Whoever is elected as DA leader at the end of the week has a big job ahead. The task of reinvigorating the party and thus strengthening South Africa's democracy is essential, writes Douglas Gibson.
The elephant in the DA room: Is it possible – given the economic, racial, tribal, colour, language and cultural complexities of South Africa – to sustain a strong and growing political party that seeks to represent the interests of all South Africans?
The ANC has given up on its long-held principle of being a party for all. It no longer pretends to offer a home to white South Africans. Look at the Cabinet, the provincial executive committees, the mayoral committees, its own local, regional and provincial structures. There is scarcely a white face there. There are few coloured South Africans in the leadership of the ANC. They had no coloured person of Cabinet rank stature before they appointed Patricia de Lille.
The contrast with the DA is startling. Diversity is one of the main principles and at every level it ensures its representatives reflect our wonderful diversity. The DA would be stupid to do anything else. Seeking influence and wanting to play a leading role in a realignment of parties or in future coalitions as the ANC wanes, it cannot represent only the minorities. White voters, for example, are now 8% of the electorate. That percentage is dropping because of emigration, low birth rate, high death rate of ageing whites and most importantly, increasing numbers of young black voters.
If South Africa is to become a successful, working constitutional democracy it cannot remain dominated by one large black party opposed by a multitude of small opposition parties, all competing for a smaller and smaller pool of available votes. There is a crying need for an opposition that is sufficiently large to be able to compete for power nationally, provincially and locally, on its own but often as part of coalition administrations.
Party must be prepared to fight for all citizens
Such a large party, to be viable, must represent the whole spectrum: black people of all languages and tribal groupings (or none), white, coloured, Indian, Afrikaans, English, straight, gay, Christian, Muslim, Jewish. That party must strongly support the values and principles of the Constitution, standing for the human rights and the duties of all citizens on the basis of equality as prescribed in the Constitution and prepared to stand up and fight for all of them, not just some of them.
Importantly, the party must free itself of the outdated labels and policies of the past; such pigeon-holes are often used to prove how pure one group is and how impure others are. They are exclusionary, instead of including and seeking common ground and spelling out what it is the party wants to achieve. Sometimes they are lazy and often misleading alternatives used as a substitute for thought.
Socialism was Avant Garde in the early years of the last century. It has failed everywhere and should be junked even though some still think of it as "progressive". Sixty years ago, in 1959, the thought of a qualified franchise based on property ownership or education was enough to horrify the government and to set the pulses racing for members of the newly formed Progressive Party. It was regarded by many then as "liberal".
Only in 1975 with the formation of the Progressive Reform Party (PRP) did South Africa's opposition move to support universal suffrage. It took the ANC much longer than that to move away from apartheid structures that kraaled people of different races into separate political groupings within the ANC. But at least the caravan moved on. It needs to move much more.
Factional fights waste time on non-essentials
Some of the fine definitions and labels are tiresome to South Africans who want to see our country and its people progress. Within the DA there is some turbulence and some sound and fury around factions who to my mind, argue about non-essentials instead of focusing on what it is that the DA wants for the country. The DA should spend time on refining and redefining its policies to remove any doubt in the minds of members and voters as to what it is aiming to achieve.
Suggestions that the DA does not know what it stands for are mostly mischievous and untrue. There has never been a departure from the commitment to the rule of law, to the values of our liberal democratic Constitution, to the market economy and to the fairly limited state as the enabler and regulator. Some individual policies like the response to BEE and Affirmative Action need to be clarified so that they are not fuzzy but there cannot be and has never been any doubt about what the eventual aim is: the upliftment of all our people and the creation of opportunities for all. The DA needs to focus on how to achieve those aims by refining its policies where necessary.
There has been some fall-off of support for the DA, especially from some Afrikaans-speakers who have had it with the rise of racism, the characterisation of everything as racist, the open hostility of some in government to the Afrikaans language and the constant finger pointing and blaming of people for what their parents or grandparents did decades and generations ago. The ANC is largely to blame for this but the gatvol feeling among Afrikaners has been exacerbated by the open and unashamed racism of the EFF that happens without apparent consequences.
The DA, as a moderate party of the centre standing for all South Africans, has suffered a loss of some of its support. Those looking elsewhere seem to be satisfied to support a party with a handful of seats that will never have power and is not part of the drive to create national unity in our country under new government. Wasted votes, yes, but some think that showing a finger to the new South Africa is enough.
Maimane likely to fight for party leadership
There have been suggestions that Mmusi Maimane, the young, highly intelligent, well-educated and gifted orator, should stand down as leader. No alternative names have been suggested but I would reckon that the only person of sufficient stature to be able to compete would be John Steenhuisen, the DA's chief whip. He is undoubtedly a person of standing, widely respected inside and outside the party and really good at what he does in Parliament. But would he be able to resolve the turbulence? Would he be sufficiently attractive to Afrikaans-speakers of all races and to white and black people generally?
My summing up of Maimane is that he is unlikely to stand down as leader. He is far more likely to fight for and win an election as leader, but the consequences could well be a nasty split along racial lines, setting the DA back for years.
What seems to me to be more likely is that the party chairperson and Federal Executive (Fedex) chairperson posts will be combined into one, and that person, together with the leader and the chief whip will give a strong and united lead to the DA. If there is division at that level, one has a recipe for failure.
That is why the election of the new chairperson of the Fedex is so important. There have only been two incumbents of that post since the formation of the DA: James Selfe and me. I have a good idea of what the position entails and how vital it is that the leader and the Fedex chair and chief whip should sing off the same song-sheet.
There are four aspirants. Mike Waters, MP, is a hard-working representative with a great commitment to the party which he has proved over many years. Unfortunately, he has allowed himself to be seen as hostile to Maimane and that rules him out for this position.
Thomas Walters has been Selfe's deputy for some years and he would be a safe choice, although he perhaps lacks the public stature to be able to pull off a victory against other star candidates.
Helen Zille has star quality. She has the intellect and the work-ethic, as well as unparalleled experience that would make her a successful choice. Her negative is that she has shown bad judgement in her social media activities and rather diminished the lustre of her reputation as the former leader of the DA and the most successful premier of any of the provinces since 1994. The big question about her is whether she is capable of playing second fiddle instead of being the boss. Would she, in effect, want to be the de facto leader, pushing the elected leader round?
Athol Trollip is highly experienced, knows exactly what the job entails and has a huge commitment to making the party work. He has also, even under great provocation in Nelson Mandela Bay, shown restraint and maturity. One negative is that he has held high office over the past few years and the party turbulence occurred with him there. How would electing him now bring real change to the DA? The great positive is that he and Maimane are known to be close and he would do his best to help the leader look good and make the right choices.
Whoever is elected at the end of the week has a big job ahead. The task of reinvigorating the DA and thus strengthening South Africa's democracy is essential.
- Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com
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