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Gains by the FF+ could, perversely, help the DA ( Business Day) by Kaizer Nyatsumba, 11 May 2019

14 May 2019

As the dust settles following our sixth democratic elections, it is clear that the SA electorate has sent the country’s political parties a few solid messages. In the main, these messages have been aimed at the two largest political parties, the ANC and the DA, although the most important one has been more generally intended rather than specifically targeted at those parties. 

To move forward, it is important that we are sufficiently discerning to decode and understand the messages sent by the electorate. That way we will be better placed to come up with the necessary remedies and, in the case of some parties, reckless, precipitate actions can be avoided.

For me, the overriding message from these elections is the degree to which SA has become racially divided. By voting in such overwhelming numbers for the right-wing Freedom Front-Plus (FF+) and the [left-wing] EFF, the electorate on either side of the political divide, has indicated the extent to which the country has become polarised. On the right, the FF+ has emerged as the dominant voice of the aggrieved, conservative white and coloured minorities; while the EFF has entrenched its position as the voice of the discontented, impatient and even angry black majority on the left.

For various reasons, those who have turned to the FF+ have felt either left out or unfairly targeted, hence the need for them to “hit back”, in the appropriated words of former Democratic Party leader Tony Leon in 1999; while those on the left have decried the slow pace of economic transformation in the country and the remaining remnants of racism and the concomitant arrogance that continue to be with us. They have been the “nationalise everything” brigade to which the FF+ called on its supporters to “slaan terug”.

Clearly, the middle ground has shifted. That would explain the DA’s poor showing in these elections. From now on, the challenge will be to move the country forward sufficiently economically and in terms of transformation to reconsolidate the middle ground.

To a great extent, the biggest loser in these elections was the DA, which was expected to build on the momentum that saw it performing so marvelously during the 2016 local government elections and emerging as a leader of coalition governments in three new metropolitan councils, including two in Gauteng, the country’s industrial heartland. Instead, the party not only retreated electorally, but also fared worse this time around than it did in the 2014 national elections.

There are three main reasons for that poor performance. The first one is the degree to which the DA, like the ANC, has been riven with internal divisions ahead of these elections. In the main, these differences have been along both racial and ideological lines. The harder leader Mmusi Maimane tried to position the DA as a social democratic party that would appeal to black voters, the more those conservatives (most of whom were former members of the National Party and the Conservative Party, who had joined the DA when Leon’s Democratic Party and Marthinus van Schalkwyk’s New National Party merged to form the new entity) “fought back” against him and his ideals.

Maimane and those who support him realised, like Helen Zille before him, that the DA’s only chance of ever growing to challenge for meaningful power is if it made itself sufficiently attractive to more black compatriots than was the case during Leon’s era. Therefore, they figured correctly, it would have to review some of its fundamental beliefs and values and grudgingly arrive at the conclusion that “race is a proxy for disadvantage” in the country. Having made that jump, logically it had to accept that policies seeking directly to confront the continuing disadvantage confronting black South Africans had to be adopted — and many among its traditional, conservative members baulked.

Black vs white

In the main, this became a black-versus-white conflict within the DA leadership. Very clearly, there was a conservative white caucus, which dominated the DA’s benches in parliament and the provincial legislatures and was threatened by thoroughgoing transformation, and there was an increasingly influential black caucus that was alive to the fact that fundamental changes had to be made. There was, then, a real fight for the soul of the DA.   

As the conservative wing of the party lost the battle, some remained within the DA’s leadership and continued myopically — even on the eve of the elections — to fight a rear-guard battle against Maimane and his cohorts. However, it is now evident that many among their rank and file supporters returned to their natural ideological home and ensconced themselves in the comfortable embrace of the right-wing FF+. That is why the latter did so well in these elections, at the expense of the more progressive DA.

