The Democratic Alliance (DA), having the best opposition market it may ever get, performed worse in this election than in 1994. It will have to dramatically overhaul its leadership, policies and ideological positioning if it is to benefit from a likely future decline in the ANC’s dominance.

The DA’s campaign battle plan was simply wrong. The first phase of the DA’s campaign focused on attacking then ANC and South African president Jacob Zuma for corruption, mismanagement and incompetence. This attracted many black middle and working class supporters of the ANC who were opposed to the failure of the ANC under Zuma.

Then Cyril Ramaphosa appeared on the scene. Many of these disillusioned black middle and working class voters now returned to the ANC because of Ramaphosa’s magic. The DA campaign then wrongly focused on attacking Ramaphosa, the person, trying to highlight that he is part of the corrupt ANC, rather than shifting focus to emphasise its own governing and leadership capability and its own vision to undo race-based poverty, unemployment and homelessness.

The success of the ANC is that it does not function like an ordinary political party. It has a branch system (even if many branches are dysfunctional) which serves as communities, providing members with everything from support at funerals, to participation in communal social events.

During election campaigns these ANC branch members go door to door persuading their local communities to vote for the ANC. The DA has never seriously attempted to create a similar type of DA “community” at the grassroots level, which could provide practical help to local communities, solidarity during hard times and social mobility networks.

Perceptions that repel black voters

The DA had a number of internal fights which spilled into the public arena. In these fights the perception has been created that the DA is controlled by a small white cabal and that strong black leaders are being marginalised. Such perceptions of course repel black voters.

The first was the incompetent handling of the fallout with its former mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille, who left the DA and formed the GOOD Party. The DA’s former leader Helen Zille also caused controversy when she tweeted “colonialism was terrible but its legacy is not only negative”. This was political suicide given that the trauma of colonialism and apartheid still lives on for most blacks – broken individuals, lost assets and continuing racism, and the fact that the DA is targeting the black vote.

Also, Zille’s strident public engagements at times appeared to overshadow Maimane, creating the impression in many minds that she was the real leader of the party, and Maimane was a “puppet”. This imagery fitted perfectly in colonial and apartheid-based black popular perceptions of white-black power relations of white “masters” and black “tokens”. It was then of course exploited by the ANC and the EFF, who, not surprisingly, in their campaigns, emphasised this to lure back black voters who have considered voting for the DA.

The irony is that the DA is now South Africa’s most racially diverse party, in leadership, members and support base. The DA’s spokesperson on communications, Phumzile van Damme, one of its prominent younger, black leaders clashed with Zille when the latter called for a tax revolt by ordinary citizens to oppose the ANC government’s corruption. Van Damme opposed Zille’s call.

The party also fudged the existential black issues of black economic empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action, both which the party rejected, rather than coming up with fairer redress policies for blacks disadvantaged by apartheid.

Last year, the DA’s Gwen Ngwenya, its head of policy, resigned from her position after differences over the direction of policy. Although Ngwenya supported the proposals to ditch affirmative action and BEE, it appeared publicly as if she had supported BEE and affirmative action and then fallen out with conservative white DA leaders who had opposed affirmative action and BEE.

Maimane had tried to find a middle ground between white opponents of affirmative action and BEE and black support for redress, by proposing a “diversity clause”, which pushed for diversity in politics, the economy and society. However, the “diversity clause” was rejected by white hardliners at the DA’s federal congress last April, who argued against the adoption of diversity as a principle because it would allegedly lead to “racial quotas”.

Rise of populism

The failure of the ANC in government has caused a rise of black left populism, which has, in turn, pushed white conservative populism; therefore the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Freedom Front Plus. The DA, in its search for black voters, may be tempted to go the black populist route.

Some DA leaders have also accused Maimane of moving the party in a populist direction. The DA adopted a policy called “Secure our Borders”, which calls for stricter controls of economic migrants from the rest of the continent, which some DA purists called a move towards populism.

Purist neo-liberal democracy and economy, of the Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher version, which pushes for unrestricted free markets, competition and private property with minimal protection for the vulnerable, opposition to social welfare and labour rights, sit badly in a developing country.

Neither populism, nor neo-liberalism is the answer. The DA should opt for liberal social democracy, which argues that merely enshrining individual freedom is not enough. We need social support, redistribution and measures to undo unequal access to material resources, education and social status, to make it possible for the disadvantaged to live and act the freedom. Examples are the Bill Clinton or Barack Obama Democratic Party or at worse, the German social market, the middle way between social democracy and liberal democracy.

Current BEE and affirmative action have often been manipulated for corruption reasons. Merit-based affirmative action, which looks at disadvantage based on circumstances, rather than colour, is the answer, reinforced by being tough on racism, tribalism and ethnic chauvinism. Rich blacks should be treated the same way as rich whites – as advantaged. Since blacks are the majority poor – they will automatically be the largest beneficiary of affirmative action.

The current BEE model, which enriches a few politically connected political capitalists should of course be immediately abolished. A more sustainable BEE model would focus on creating assets more widely, making employees and local communities shareholders; companies providing industrial-relevant education and housing, not only to their employees, but to local communities.

The next five years are perhaps the most critical for SA’s long-term future. Unless the DA makes the tough changes, it risks decline, and the 2014 national elections and 2016 local government elections may represent the party’s peak, not the beginning of its rise.

*This article was published on News24. To view the article on their website click here.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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