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Explainer: Why the DA’s election will cements its decline

Analysis by Verashni Pillay

This coming Saturday and Sunday, 2000 members of the country’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance, will gather virtually to elect their next leader. 

And the DA is not just an opposition party: it governs in the Western Cape and in 27 municipalities across the country. 

Who is in the running:

John Steenhuisen, 44, appears to have the party establishment’s backing. He is the interim leader, and the party’s former chief whip in Parliament. While he has no university degree, he is respected for doing a decent job in parliament, and has been involved in the party in some way for about twenty years. Like Ntuli, he is from KwaZulu-Natal. He enjoys respect from many quarters in the party but there are concerns about the direction he will take it. Steenhuisen has aligned himself with conservative views in the party. 

Taking him on is Mbali Ntuli, 32. In contrast to Steenhuisen’s academic qualifications, she holds a university degree. While much has been made of her youth, she has over a decade of political experience within the DA, and like Steenhuisen, worked her way up the party structures, particularly on the ground in local politics. She also isn’t afraid to be vocal on issues she disagrees with and envisions a more innovative, representative DA. The party has repeatedly muzzled her in the run up to the election. For example, her attempt to publicly debate Steenhuisen was disallowed, despite the party’s candidates doing so in the DA’s 2015 internal election. 

What’s at stake?

It’s pretty much expected that Steenhuisen will win at this point. But if the outcome was unclear, what would be at stake would be the DA’s ideology when it comes to race – and therefore its future growth and prospects. 

However, the party made it clear at its previous policy conference and in its leadership choices that it is pandering to a conservative white base. 

This election will serve to cement that direction, and perhaps be the final nail in the coffin for both black voters and black leaders in the party who don’t toe the line. It could also start the party’s electoral decline, eventually costing it its role as the official opposition unless it changes tack. 

Why would the party even want that? 

It’s a good question. 

The party has always had a sophisticated machinery when it comes to election forecasts. The DA must know what it is doing, and how it will damage its electoral prospects. 

It once had an ambitious strategy to become a party for all, and now appears to be backtracking on that and returning to serving the interests of a white minority. 

  • READ MORE ON THE PARTY’S ONCE SUCCESSFUL GROWTH STRATEGY IN PART TWO OF OUR SERIES HERE.

One explanation could be the role of political funding. It’s a powerful but poorly understood factor in South African politics. South African parties do not have to disclose their funders, although this will change with the introduction of a new political party funding bill, signed by President Cyril Ramaphosa last year. The DA in Parliament supports the bill. 

The DA is a traditionally well-funded party, and its former leader Helen Zille was particularly successful in this regard. The danger, of course, is whether or not its funders are able to call the shots. Funders famously pushed for the party’s ill-fated merger with the short lived Agang. And Capitec co-founder Michiel Le Roux was inexplicably involved in authoring a damning report of the party’s internal problems under its former leader Mmusi Maimane, which led to his resignation. Le Roux was described as a DA funder in this City Press article. 

The internal squabbles, over race, may have sparked concerns among funders whose interests were not aligned with those within the so-called “black caucus” who were advocating for greater racial transformation in the party and its policies. 

How did the DA even get here?

Around the mid-2000s the party ambitiously decided to become a party for all, and break with its roots as a party for a white minority. However, its attempts to bring in black leadership, under then leader Helen Zille, over the next few years were clumsy and hamfisted. Said black leadership were not happy with the DA’s determinedly colour-blind policies in a country where race still determines the majority’s socio-economic realities. Attempts to push back against this issue led to the ousting of one black leader after another, from the party’s whip smart parliamentary leader, Lindiwe Mazibuko’s resignation in 2014, to the more average Maimane at the end of last year. He had taken over from Zille, but, according to the report by Le Roux and others, there was mass unhappiness within the party about its showings at the polls under his leadership, along with internal squabbles and uncertainty. However, the larger issue appeared to be fears of “African nationalism” taking root in the DA – shorthand for the policy squabbles over race. 

The conservative white faction won. 

Cue Zille’s return: not as leader but rather as “Federal executive leader”. This is akin to the chairman of the board at a company, while the leader of the party is like the CEO. 

Zille said she regretted allowing race-based policies and issues to get a foothold within the DA, taking aim at the black leaders who had raised them. 

Is that why the DA has started sounding more and more like Afriforum light?

Indeed. The Zille who returned to the party is significantly different to the woman who initially led its short-lived racial transformation. She herself has been radicalised more towards the right, and with her return, those elements in the party have risen up. 

Now the party seems increasingly aligned with organisations like the SA Institute of Race Relations and Afriforum: it has even taken up the latter’s cause with its new campaign around “farm murders” – a deeply divisive issue which, while purporting to raise awareness about rural safety, often serves as a dog-whistle for white South Africans who believe they are being persecuted because of their race. 

How are black leaders in the party taking all of this?

Some, like Herman Mashaba, have resigned in disgust. Others have been effectively forced out. In fact, the Sunday Times reported in September that several DA leaders, among them MP Phumzile van Damme and Gauteng MPL Makashule Gana, have been charged with bringing the party into disrepute. The charges tend to be a little arbitrary. Gana, for example, was charged for posting on social media that the liquor ban should remain in place during the nationwide lockdown while the DA was lobbying for it to be lifted. 

 And then there’s people like Ntuli: who has been similarly charged in the past, and is clearly being stymied in this election, but has chosen to stay and fight. That, at its core, is what’s behind Steenhuisen having an opponent at all in this election. 

Otherwise, the DA would follow its natural course more quickly: returning full circle to its roots as a minority party. 

It will leave a vacuum, which will be filled by parties who have also resorted to the quick and dirty wins of pursuing narrow and opportunistic interests. The centre will not hold. And that’s bad news for all South Africans.