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The DA was almost a stunning success story. Until it wasn’t.

As the DA heads to its elective conference this weekend, we explain how the party went from aspiring to be one for all South Africans, which grew through clear focus and planning, to one which is bleeding votes. Read our previous analysis on how the DA’s election will cement its decline here.

Analysis by Verashni Pillay

After South Africa’s historical first democratic elections in 1994 the DA, or as it existed back then, its predecessor, the Democratic Party (DP) was once so small and comically oppositional, that its “fight back” campaign was nationally lampooned. 

The DP wasn’t the official opposition, just a minor party of white liberals – while the National Party represented far more white South Africans. It had less than 2% of the vote. Its white male leader, Tony Leon’s determination post-1994 to fight then president Nelson Mandela at every turn positioned his party as being anti-democratic change. 

So how did it come to win over a fifth of the vote 25 years later?

Graphic: Wikipedia

Through clear focus and planning. 

Going back

To understand the party’s boom period, you need to understand who was behind it. A bunch of whizz kids, like strategy fundi Ryan Coetzee – a leader snapped up by a political party in the UK given his smarts. Under Zille’s leadership, he and others helped the party plot its way out from under the ceiling of white minority votes to being a party for all. This group was central to the party’s golden period: the decade from 2004 to 2014. 

Pivotal to this was Coetzee’s seminal 2006 report: “Becoming a Party for All the People: A New Approach for the DA.”

It dissected why the party was failing with black voters and what it needed to do to change that. 

One cannot underestimate the work that went into this strategy. Maimane’s election campaign, and the party’s Obama-inspired rebranding, would have cost millions, and wouldn’t have been out of place in the US’s moneyed elections. More authentically, there were other grassroot strategies: the party worked to draw in its members through an innovative but short lived social network of its own. Black leaders like Makashule Gana and Mbali Ntuli worked hard to win over a suspicious black electorate on the ground, slowly winning ground for the party.

Transforming the party

At one point, Ntuli led a battle victory in the hostile Umkhanyakude District in KwaZulu-Natal. Within two years, she took the DA from virtually no presence in the area to placing a DA councillor in each of its 11 municipalities.

The party’s “grow their own timber” strategy where it came to black leaders was brilliant, with its once lauded Young Leaders Programme. (Of course later on, these and other young leaders ran into a brick wall when they tried to assert themselves and meaningfully transform the party).

Other attempts to transform the party were more hamfisted, but got the job done.

One of the party’s main 2011 posters, showcasing a newly diversified DA.

The party vaulted from just under 10% of the national vote in 1999 to over 22% in 2014. Even though many black South Africans remained suspicious of the party’s true commitment to transformation, the ANC’s disastrous period under its then president, the corrupt Jacob Zuma, pushed voters towards an opposition that seemed, on the surface, working hard to change to being a party for all… and promised an efficient and clean government.

It leveraged its toehold on governance as a mere coalition partner in Cape Town to cement its leadership of that city AND its province. Under this drive, 26 more municipalities were added to its governing portfolio. Part of its strategy was to prove that it was not just an opposition party, but one that could govern – and govern well. The newcomer on the governance scene, they had a lot to prove, and worked hard to deliver clean audits where they governed – an area they really shine in when they get it right. 

The party’s highest point

For a time, it seemed the party was actually going to achieve its wildly ambitious, stated goal: to be in national government by 2024. 

By the 2016 local government elections they reached their electoral high: nearly a quarter of the total votes cast for municipalities went to the DA. 

The local government election was key to their strategy: Here they were betting on coalition governments – partnering with other opposition parties to keep the ANC out. After all, this strategy had served them well in Cape Town with parties like Patricia De Lille’s Independent Democrats (a party and leader the DA absorbed and eventually spat out). But the party wasn’t ready for what it took to co-govern in the rest of the country, when it came to dealing with the radical EFF. The highs of their 2016 victory led to the lows of constant fallouts with their coalition partners. Their partnership in the City of Joburg was stable under Herman Mashaba (another black leader who left over racial differences), but fell apart in Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane. 

Following this contested period, the 2019 national election swung around and with it came a big shock for the DA. It’s steady growth was arrested. It saw its first electoral decline ever. It was by just over a percentage point but it was the last straw. 

At Maimane’s behest, Ryan Coetzee made a comeback and together with former leader Tony Leon and Capitec’s Micheil Le Roux created a report that saw Maimane take the fall for the election results. 

In it, a key criticism was using “race as a proxy for disadvantage”, and the general issue of race. 

The DA, burnt by its coalition governing attempts and its factional fights over race, looked over the political aisle and saw that parties catering to minority or radical interests were the only ones growing. Freedom Front Plus. The EFF. The ones trying to represent all South Africans – The ANC and the DA itself, shrank. The party, ever the slave to electoral data, adjusted course accordingly. 

Useful scapegoats

Of course, poor leadership and squabbles over race wasn’t the only issue behind the party’s electoral decline. Instead it became a useful scapegoat. Swept under the carpet was Zille’s willfully malicious and repeated comments on the benefits of colonialism and other stunningly offensive statements. And on the governance front, the party’s boasted strategy of clean governance gave way to a disturbing disregard for poor and black people in the areas it governed, often, allegedly, in favour of moneyed interests. This includes shocking treatment of the City of Cape Town’s homeless people, and years of increasingly outrageous evictions, eventually barred by a landmark court ruling.

Plus there were allegations of the same nepotism the party accused the ANC of, like allegedly bending the rules in the City of Cape Town to favour an alleged donor’s controversial plans to build a house in the exclusive seaside suburb of Bakoven.

Nevertheless, by the end of 2019, the DA’s u-turn was complete. One report by Coetzee opened the way for a more racially inclusive DA. The other, heralded a return to a white-dominated version of the party. 

Ultimately, it comes down to principle. If the party really had originally believed in being a party for all, it would have pushed through the last minor election setback, and kept fighting to represent all South Africans.