With so many opportunities to put clear blue water between the ANC and itself on both economic and social policy, the DA has confused itself by drifting away from its core liberal principles, writes Daniel Silke.
If shooting yourself in the foot ever became an Olympic sport, the Democratic Alliance (DA) might win a gold medal at it.
In a week gifted to the party by one Angelo Agrizzi of Bosasa, the party managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory on a triumvirate of issues that will further question its ability to attract new voters as well as keep its base fully mobilised.
Instead of capitalising on the deeply concerning bribery and corruption allegations hurled at the senior ANC public representatives which might’ve even brought down governments in other parts of the world, the DA is back on the defensive as a result of a variety of messaging, management and internal issues that continue to plague the official opposition.
Firstly, Mmusi Maimane’s apology to the families of the Life Esidimeni victims for the use of their family names in that now infamous DA billboard left a distinctly bad taste in terms of the style of messaging the party is delivering. It’s perfectly legitimate to call out the gross incompetence of the provincial health authorities but it’s quite another to deliver a crass invasion of privacy by placing the family names on a publicity billboard.
Clearly, the DA’s messaging needs urgent fine-tuning. It’s second attempt at the billboard – which reflected the line “The ANC does not care about the people of South Africa” is much more effective – but unfortunately the damage had already been done.
The second disaster of the week followed the release of the Auditor General’s report on the City of Tshwane’s Glad Africa contract now found to include R318m of irregular expenditure. Although this occurred within the context of a highly problematic tenure of City Manager, Moeketsi Mosola, it occurred under the watch of the DA’s Gauteng premier candidate (and former Tshwane mayor) Solly Msimanga.
Simply put, the DA cannot afford this type of questioning of its management abilities. If it is to effectively compare and contrast itself with the ANC, it needs to be squeaky clean. Indeed, the DA is judged perhaps far more harshly than the ANC on such issues, but when you are the major opposition party seeking to claim the moral high ground, even lesser scandals assume proportions beyond their weight.
Notwithstanding the almost daily damning indictments of ANC governance – from the hapless state-owned enterprises to a captured president and henchmen, the DA is fast losing its ability to command the moral high ground – that being its real unique selling proposition in recent years.
For Msimanga, therefore, this issue may well haunt him during the campaign and it provides both the ANC and EFF some much-needed propaganda opportunities to question the DA’s credibility in public administration.
But this week, wasn’t just about the party shooting itself in both legs. If it had a third leg, that also would now be wounded. The highly public resignation of the talented Gwen Ngwenya as policy head is most concerning.
Let’s face it, for a major opposition party to lose its policy head only a month before its election manifesto launch is highly embarrassing. And, it doesn’t stop there. Ms Ngwenya's 4-page missive fired off to party leader Maimane exacted maximum damage. Since voters are now aware, in the words of Ms Ngwenya, that ‘the party does not take policy seriously’, many as a result will be questioning what they are really voting for.
Whilst one could well question why and how Ngwenya's letter ended up in the public domain, the issue of the DA’s policy confusion has been bubbling under the surface for some time.
With so many opportunities to put clear blue water between the ANC and itself on both economic and social policy, the DA has confused itself by debilitating internal debates and drifting away from its core liberal principles to a pastiche of ANC-light rhetoric. Perhaps influenced by the politics of the sound-bite and the allure of feigned populism, a distinctive message is now missing.
The DA is running out of time to get its house in order. Many traditional supporters now see the DA as a party of default support rather than one of enthusiastic endorsement. Considering the party has historically performed well when it can mobilise its base to turn up in large numbers at the polls, this is of concern. Those seeing the DA as the lesser of all the political evils will be less motivated and cannot be guaranteed to make their cross.
The DA urgently needs to make voters proud to be associated with them. Voters will want a "good story" from the DA – a set of policies and principles that reflect credibility, trust and innovation.
The party has proudly boasted that it has improved its share of the vote in every election since 1994. For Maimane, 2019 might well break that record and pose a threat to his own leadership down the line.
- Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.
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