Maimane’s mess

2018-12-13 16:44
Clive Ndou.

Clive Ndou.

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While the challenges faced by the Democratic Alliance (DA) are to some extent a reflection of the complexity of South Africa’s political landscape, the party’s leadership cannot escape taking responsibility for the havoc brewing within it.

The DA, whose rise to political stardom can be traced to the fall of the once mighty National Party, now finds itself on the brink of a downwards spiral a few months away from a general election.

Having grown by more than a million votes between 2009 and 2014, internal divisions within the DA are now threatening to set in motion a process that could mark the beginning of a reversal of fortunes.

Riding on an anti-corruption ticket, the DA’s slogans not only captured the hearts and minds of white South Africans concerned about their future in a country whose destiny has become less predictable, they also found appeal with large swathes of black voters.

By wooing voters from black townships who had what many thought was an unbreakable bond with the ruling ANC, the DA achieved the unthinkable.

However, over a decade of exponential growth appears now to have come back to haunt the DA, whose internal problems could not only discourage potential voters but also drive away the party’s loyal voters.

At the centre of the DA’s turmoil is the disagreement among both party leaders and the rank and file over how the party should navigate the country’s tricky political landscape where race, which historically determined a person’s station in life, remains a major factor more than two decades after the ushering in of the democratic order.

Sparked by DA leader Mmusi Maimane when, at a rally this year he called on the country to deal with the twin problems of black poverty and white privilege, the debate has since created tensions within the party.

Some white leaders within the DA are of the view that the debate is divisive and not in the interests of the party, while on the other hand, some of its black leaders are of the view that the polemic is necessary as it is likely to help some of the country’s white citizens acknowledge the damage caused by apartheid to black people.

Maimane and a section of black leaders within the DA thought that by allowing a frank and open debate on race, the party would somehow free itself from decades-long suspicion that its raison d’ être is to protect white privilege.

Whatever the original intentions where, the race debate within the DA has degenerated into a messy affair, with the party’s voters left wondering whether the damage caused is reversible.

A survey by the Institute of Race Relations released on Monday has shown that support for the DA has dropped by five percent, from 22% to 18% in December.

While it is true that the survey captured the mood of voters during the month of December only, and that sentiments could change as we approach next year’s elections, the results of the survey could be interpreted as a reflection of the damage the race debate has done, and continues to do, to the DA.

Maimane and other DA leaders cannot be held responsible for what happened during the apartheid era.

However, the DA and Maimane’s supporters within the party leadership structures can certainly be held accountable for the timing and general management of the race debate that has been going on in the party.

Some have blamed the turmoil on conservative whites who are bent on ensuring that any attempts to transform the party are stifled.

But Maimane and other DA leaders should have anticipated the backlash from the party’s anti-transformation brigade and put in place the necessary measures to defuse what has now turned into an explosive situation.

It is a well-known fact that quite a sizeable number of the DA supporters suffer from what is commonly known as apartheid nostalgia and believe that the apartheid system brought some good to the country.

Given the history and character of the DA, it was naïve for Maimane not to have expected a backlash after dragging DA supporters into what some in the party consider to be a no-go area.

By not managing the debate properly, Maimane, whose main task as DA leader is to grow the party, has now plunged the organisation into some sort of a crisis a few months away from a crucial election.

Should the infighting continue, it will be difficult for Maimane to escape being seen as a failed leader who inherited a solid party from his predecessor, Helen Zille, only to tear the blue T-shirt into pieces.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  opinion and analysis

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