Former DA supporters who voted for the Freedom Front Plus in this year’s election felt alienated by the party, vulnerable in a country where race dominates national discourse and concerned about a future where they believe their culture and identity is being threatened.
But beyond that, it was the DA’s handling of the matter around the Afrikaans teacher in the town of Schweizer-Reneke and a speech by Mmusi Maimane about “white privilege and black poverty” that pushed DA voters into the arms of the FF Plus, says Philip van Staden, a member of the party’s national executive.
Van Staden and Wouter Wessels, the FF Plus’s campaign manager, were omnipresent at the IEC’s Results Operations Centre (ROC) this week, cheering whenever the party eclipsed another milestone.
Since the party peaked at 424 555 votes for a 2,17% share of the electorate in 1994, it has struggled to make significant impact, dwelling at around 0,80% and 0,90% of the vote since.
But is has suddenly surged back this year, capturing 249 147 more votes (at the time of writing) than the 165 715 it secured in 2014.
Most, of these votes, if not all, came at the expense of the DA, who has shed more than 470 000 votes and almost two percentage points since 2014.
The FF Plus will now have 10 MPs (up from four) in the National Assembly, as well as two representatives in the National Council of Provinces and has representatives in eight of the nine provinces. Its public representatives in the national and provincial legislatures have now gone up from seven to 23.
News24’s election analyst Dawie Scholtz found that DA support in suburban areas (which include a majority of white voters) decreased from 81,9% to 70,5% of the vote.
The FF Plus by contrast increased their suburban support base from 2,6% to 8,4%.
“We couldn’t be happier,” says Wessels, who is an MP and served as spokesperson to former FF Plus leader Pieter Mulder. “We worked hard to become a home for people who are concerned about minority rights and issues like language. We now have to keep them.”
Van Staden says the party was reconfigured after the 2014 election and the ascension of Pieter Groenewald (who took over as leader from Mulder). “When we walked out of here (the ROC) we started planning for 2019. And we worked hard to identify issues that our supporters were concerned by.”
The FF Plus was found by Constand Viljoen, a former commander of the old SA Defence Force, ahead of the 1994 election. Its focus was on preserving the rights of Afrikaners and the establishment of an Afrikaner volkstaat. The “plus” refers to the Conservative Party which later joined the FF, as it was known.
After the 2016 municipal election it constructed a detailed policy manifesto which laid the basis of their participation in a number of coalition governments across the country, including in the Tshwane metropolitan municipality. “We had to have proper policies in place so that we could have those coalitions something tangible to offer, and it formed the basis of our message to the electorate: that we contribute positively where we help to govern,” Van Staden, a member of the Gauteng provincial legislature, says.
But the FF Plus’s market is the conservative, Afrikaans voter, he explains. “Many of them were DA voters for many years, but who increasingly became uncomfortable in the party. They respected what Tony Leon and Helen Zille did, but were not supportive of Maimane’s increased talk of affirmative action, for example.”
According to their information many new FF Plus voters were even staunch old progressives, who voted for the Progressive Federal Party and the Democratic Party, the DA’s predecessors. “The DA gambled with the loyalty and support of these voters, and they lost,” says Van Staden.
But it was the Schweizer-Reneke drama and Maimane’s Freedom Day in 2018 speech that really galvanised support for the FF Plus. When Afrikaans teacher Elana Barkhuizen was suspended for alleged racism, the DA (along with the ANC and EFF) called for her sacking. But she was returned to the school after the labour court found that she was treated unfairly.
“We saw the DA jump on the race bandwagon without sufficient proof that racism was involved in the matter and decided to refrain from saying anything until the facts were clear. The DA’s reaction was rash and it led to more support for us,” Van Staden says.
Election results show that in Schweizer-Reneke the DA suffered big losses, with the FF Plus in some voting districts in town getting five times more votes than the DA.
“People also didn’t react well to Maimane’s speech, with a feeling he was dismissive of increased white poverty. I think the DA became too big, too clumsy, too wise. And the assault on so-called ‘smaller parties’ did not go down well,” Van Staden believes.
And what is the message from their more than 414 00 voters? “Help us to survive. Defend our land, property and schools,” says Van Staden.
Does he have advice for Maimane? “Go back to the grassroots. You flew too high, above your voters. You need to come down.”