Guest Column

Daniel Silke: The DA has a chance to reboot. Can it avoid the same old traps?

2019-10-28 08:52
Former DA leader Mmusi Maimane during the party's campaign ahead of the 2019 general elections. (Gallo Images)

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.

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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.

da, federal chairperson

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 narrative

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 viability

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 power.  

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 before.

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 decisions ahead.

- 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.

Read more on:    da  |  helen zille  |  mmusi mai­mane  |  john steenhuisen
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