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.
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Gwen Ngwenya, the DA's head of policy, resigned after sending a blistering letter to party leader Mmusi Maimane. She describes a party seemingly in shambles, unable to take difficult decisions, writes Pieter du Toit.
Dene Smuts, a stalwart DA MP and for years one of the most senior members of Parliament’s justice portfolio committee, was worried that the DA might lose focus, backbone and direction when she retired from politics in 2014.
She believed the party should remain singularly focused on offering a different set of policies than those pursued by the ANC so that voters would have a clear choice between the parties, and she was frustrated by the DA’s efforts to move too quickly and afraid that it would become too populist. The party was steadily winning over voters thanks to the positions it took, she argued, there was no need to change course.
A mere four months out from the election Smuts, who died in 2016, would have been appalled at the shambles that the country’s biggest opposition party finds itself in.
On Thursday Gwen Ngwenya, the party’s head of policy, resigned after sending a blistering letter to party leader Mmusi Maimane. She describes a party seemingly in shambles, unable to take difficult decisions, ill-equipped to develop attractive policy positions and uncertain about its direction.
READ: DA doesn't take policy seriously - former policy head's resignation letter
According to Ngwenya the DA is afraid of discussing ideas. When it is confronted by controversial positions or events it cowers and elects to steer clear and decisions are taken on the fly, without proper discussion or consideration.
The most damning accusation by Ngwenya is that she doesn’t believe the DA “takes policy seriously”. And because of that she hasn’t had either the material or logistical support from the party’s leadership. She explains that as head of policy she has been floating around trying to give substance to her job, which is to develop policy for a party hoping to form a government some day, but that she has been excluded from presenting it to the leaders.
In fact, she says the party’s policies, that seems all at sea and and open to sudden changes of course, is determined by the CEO (Paul Boughey) “and not the elected representatives”.
And when a debate about the future of policy like black economic empowerment ensues, and it seems like it could be controversial, the DA shies away from it. “Instead of having the courage of its convictions, at the mere whiff of a debate on BEE the party felt it best to attack the head of policy rather than owning up to its own structure’s decision,” she writes. (Ngwenya was hung out to dry after she wrote an opinion piece explaining the DA’s decision to investigate moving away from race-based empowerment policies.)
But she ends off with a real kick in the gut: “Ideas are not a battleground the DA likes to tread.” It’s a harsh assessment and a damning indictment of a party that styles itself as a government in waiting.
The 2019 general election should have been a golden opportunity for the DA. It has steadily built its support since 1994 and has consistently shown strong growth.
The ANC, despite the removal of former president Jacob Zuma, is in retreat. It is beset by internal division, cancerous with corruption and on daily trial at various commissions of inquiry.
If ever the DA was perfectly primed to make the great leap forward, it was now.
But if Ngwenya’s letter is anything to go by, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of substance to the DA’s plans and strategy, something that has been pointed out by critics – and furiously rejected by the party.
Poll numbers, both public and internal party polls, do not augur well for the DA. And DA voters will now be forgiven if they are uncertain, irritated and cold towards the party. Ngwenya’s broadside comes on the back of the Patricia de Lille fracas, the loss of the mayoralty in Nelson Mandela Bay and the odd replacing of Solly Msimanga as Tshwane mayor. They'll do well to hang on to the same levels of support as in 2014.
The DA is often judged harshly by the voting public. But Ngwenya’s diagnosis exposes a leadership vacuum and a poverty of ideas. They’re in serious trouble.
Smuts, at the end of her parliamentary career, said the DA must guard against only chasing soundbites and Twitter likes. It seems nobody listened.
- Du Toit is News24 assistant editor for in-depth news.
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