A response to the conundrum that is Helen Zille and the DA

2019-05-30 08:58
Helen Zille, Wes-Kaapse premier, Woensdag by ’n mediavergadering van die provinsiale regering. Foto: Malherbe Nienaber

Helen Zille, Wes-Kaapse premier, Woensdag by ’n mediavergadering van die provinsiale regering. Foto: Malherbe Nienaber (Foto: Malherbe Nienaber)

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In her article titled Helen Zille: My biggest mistake published on 27 May 2019 on News24, former DA leader Helen Zille makes some thought-provoking arguments. Of particular importance was her reflections on the transformation of the DA and how it was allegedly used against the official opposition party by the racial politicking machinery of the ANC and EFF. One is inclined to agree with Zille when she argues that competent leaders of colour in the DA are incorrectly labelled as mere puppets that are used by their white counterparts for electioneering, particularly in black constituencies. Where I am critical of the former Western Cape Premier is the direction the DA took, under her leadership, in its efforts to transform from opposition party to ruling party.

The path to racial transformation in a racially fragmented polity such as South Africa is time-bound, and a seasoned and politically conscious leader such as Zille knows this. The gradual growth of the DA essentially began in 2006 when it assumed leadership of a coalition government in the City of Cape Town following the 2006 local government elections. This coalition government would be the basis on which the DA would win the Western Cape Province in 2009, along with 16.7% of the national vote. The year 2014 represented more growth for the DA, with the party retaining the Western Cape Province and claiming a commendable 22.23% of the national vote, making electoral ground in six of the remaining eight provinces governed by the ANC. Of particular significance was the DA's capturing of 30.78% of the votes in Gauteng Province, the economic hub of the country, if not the continent.

The height of DA growth was arguably its performance in the local government elections of 2016, where it was able to unseat the ANC in the coveted metropolitan governments of Pretoria (Tshwane), Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), albeit via complex coalition agreements. Perhaps it was this success in 2016 that got the DA excited about a possible Gauteng victory in the 2019 general election. It is this desire to govern that clouded DA thinking, with its strategy shifting away from non-racialism and liberalism towards racialism with the intent of winning the black vote, particularly in Gauteng.

What the DA leadership ought to have remembered is that its gradual rise from 2006 to 2016 had largely been a result of the party being an actual alternative to the ANC. Unlike the ANC, the DA had ideological clarity, firmly positioned as the apex liberal party in the political landscape of South Africa. This was in contrast to the ideologically muddled ANC, which is historically an ideological enigma due to its long-time alliance with the SACP and labour (COSATU).

However, the past couple of years, the DA lost its way, and this did not start with the election of Mmusi Maimane as DA leader. This move towards securing the black vote started under Zille's tenure and perhaps reached its implementation stage with the election of Maimane. No disrespect to Maimane, he is a highly capable individual, but it was very convenient to the DA's new racial politicking path that he was catapulted (with Zille's support) to the DA presidency while still a novice in terms of national politics.

As Zille aptly put it in her article, there was no need for the DA to adopt the racial politicking of the ANC and EFF because black South Africans are a hybrid racial group with varying ideological persuasions. Whilst racial politics and populism can win a certain amount of votes, it is certainly not a sustainable path towards winning a national election in a maturing democracy. The DA ought to have stayed true to their image and position as an alternative liberal party, which had already claimed a portion of the black middle class. Father Time had rewarded the DA's ideological certainty and governance record from 2006 – 2016.

Clouded by political excitement caused by consistent electoral gains and the ANC's blunders during the Zuma years, the DA unfortunately went the wrong way. In its efforts to fast-track its rise to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, the DA did not respect the very foundations of its successes. At a time when South Africans needed an alternative, the DA became a mirror reflection of the very ANC it was starting to put under pressure. Marred by internal divisions between the traditional liberals and the racial politicking faction, the DA failed to capitalise on some ripe moments in South African politics post-2016. As the paramount leader that was at the forefront of the DA's rise, Zille will be judged harshly by history for having deserted a path that was leading the DA in the direction of the Union Buildings

- Ayabulela Dlakavu is a Political Studies PhD Candidate at the Department of Politics and International Relations of the University of Johannesburg (UJ). He possesses a Bachelor of Arts in Political Studies (cum laude), a BA Honours in International Relations (cum laude) and a Master of Arts in Political Studies.

Read more on:    da  |  helen zille  |  mmusi mai­mane

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