Voices

Mondli Makhanya: What is the DA for?

2019-01-27 22:13

A common and worrying thread in opinion polls in the run-up to this year’s elections is the large number of voters who have not decided who to vote for.

Granted, it is too early to reach conclusions from this thread, but it should be of great concern to political parties that prospective voters are not convinced by their stories.

The ANC should be riding the crest of the wave with its newly minted and credible leader, but there remains much doubt about how much of the corrupt culture that became entrenched over the past decade it can really shake off.

At the other end, the DA, which, in the wake of its successes in the 2016 municipal elections, was talking about spearheading the reduction of the ANC’s slice of the vote to below 50% nationally and in some provinces, is behaving like a rural drunkard who can’t choose between the Smirnoff and the Mainstay that his relatives brought home for Christmas Day festivities.

The EFF, the one party that had a shot at modest but effective growth, has regressed to the vulgarity that some of its leaders manifested in their ANC Youth League days. It is alienating potential voters who may have voted for it despite not embracing its ideology.

The smaller parties are still holding on to their sprinkling of supporters and will ensure our Parliament maintains its plurality and diversity. They will most likely gain from those who shun the main three parties.

Which brings us to one of the main headline stories of this election – the DA’s incredible meltdown. A few years ago, DA leader Mmusi Maimane seemed to have done pretty well in carving out a legacy in the party. Where Tony Leon grabbed an anaemic Democratic Party by the horns and transformed it into a “muscular” official opposition, Helen Zille took full control of a provincial government and made serious inroads into the township market – to such an extent that DA branches were as normal as stokvels.

Maimane’s seizure of traditionally ANC metros, with the strategic connivance of the EFF, was a big milestone. Whatever reservation many might have had about his weight, Maimane had presided over a historic development. He looked like he was on to something.

There is this word in football that is particularly hurtful to those of us who love that majestic club called Tottenham Hotspur. That word is ‘Spursy’ and is defined by Urban Dictionary as consistently “failing to live up to expectations, dropping points in crucial games that should have been won and missing simple chances right in front of goal”. See why it hurts?

Maimane has been very Spursy in his leadership of the DA. When he had Zille cornered during the colonial tweets saga, he let her off the hook with a cheating husband “I won’t do it again” type of apology. She went on to do to him what pigeons do on the heads of statues in public spaces. Ditto the Patricia de Lille saga. Maimane believed he had come out the victor in the standoff with the rebellious former mayor. Instead, he emerged from the fight as the one who was vulnerable and playable. He came out the smaller guy.

A week after the ANC hosted a visually spectacular manifesto launch in Durban, Maimane and the DA tried to steal the governing party’s thunder by reminding South Africa of the ANC’s role in the Marikana massacre and the Life Esidimeni tragedy. The move backfired badly and the DA became the subject of public scorn.

In itself, there was nothing wrong with the campaign. The ANC loves to claim the gains of the past 25 years as its achievements, but is quick to disown disasters that are of its making. Besides, the ANC has mastered the art of exploiting tragedy and pain, so the DA was hardly inventing the tactic. The biggest problem, though, was taking ownership of the names and therefore the identities of those who died so painfully and putting them on public display. It was callous and cruel.

But that was not the end of Maimane’s Spursy behaviour. After stubbornly defending the billboard campaign for two weeks, he apologised to grieving families for having “opened up their wounds”.

“It was not our intention to hurt you and, for that, I truly apologise,” he said.

Head-shake time, people.

But it is the handling of the role of party policy chief that takes the cake. When former Institute for Race Relations chief operating officer Gwen Ngwenya was recruited to establish a fully fledged policy unit, the move was touted as proof that the DA was a party of substance that would put forward positions that had been researched and developed, and whose implementation practicalities had been worked out.

It was a big move in a country where policy is outsourced to think tanks and ideologically aligned intellectuals or – in the case of the governing party – to state organs.

But it seems recruitment of the policy head was where it all ended. In Ngwenya’s resignation letter, written in an exasperated tone, she details months of frustration. She received no appointment letter, no job description, none of the promised staff, no resources, no clear reporting lines, little if any feedback on her proposals and thoughts, and very little attention and support from the leadership.

She, as head of policy, was not even required to make input into the DA’s electoral platform.

In the end, she concluded that there was no point in continuing in this seemingly dead-end role as “ideas are not a battleground the DA likes to tread”.

“The bottom line is that I do not believe the DA takes policy seriously,” wrote Ngwenya.

That is a devastating indictment on a party that likes to differentiate itself from its rivals as an organisation that thinks stuff through, and which says it will govern rationally and not according to gut, raw ideology and populism.

Without that differentiator – whether or not you bought it – this question arises: What is the DA for?

Aside from the things that it opposes, how will it differentiate itself from other parties that make nice promises and tell voters what they want to hear?

It doesn’t look like the DA itself knows or even wants to know.

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September 15 2019