at all.
Following the dramatic resignations of the
last week, this next few weeks will see an exercise in steadying the ship. For
this to occur, there should be as little contestation for positions as possible
and the rapid appointment of the very able John Steenhuisen as parliamentary
leader highlights an understanding of this.
OPINION | Douglas Gibson: South Africa needs the DA
Of course, the first real test will be to
appoint the action leader to take the party to a formal congress in April 2020
– and whilst contestation is the lifeblood of political parties, the DA is a
fragile entity and perhaps cannot afford a debilitating internal contest – especially
if it once again is spun with a racial narrative as its enemies are want to do.
The shoring up of the brand will take
monumental activities on the ground where DA branches will be left reeling
following the multiple resignations. Here too, the party will have to act
quickly to explain its immediate damage control methods. Naturally, too, the
party will want to limit further shedding of members to other parties or
resignations which can perpetuate the image of "implosion" as
expressed by many.
And of course, the donor community will be especially
tough to deal with – expecting value for their money rather than extended
political in-fighting and a weakening of the cause in return.
Long-term implications serious
But while the immediate aftermath will
probably be dealt with as efficiently as possible under the circumstances, it's
the medium- and longer-term trajectory for the party that is in doubt. Indeed,
the DA and its predecessors have been there before at various intervals in
various incarnations. They have gone from growth paths to schisms and declines
– and recoveries. Is it any different this time round?
From a macro-perspective, the DA has found
it extremely difficult to counter the Ramaphosa effect. Perhaps more than any
other reason – including Twitter wars and messy leadership options – Mmusi
Maimane was no match for the promise and gravitas of Cyril Ramaphosa.
Secondly, the DA was once the vanguard of
effective parliamentary opposition. But once the EFF appeared, the attention
shifted to Julius Malema amongst a radicalisation of the political debate that
unnerved the DA's white voters. The DA became caught in a trap – and this was
made worse by the very effective narrative from its enemies that it was simply
racist with a wish to return South Africa to its past white supremacist days.
Helen Zille addresses the media in Johannesburg on October 23, 2019 after Mmusi Maimane resigned as party leader. (Getty Images)
DA walked into its own falsely created
The problem with this last week – and with
many weeks over the past three years – is that the DA has often walked into its
own falsely created narrative, thereby confirming it in the eyes of its critics
and a bewildered electorate. From the leader down – including members of the DA
caucus and other party office-bearers – the party seemed constantly at war with
itself, failing to act as one cohesive unit.
Buffeted by a very effective ANC and EFF
propaganda campaign, the DA floundered and looked as though it was morphing
directly into what its opponents were accusing it of.
You could blame the party the leader for
this – but clearly, the rhetoric of appeasement and confusion was sewed by
many. If the DA is to begin a process of recovery, the very least is for the
party to define a clear vision. This it may do – but it has to choose if it
wants to be the narrow purveyor of minority interests or whether it still has
the ability to build cross-cutting constituencies in the hope that it can
remain relevant on the national stage.
The central challenge will be to remain
sharply critical of the ANC yet be able to act credibly in addressing the
frustrations, fears and historic inequality of one racial group at the expense
of one other. That, the broad dilemma.
Western Cape crucial to DA's future
The narrower dilemma is that rebuilding the
DA might be predicated around a concentration on shoring up minorities – after
all, if the party begins to lose support in the Western Cape, it is ultimately
staring down disaster. It can, resultantly, afford to be booted out of the mayoral
seat in Johannesburg or Tshwane, but the Western Cape and Cape Town metropole
remain crucial to its future viability.
To that end, the immediate future looks as though the DA will play it safer among its minority adherents who are more receptive to issues such as BEE and the rise of racial nationalism.
But it's precisely this dilemma that the
party will soon face and it's the very same dilemma it couldn't quite get right
these last three years. How do you critique the ANC from a minority viewpoint
when you clearly require black voters to find you attractive as well? If you
want to choose the minority option, you can probably shore up some support –
but you sure won't be a party vying for national power or even provincial/regional
For those Liberals who are rejoicing at the
potential "purification" of the DA, the same issues remain. They have
yet to turn liberal philosophy into a beacon of hope for the majority of South
Africans. And it's that messaging that requires the DA's full attention.
ANALYSIS | Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, Mmusi Maimane and the crisis of liberalism
While some might feel this is a return to
the business-as-usual approach of the post-1994 era, the optics and dynamics in
the broader South Africa have changed. Racial identity has been successfully
used to mobilise political forces within the country, while scapegoating
economic policy failure via a racial prism has become a national sport. You can't
tweet this away – but you can develop sound messaging to offset the worst
damage it has caused.
The DA is a party with a huge national
footprint and a considerable and influential donor base. Even if a new party is
started among those disaffected, the practical bottlenecks of fundraising and
personality clashes will be centre-stage like many of those who have gone
The party now has a choice before it – feel
safer among the core market or attempt a re-boot with an inclusive national
strategy. It may be tempted to go with the easier option at least in the
short-term, but that will ultimately set it back on the national stage. Tough
- Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.
Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.
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