Mpumelelo Mkhabela: Why the DA must resist a push for a turn to the right

DA leader Mmusi Maimane. (Gallo Images)
DA leader Mmusi Maimane. (Gallo Images)

The battle for the soul of the DA is primarily about the failure to manage diversity. The supposed liberals argue that race is irrelevant. But how they hope to obliterate race boggles the mind, writes Mpumelelo Mkhabela.

When the ANC is factionalised, infiltrated by proponents of state capture, oiled by corruption and, consequently, unable to run the government properly, all South Africans must be worried. You do not have to be an ANC member or supporter to be concerned. It is about the country.

To be an ANC member is a choice, but being invested in the future of our country is inherent in citizenship. Because most South Africans trust the ANC to be in government, its activities and decisions are in the public interest.

The same principle applies to the DA as the official opposition in the national legislature and as the governing party in the Western Cape and several municipalities.

You do not have to be a DA voter to be interested in its internal political dynamics and their outcomes. It is the second largest party in the country with the second largest amount of airtime in Parliament and shouldering the biggest challenge to hold the ANC to account on how it runs the government.

If you could not appreciate the role of the official opposition and other parties during the ruinous years of Jacob Zuma's administration, you probably never will. While the ANC shielded him, opposition parties steadfastly exposed his follies through judicial reviews, parliamentary oversight and public mobilisation. Leading the pack was the DA.

But, as the electoral decline of the DA in the 2019 elections tells us, a weak governing party led by a questionable leader does not a strong official opposition make. If the Zuma years demonstrated the significant role of the opposition, his departure from public office exposed the DA for having failed to construct a durable political message.

The ascendancy of President Cyril Ramaphosa, who appeals to DA constituencies, appears to have thrown the party into a confusion. It is divided over the kind of scrutiny Ramaphosa should be subjected to: rough treatment or kid gloves?

Over the years, the DA grew as a result of four factors. The first was consistent opposition to the ANC, a strategy that attracted new supporters who were disenchanted with corruption in the government. Even ANC representatives in various legislatures would depend on the DA to raise issues they otherwise would not.

The second was to project itself as a better government in the few areas where it won power. The third was to use coalitions with other opposition parties to win political dominance. This strategy involved obliterating other opposition parties in the process. It worked well in the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town, where the DA no longer needs coalition partners.

It is not clear if the same strategy is in the making in the cities of Tshwane and Johannesburg, where the DA leads coalition governments. It was stopped in Nelson Mandela Bay, where the EFF and UDM complained about the DA's arrogance.

The fourth strategy was the acquisition of other parties. The New National Party, the remnants of the party of apartheid, was the first to be gobbled up. Although the NNP "officially" later resigned from the DA to join the ANC, only a few, mostly in leadership positions, left the DA like Marthinus van Schalkwyk and his lieutenants.  

The NNP support base, however, remained in the DA. The name DA was conceived to communicate the acquisition that was styled as a merger of equals between the Democratic Party and NNP.

The strategy was to consolidate white and coloured voters as well as to build a formidable opposition against the ANC. The Independent Democrats of Patricia de Lille was the next to be swallowed up.

Like Van Schalkwyk, De Lille, who became DA mayor in Cape Town, could not survive the internal dynamics of the DA. Its biggest weakness is its failure to transform the party machinery to reflect the growth in diversity of the party's support base.

To a certain extent, the DA's challenge – the failure to build internal political coherence - is similar to what the ANC faced long before it came into power. The ANC has been home to different ideological persuasions: communists, liberals, nationalists, black consciousness adherents, African nationalism, and so on.

The ANC turned these ideological contradictions into a strength under the "broad church" that pursued non-racialism and non-sexism. But over time, and as Tito Mboweni complained recently, the ANC became more Africanist in practice. In principle, it remains non-racial.

The current battle for the soul of the DA is primarily about the failure to manage diversity. The supposed liberal ideological purists argue that race is irrelevant. How they hope they can obliterate race in policy decisions after centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid boggles the mind.

While they profess to be liberal – by its nature an ideology that allows for diversity of opinion – they actually want homogenous thinking on matters which are by their very nature contentious, like race.

The white voters the DA lost to the Freedom Front Plus are not liberals. They are mostly to the right of the political spectrum. Yet, they are regularly mentioned as key to the decisions the party is about to take about its future. This means it is not about ideology; it is about race.

The ongoing factional battles in the DA suggest there is a strong push to turn toward the right. It would be a tragic turn and South Africa's constitutional democracy, which deserves strong alternative in the centre of the ideological spectrum, would be poorer.

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