The DA has more black supporters than ever before, but the party did not do enough over the past five years to change the negative perceptions about being a white party run by a black leader, writes Adriaan Basson.
This should have been the DA's 30% election.
The official opposition has grown its support substantially in every election since 1994. The May 8 national election is the first time since the dawn of democracy that the DA risks stagnating or even declining in support.
As party leader, Tony Leon took the DA to almost 10% of the national vote in 2004. He was succeeded by Helen Zille who achieved tremendous success in Cape Town and the Western Cape, and took the party's national tally to 22.2% in 2014.
There is a real risk that Mmusi Maimane will become the first DA leader not to grow the party's national support. Polling currently puts the party on anything between 15% and 25% nationally.
The fact that Leon and Zille were brought out last week to boost the party's campaign is telling. Maimane has attempted to move the image of the party away from Leon's "fight back" days and Zille's unsavoury public utterances in recent years.
It must be a bitter pill for him to swallow to see Leon and Zille on the DA's campaign trail.
Why has Maimane failed to grow the DA's support to 30% nationally?
With a struggling ANC trying to reconfigure itself after Jacob Zuma's disastrous ten years as president, the DA was ideally placed to sway thousands of voters away from South Africa's liberation party to a new political home.
The party has failed to do this.
Yes, the DA has more black supporters than ever before, but the party did not do enough over the past five years to fundamentally change the negative stereotypes and perceptions about being a white party run by a black leader.
In trying to appease and attract new black voters, the DA may have inadvertently alienated a chunk of its core white constituency. "Issa mess," as Twitter would say.
Although I will only believe it when I see it, some analysts believe the Freedom Front Plus may eat into the DA's Afrikaans support base. This may partly be explained by the lack of a prominent, Afrikaans leader in the DA's ranks.
I make a point of asking South Africans from all hues whether they will consider voting for the DA and if not, why not. The most popular responses from my very unscientific research are that the DA is "confused" and Maimane "weak".
Despite the sterling work of some MPs like Phumzile van Damme, John Steenhuisen and Glynnis Breytenbach, I have to agree.
And the two things are not unrelated.
The DA has suffered from serious policy blunders in the past five years, chiefly the blow-out between senior leaders like Zille, former parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and former policy chief Gwen Ngwenya over BEE and employment equity.
In these times of crisis, Maimane didn't step forward to lead. He seemed hesitant to take a stand, albeit unpopular, and I perceived him to be torn between two (sometimes more) factions in the party.
He is surrounded by a coterie of corporatised "advisors" who often rely on polling and polling alone to make certain calls and say certain things. Yes, the DA has the best, most sophisticated polling machine of all the parties, but has the party not become too McKinsey-ised in recent years, forgetting to do the grassroots work?
Think what you may of Zille and Leon, but the one thing you cannot say of them is that they were hesitant to lead. And I think the electorate – black and white – has felt this.
Maimane is a nice guy and an excellent orator. His "broken man" speech at the height of Zuma's state capture project will go down as one of the most historic moments in a democratic Parliament.
He has led the DA to govern Johannesburg and Tshwane since 2016, albeit through a complicated power-sharing agreement with the EFF.
The DA stubbornly fought the withdrawal of corruption charges against Zuma until they were finally reinstated last year. The party has some excellent representatives and will pull thousands of votes for being the least corrupt of the top three parties.
But this was not enough to take them to 30% and secure Maimane's future.
With rising starts like Solly Msimanga, Herman Mashaba, Van Damme and Steenhuisen breathing down his neck, this may be Maimane's last chance on the national ballot.
- Basson is editor-in-chief of News24.