Now freed of its unclear identity, the DA should boldly go out to attract many more black South Africans and actively champion transformation.
As the dust settles after our sixth democratic elections, it is clear that the electorate has sent political parties a few solid messages. In the main these messages have been aimed at the ANC and the DA, the official opposition.
The overriding message that has come through is the degree to which South Africa has become racially divided. By voting in such overwhelming numbers for the right-wing Freedom Front Plus (FF+) and the EFF, the electorate 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”, while those on the left have decried the slow pace of economic transformation and the remaining remnants of racism and the concomitant arrogance which continues to be with us.
They have been the “nationalise everything” brigade to whose response the FF+ called on its supporters to “slaan terug”.
Clearly, the middle ground has shifted. That would explain the DA’s drop in support in these elections.
To a great extent the biggest loser was the DA, which was expected to build on the momentum that resulted in it performing so marvellously in the 2016 municipal elections and emerging as a leader of coalition governments in three metros.
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 the 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 “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 was if it made itself sufficiently attractive to more black compatriots than was the case in Tony 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 disadvantaged” in the country.
Having made that jump, logically it had to accept that policies that sought directly to deal with the continuing disadvantage confronting blacks had to be adopted – and many among its traditional, conservative members baulked.
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 party’s benches in Parliament and the provincial legislatures and was threatened by thorough transformation, and there was an increasingly influential black caucus which 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 it did so well in these elections, at the expense of the more progressive DA.
Second, the DA handled the whole Patricia de Lille saga most shambolically. It is very clear, to the disinterested observer, that many within the party in the Western Cape had their daggers drawn at De Lille and wanted her gone at all costs, to hell with due process.
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 public, right until the elections, that they had fired De Lille as a member when, in fact, she had resigned.
Third, the DA had no appealing message in these elections. So used was it to throwing grenades at Jacob Zuma in Parliament, when he was still president, 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 South Africa’s failing state-owned companies 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.
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 champion transformation.
There are a growing number of progressive, economically literate black people 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.
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.
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.
The electorate, which appears to be growing in sophistication, has to be commended for this kind of outcome.
Nyatsumba is a business executive in Johannesburg
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