A turbulent transition: South Africa’s opposition party faces a rocky future

Mmusi Maimane, leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. EFE-EPA/Kim Ludbrook

Elections are moments of reckoning. They can either project a party onto a new trajectory or force a party into introspection.

South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has experienced both scenarios in the last two decades. In the 1999 elections it increased its support by almost 8%. For the next 14 years – until 2016 – the DA consistently increased its support in all the elections. Then in 2019 the tide turned and the party lost about 1.5% at the polls. This saw it losing five parliamentary seats, bringing its number of MPs down to 84 in the 400 seat National Assembly.

A year before the 2016 election, Mmusi Maimane introduced a new epoch in the DA’s history as the first black person to lead the party.

That in itself introduced a transition phase in the party, and a period of turbulence.

The DA is different to South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), in a number of critical respects. While the ANC represents a broad church of interests, the DA is a blended party made up of disparate extant parties. Between 1977 and 1989 it was known as the Progressive Federal Party. Then from 1989 to 2000 it was called the Democratic Party. In 2000 it merged with other parties to become the DA. The party’s name changes are reflected in its membership composition.

During the early 1990s the then Democratic Party participated actively in the country’s constitutional negotiations. It promoted a federal dispensation and made important contributions to formulations around human rights. After the 1994 election it declined to join the unity government but preferred to play the role of a critical opposition.

Because it’s a blend of political influences the transition it is facing has, inevitably, had an existential effect on the party.

This is what it’s experiencing at the moment.

In the last number of weeks Maimane’s leadership has become the main focus of attention. But there are other tensions too. The most important is who will take over as the chair of the Federal Council, the party’s governing body between congresses. The former party leader, Helen Zille, has entered the fray for the position.

The party’s transition

For more than a decade Zille led a drive to transform the party’s identity. Whereas her predecessor Tony Leon’s notion was that the DA should be a critical opposition party, she relaunched it as a party of government.

Her role as the mayor of Cape Town since 2006, and later as Premier of the Western Cape province, were the manifestations of this new identity.

Zille, but more so her successor, Maimane also sought to shift the party’s philosophical base. The DA, and its antecedents were all cut from the cloth of classical South African liberalism.

Its main principles were: individuals form the core of a society; a free market economy and a minimum state with a strong private sector have to provide opportunities for the individual; universal human rights have to protect these principles; and opportunities have to be determined by an individual’s personal merits and not by a shared group identity.

The party also believed in economic growth as the panacea for most social or developmental problems.

The philosophical changes pursued particularly by Maimane have been towards a hybrid form of social democracy with some liberal components.

This shift has seen the party accepting affirmative action in several contexts, such as in employment (in the form of employment equity), in economic restructuring (in the form of black economic empowerment) and land reform. This is in stark contrast to its traditional “open opportunities society” vision. This has led to a standoff between the traditional liberals and new members of the party who support the country’s transformation agenda aimed at redressing past injustices.

Finally, the party’s transition also involves a change in its internal balance of power. Since its time as the Progressive Federal Party in the 1980s, its constituency was concentrated in the Western Cape, followed by Gauteng.

But this has dipped and there’s been less of a focus on the Western Cape while under Maimane’s leadership there’s been a definite shift towards Gauteng as well as a deliberate effort to galvanise support in other provinces.

Turbulence

What are the symptoms of this turbulence?

The first is the potpourri of individuals with strong personalities, ambitions and who are not always willing to be team players.

A number of examples illustrate this. There was the former parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko, who clashed with Zille and Maimane, and then resigned.

Another is the very divisive break of Patricia de Lille, the DA’s mayor of Cape Town, with her Metropolitan Council and executives. And then there was the resignation of Gwen Ngwenya as the party’s policy head because of differences with party leaders, citing what she called an “liberal slide-way” in its policies.

Another symptom of, and contributing factor to, the turbulence has been the DA’s relationship with the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) since the 2016 municipal elections. The party entered into a “strategic cooperation” in municipalities in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, after elections that saw them unseat their common rival, the ANC.

But the cooperation wasn’t built on a firm foundation. The EFF announced the end of cooperation with any other party at municipal level in July 2019. This led the DA’s local governments into a phase of perpetual uncertainty. It particularly affected the Tshwane government.

More philosophical but with tangible policy implications, the intensity of the debate on liberalism has also been symptomatic of the turbulence in the DA.

On the one hand are the proponents of the liberal vision of society in which individuals’ opportunities and life are determined by their personal qualities.

On the other hand is the liberal vision that accepts a society with structural inequalities, such as South Africa, cannot be addressed at the individual level, but only collectively.

These two trends don’t directly correlate with a black and white binary in the DA. But it has underscored issues of racial identity or even narrow nationalism in the party.

What now

The 2019 election results are closely associated with the ongoing turbulence. Maimane’s leadership in particular has been a factor. He’s been criticised for several reasons.

One goes back to his performance during the campaign and thereafter, when he continued to attack President Cyril Ramaphosa. But the public mood was going the other way. A significant number of DA supporters in Gauteng and the Western Cape gave their national votes to the ANC. This was presumably in support of Ramaphosa, because of his strong anti-corruption stance.

The two main contenders to replace James Selfe as the DA’s federal council chairperson are Zille and Athol Trollip.

They represent two very different options. A win for Trollip would strengthen Maimane’s position. A success for Zille could be seen as part of a fight-back campaign by the Western Cape party establishment to regain lost ground.

What do all of this mean for the DA? The party has made steady progress as the official opposition despite new parties entering the fray. It also presented an alternative to the ANC and the EFF. Both are preoccupied with internal matters. This means that it’s a critical moment for multiparty politics to build trust with the public again.