Hellen Zille’s decision will cost the DA, especially the rural vote


The concept ‘rural vote’ is used in America and Britain to refer to non-urban voters. This concept will be used in this ‘opinion piece’ to refer to the rural voters in South Africa especially the Eastern Cape. The former Transkei region to be more specific.

Helen Zille is the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), an opposition party in South Africa. She’s been at the helm since 2007, taking over from then outgoing leader, Tony Leon whose target vote was purely that of conservative and liberal whites.

A former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, Zille has managed to use her journalism training in her political career to expand the operational space of the DA, from a traditional and liberal white party to a broader South African opposition party. Without dispelling the perceived racial underpinning of the DA, Zille has positioned the party as a voice of reason and political sobriety to the majority of black anti-ANC group, often assumed to be black middle-class ‘only’.

In my view, Zille as the leader of DA, has managed to go beyond the black middle class vote to a more rural vote—to be ‘the voice of the voiceless”. She has used this potent trait of being a journalist-- to reach-out to the black rural vote which her predecessor overlooked or was not really concerned about. Her predecessor in my view was concerned about maintaining the so called ‘dignity’ of the white vote, with some disregard for expanding the party to the rest of South Africans. Zille has maintained that the DA is a South African party not a party for the white privileged few, as perceived by her detractors.

Zille recently announced that she will not stand again as leader of the DA. The DA is the major opposition party in South Africa and with her at the helm, it posed a serious threat to the ANC’s majority, especially the black middle class vote. We have seen the DA grow in otherwise ANC strong hold constituencies such as Eastern Cape, Kwazulu Natal to winning and governing the Western Cape.

She has managed to attract the “Coloured” vote in the Western Cape, especially after ‘convincing’ Patricia De Lille seen as safeguarding the interests of the coloured voter in the Western Cape, to join forces with the DA. Furthermore, DA also attracted a rural former ANC leader and Eastern Cape Premier Nosimo Nkosazana Balindlela also boosted the rural image of the party, especially in the Eastern Cape. Balindlela brought to the DA her rural credence which earned her respect even as Premier with the prioritisation of the rural life which was even depicted by the traditional Xhosa garments, including her insistence on walking barefoot.

This article is premised on the view that South African politics and voters are largely influenced by race, class and loyalty. In my view, Hellen Zille has missed the plot, and that the DA’s rural vote will dwindle even further after being shocked by the introduction of EFF in our national politics.

Surely, Helen Zille has not studied the psyche of black South Africans as I thought she had. Helen was making head way slowly into the black voters, especially the rural areas. She was a beacon of hope to a not—so—politically—inclined; literate middle-class blacks. But clearly, with her stepping down as leader of the party, whatever achievement and gains she has made in growing DA in the black community will fall back to the ANC or EFF, or perhaps to the ANC only.

Mrs Zille was highly recognised and regarded by the poor blacks because she was seen by them as a ‘friendly’ white person who is easily approachable especially in the Eastern Cape, and if you look at it, that’s all it takes for black folks to trust a white person at least--just a smile, a hug and speaking the indigenous dialect. Remember, how Black Americans voted for Bill Clinton in America, perceiving him to be friendly and aware of their struggles, because he was hugging and kissing black kids, smiling in what was received as a genuinely manner, talking about the need to focus on the needs of poor blacks!

Zille’s party under her captaincy was beginning to gain grounds in the deepest parts of the former Transkei not least because of King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo endorsement of the DA, but particularly Zille as an Afro-leader who happened to be white. That ‘stunt’ by the King really made Zille more accepted in the black community. The locals (subjects of the King) finally acknowledged Zille as the strong opponent of the ANC and having some genre of confidence in her.

Black people are loyal fans, call them ‘groupies’ and they want continuity and for them change, especially political change, is really hard to accept. We saw this with the birth of Congress of the People (COPE); the Transkei region was one of the regions that had huge followership as was the case with UDM. COPE scored 18,940 votes compared ANC’s 746 votes in the Kin Sabata Dalindyebo (KSD) municipality in 2009 national elections. I attribute this shift to individual loyalty politics of the rural voter. That time, the rural vote was loyal to former President Mbeki, and COPE promised at least psychological, to bring back the then ousted Mbeki.

To further make this point about ‘loyalty’ politics of the rural voter in SA, the rural voter in the former Transkei region still worships UDM leader Bantu Holomisa because of what they claim he did during his tenure as Bantustan leader in the former Transkei. These loyalists (rural voters) have fidelities not with UDM but with Holomisa, the leader of the party. Arguing political irrelevance of the UDM in a democratic SA with the rural voters would be met with a sense of annoyance and anger.

