South Africa’s main opposition party caught in an unenviable political bind
Written by Kendrick Lebron on November 20, 2020
The results of the recent municipal by-elections have confirmed that the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s leading opposition party, is in trouble. Whereas the governing African National Congress (ANC) retained 64 wards, won six new ones and lost just two, the DA retained 14, won just two new ones, and lost nine, mainly to smaller opposition parties. And the party has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Although it ran a slick virtual federal congress in October at which John Steenhuisen trounced Mbali Ntuli by securing the backing of 80% of those who voted in a party leadership contest, it attracted negative headlines by preventing the pair from holding virtual “town halls” in the lead-up to the vote. It then restricted viewership of the two contestants’ debate at the congress itself to its members, rather than to the public at large.
The congress also turned down the proposal that the party appoint a deputy leader, a position which Ntuli might confidently have been expected to fill (and thereby posture as future leader-in-waiting).
This congress took place following a string of high-profile resignations by prominent black members of the party since the resignation as leader of Mmusi Maimane after the 2019 general election. The party registered a first decline in its percentage vote since 1994.
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Steenhuisen’s election was matched by the congress simultaneously making a contentious change to its policies. It now renounces the use of “race” as a means of identifying and empowering categories of people who suffered historical disadvantage under apartheid. This was merely the latest shift in the party’s long-running agonising about how to tackle racial disadvantage.
Politics of ‘race’
First introduced during the years of Helen Zille’s leadership, in a bid to attract black support and enable the DA to grow, the forswearing of “race” at the congress was now hailed as a return to liberal principles. The party’s head of policy, Gwen Ngwenya, described the move as the abandonment of
a false binary option of choosing between non-racialism or redress.
Instead, she said, the party was introducing an economic justice policy which would implement both (basically by substituting educational, social background and income criteria for “race”).
Since the congress, the DA has been widely accused of “race denialism” . For instance, University of Johannesburg professor of politics Steven Friedman, commenting on the message of the US elections for South Africa, argued that the elections showed it was impossible to make non-racialism a reality if race and racism remain a reality.
He did not state it explicitly, but this was a clear dig at the DA. Yet Friedman might well be one of those who in a university context might be happy to argue that “class” criteria should trump “racial” ones for admission of students. In short, as sociologist Gerry Mare has indicated in a celebrated book, Declassified, there is a fundamental contradiction involved in attempting to overcome apartheid-era disadvantage by using apartheid era “race thinking”.
This is a contradiction which progressives continue to wrestle with, and the DA cannot be fairly criticised for attempting to overcome it in policy terms.
The DA’s dilemma
Critics would probably accept this but would then likely introduce a qualification: the DA has introduced the change in policy for the wrong reasons. In other words, it is attempting to assuage white racism in the party by eliminating racial criteria from its policy for counteracting historical disadvantage. “Heads you win”, would claim the DA, “tails we lose”.
Nonetheless, there is a substantial issue here. The very real problem for the DA is that it can never aspire to displacing the dominant ANC, whether on its own or as part of a wider opposition coalition, without attracting more black votes.
Under the leadership of Tony Leon, it established itself as the major party of opposition by capturing the racialised constituency of the National Party, leading ultimately to the latter’s demise. Yet the DA’s 1999 “fight back!” electoral slogan inevitably alienated potential black voters. This forced the party to realise that its only sure route to growth was attracting black African support.
This was to become the project of the Zille leadership, and was to prove not unsuccessful. The DA support base continued to grow through successive elections. A significant segment of primarily black middle class support became attached to the party’s base among racial minorities. This provided the platform for Maimane’s elevation to the leadership.
Yet it’s now clear that the experiment has gone badly awry. Although the DA can correctly claim to have become the most racially diverse party in South Africa, it is regularly accused of racism. This may or not be fair, but it’s politics.
The outcome of the DA’s recent turmoil has been a classically South African one: the formation by former DA Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba of what is, in essence, a black liberal party (Action SA) to match the “white” one.
The omens are that this will drain black support from the DA as well as attracting votes of blacks wanting to desert the ANC. Its rise will confirm the DA on what many see as its likely future trajectory: as primarily representing South Africa’s racial minorities and defending its redoubt in the Western Cape in the 2021 local government elections.
The problem for the DA is not one of policy. There is real substance in its commitment to substituting “non-racial” for racial criteria for overcoming the historical disadvantages associated with being black. The real challenge is the one that has always confronted liberalism in South Africa’s racially structured society: liberalism has never been able to detach itself from its image among blacks that it is a cover for white interests and white “leadership”.
An established narrative argues that Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mmusi Maimane, Patricia De Lille, Herman Mashaba – black people who all achieved leadership positions within the DA – were all undermined by a backroom white leadership cabal. The cabal allegedly wanted to control them as puppets on a string. So now, the narrative continues, under Steenhuizen, decent man that he may be, the party is simply reverting to type: a party for whites, led by whites.
Although the DA seemingly possesses an uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot, its real dilemma is how to escape a vicious circle. When it sought to attract black voters by endorsing “black empowerment”, it alienated white voters to the right and classic liberals. When it abandons “racial criteria” as a proxy for disadvantage, it alienates its potential support base among the black middle class.
The DA occupies an unenviable political space from which there is no obvious route of escape.