Secondly, the DA handled the whole Patricia De Lille saga most shambolically. It is very clear, to the disinterested observer, that many within the DA in the Western Cape had their daggers drawn for De Lille and wanted her gone at all costs, to hell with due process. When their numerous attempts to get rid of her through a vote of no confidence in the Cape Town city council failed, they continued to manufacture lie after lie about her and to throw as much mud at her in the hope that some of it would stick. To their chagrin, De Lille emerged victorious each time and each time they ended up with bloodied noses. And yet, still they continued to lie to the SA public, right until the elections, that they had fired De Lille as a member when, in fact, she had resigned from the party.

When it came to its handling of De Lille, the DA showed exactly the same kind of arrogance shown by the ANC towards the SA populace. This is particularly so when one considers just how differently the party handled controversies generated by some of its apparently more-favoured members, such as Helen Zille. For some reason, when it came to De Lille, it was as if the DA was completely devoid of reason and did not give a hoot how the matter played out in the public domain.

Thirdly, the DA had no appealing message in these elections. So used was it to lobbing grenades at former president Jacob Zuma in parliament that it persisted with a near-identical strategy against the much cleaner and more popular Cyril Ramaphosa. Maimane appeared to be so desperate to create the impression that Ramaphosa was not at all different from the man he had succeeded as ANC leader and the country’s president, even when it was apparent that nobody bought into that false narrative.

Instead of spelling out a compelling vision that indicated clearly what it stood for, the DA continued to be obsessed with the ANC, as if the electorate needed reminding just how deeply mired in dirt the latter was. The party persisted with its free-market obsession that the answer to SA’s failing state-owned enterprises (SOEs) was simply for the government to dispose of those assets. Instead of a nuanced approach, the DA’s response was a mantra: privatise, privatise, privatise.

The party needs to learn — and quickly — that dogma is hardly an appropriate response to a complicated situation.

While the results are certainly a disappointment for the DA, in reality they could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Thanks to the FF+, the DA has now managed to shed its right-wing baggage. It should now proceed firmly with its commendable project of positioning itself as a social democratic – rather than liberal – party that seeks to appeal to all South Africans who seek to protect the country’s constitution and to grow the economy through a free market. Now freed of its unclear identity, it should boldly go out to attract many more black South Africans and actively to champion transformation.

Logic vs the liberation struggle

There is a growing number of progressive, economically literate black people in the country who are persuaded by logic rather than historical accomplishments during the liberation struggle, and who want a prosperous, corruption-free country of which they can be proud. They need a political home. The DA should go after them unashamedly, now that it can no longer be held back by the white right within its fold. It should ensure that its benches in the country’s legislatures are as representative as its public marches and rallies.

Thanks to the solid showing of the FF+, the DA can no longer be accused by its detractors as “a white party”. The conservative white compatriots who had made the DA its home have now moved on. The DA should say “good riddance” and wish them well.

While Zille began the process of repositioning the DA, the person who has taken it furthest has been Maimane. For that, he deserves credit. Instead of the party tossing him out now because of the poor election results, it would be well advised to keep him and to work with him to build a new DA. Over time, it may even be necessary to rebrand the party and give it a new name.

Hopefully, Maimane will have learned his lessons: that he should be more focused on giving the electorate a real alternative, including when it comes to policies, and not be so overly obsessed with the ANC and its leaders. By all means, he and the other opposition leaders should continue to work hard to keep the governing party in check, but they need to out-grow their obsession and spend more time on selling viable and nuanced policy alternatives, and not dogmas.

If very little has been said about the ANC in this piece, it is because that organisation was at its weakest in this election. Bizarrely, even as we counted down to the elections, its leaders continued to differ publicly and to have a go at one another. Personally, I had expected the organisation to do far worse in these elections. It is thanks to Ramaphosa that it managed a respectable showing.

However, it is to be welcomed that the era of one-party dominance now seems to be behind us — except in Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Over time, there, too, the situation will change. SA’s electorate, which appears to be growing in sophistication, has to be commended for this kind of outcome.