In fact, one could go as far as arguing that he (Holomisa) formed his party under the impression that the whole of Transkei would give him the necessary support to have a stake in the national political realm of the country. The Eastern Cape constituency includes a huge majority of Xhosa speaking people in the Western Cape who also regard Holomisa as a capable leader. Perhaps one could equate Holomisa’s political support base to Managosuthu Buthelezi’s support as a political leader of a tribe, the Zulus.

With all that having been said, Helen Zille appears to have seriously misread the African (black) constituency whose political allegiances are based on loyalty more than anything else. Africans, especially the working class/ the poor, base their politics on loyalty and this is a cultural dimension which in the context from which Zille hails, is somewhat non-existent. The DA followership and leadership is predominantly modern in its thinking, and continuity is seen as a thing of the past, and the politics of individual is seen as a backward approach to political leadership. It is such modern thinking which in my view will severely affect the DA’s chances of ever emerging as a serious potential governing party.

The ANC is the majority party precisely because it has managed to tap into the psyche of the African working class and disgruntled black middle-class Mbeki and COPE supporters. That psyche (according to the ANC) is that of individualising politics and the ANC is therefore viewed as an “individual” who has never changed; the logo of the party represents that psyche especially in the mind of the politically illiterate middle class voter and rural voter. That is why the ANC would at times go as far as having slogans like “do it for Madiba”, SACP “do it for Chris” because our people, upon remembering these figures they feel as though they are betraying them by voting an opposition.

Clearly, South African politics are still largely determined by ethnicity, loyalty, class, and continuity and in my view, any political party which is oblivious of these key determinants, will always lose its relevance—as a result, the ANC will remain the party of choice to the majority of the poor and working class folks. The sooner the opposition parties realise this the better for our democracy to flourish.

The DA, in my view, will gain ground somewhat in the upcoming municipal elections because the poor and the working folks will still see Helen Zille as she has promised continuing to canvass for the party. Perhaps that strategy could help them, and these rural voter might then begin to associate Helen with the soon to be elected leader of the party. But this will not be as easy as Zille thinks it will be. It will not be easy because the face of the DA will change in the near future and the rural vote will revert to their sense of distrust, loyalty-based mentality, and moving forward, the DA may well lose drastically.

This same principle will apply to the FF: the majority of the working class and the poor associate that party with Julius Malema and should another leader, take over EFF’s voice will deteriorate amongst the poor. However, the difference with the EFF is their symbols especially the wearing of overalls. This gesture has been understood differently by different members of our society. From the point of view of the middle class, the idea of wearing overalls is hooliganism and irrelevant, they see it as a political posturing and degrading so called ‘dignity’ of the house (parliament) which they regard as a supreme house. However, the poor views this as a clear representation of their struggle as the working class and poor.

In my view, the DA will suffer and lose even the grounds it had managed to gain in the past years that Hellen has been at the helm of the party. Musi Maimane, as eloquent as he is, is irrelevant to the poor and working class South Africans, especially in regions like rural Eastern Cape, Athol Trolip would be preferable to Musi. Musi is viewed with some sense of leeriness by the poor. In my view, he is the worst candidate, if the DA still wants to attract the rural vote.

The talks of having a public debate between the two main contenders for the position is another clear political posturing to return the DA back to its conservative white and middle-class blacks, the rural vote has no regard whatsoever for public debates broadcasted on a DSTV channel in English.

This leaves me, as a Social Progressive, with nothing but sense of shame and hopelessness: Shame that the party which was promising to offer a critical opposing voice to the ANC will now allow our politics to officially be between EFF and the ruling ANC; Hopelessness because now there is no hope that SA, especially the rural vote, will ever be heard except to be used by both the EFF and the ANC.

It is time for opposition parties in South Africa to relook the political determinants of the rural voter in South Africa, and perhaps acknowledge the role loyalty, class, race and continuity plays in their vote. This is because the secret to reducing the majority of the ANC in the 8 provinces for the flow of democratic order in South Africa lies at the feet of opposition parties tapping into the rural voters whom the ANC continues to prey on.

Clearly, DA or Zille has misunderstood the rural vote that it is based on loyalty and continuity in leadership. That in fact, is the order of South African politics, people are so susceptible and yet resistant to change, specially the rural voters.

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