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.
Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille. (Felix Dlangamandla/Netwerk24)
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It is sad when a party loses talented people who still have a lot to contribute. It is sadder still when one has worked for decades to build a party of substance to see it teetering on the brink of a major setback, writes Douglas Gibson.
The dismal news emanating from the Democratic Alliance (DA) is disappointing in the extreme. The four million voters who supported the party must be feeling bewildered that a party that has been built up from roots going back 60 years seems to be collapsing. I have news for them. The DA will recover. South Africa needs the DA.
The turbulence in the DA now reminds me vividly of the seeming disaster for the PFP when the gifted and supremely talented Dr Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, leader of the opposition, announced that he was resigning because parliamentary politics was a waste of time. The changes needed would not happen in Parliament. Of course, he proved to be completely wrong: three years later President FW de Klerk announced in the House that the liberation parties were to be unbanned and that negotiations would commence.
A few short years later and the new National Assembly became the vehicle for the Constitutional Assembly that drew our Constitution. The PFP and then the DP, as it became, played a highly significant role in reaching a national compact on a new beginning for South Africa, based on the liberal democratic principles for which the party had always stood.
The point of this story is that a party that stands for ageless principles has a place in our country and is, in fact, needed to help push SA in the right direction. This country is a very young democracy and it has not yet even crossed the important milestone of experiencing a change of government through the ballot box.
If we are to succeed in becoming a mature constitutional democracy it is essential that we move on from having one dominant party, opposed by a whole heap of small parties that cannot really challenge it. We need to become a normal parliamentary democracy where the government is opposed and held to account by an opposition that is large enough to challenge it for power at national, provincial and local elections and where the incumbents are thrown out by the voters every now and then.
There are some countries that fail because the policies and the alternatives on offer are not viable. There are other countries that stick to outdated ideologies beyond all reason and cling to old attitudes and self-destructive positions even when it is clear that they have failed.
South Africa has a government that pursues economic policies that have led to us having the highest unemployment rate in the world, condemning our people to poverty and increasing inequality; a growth rate that is minuscule if we grow at all; an educational system that is failing our children and denying them the rights promised in the Constitution; a health system that is broken for those who cannot afford private health care; a crime situation that gets worse and has forced millions to either live in fear or else pay large amounts for private security; and tragically, a re-racialisation that has seen an unravelling of the movement towards racial reconciliation, with increased intolerance of the many differences of colour, of culture, of language, of religion that make our country unique.
The DA offers Freedom, Fairness, Opportunity and Diversity as its main principles. It stands for the rule of law and for a market economy that produces the life chances so desperately needed by South Africans. It supports the values and principles of the Constitution and the measures necessary to give effect to the Constitution.
Every policy of the party – and the conduct of its representatives whether in opposition or in government – must be measured against these principles. Where it succeeds, it should be congratulated. Where it falls short, it must be held to account. But can anyone deny that these principles (and the policies that promote them) are needed in SA today?
If there was no Democratic Alliance to pose these alternatives to the failed ANC government after a generation in power, one would have to be created.
Sometimes the DA falls short. It is after all, not a divine creation. Where it has spent time recently on factions and labels and finger-pointing and excluding some instead of including them, it needs to be reminded that the voters cannot abide parties that spend their time fighting internal battles (sometimes based on misrepresentations, misunderstandings, wilful or otherwise, or on clever-clever debates that are often pointless because they do not get to the essence of the action that must be taken).
It is sad when a party loses talented people who still have a lot to contribute. It is sadder still when one has worked for decades to build a party of substance to see it teetering on the brink of a major setback.
Happily, there are still good people available to help steady the ship. Helen Zille has the energy, the experience and the brains as well as the courage to do the job until the congress elects its choice of leaders. The introspection has been done; now action must follow.
One hopes that the DA will emerge from its travails to act as the voters are entitled to expect of it as the Official Opposition with the potential at some future stage to form the core of an alternative government for South Africa.
- Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com
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