Helen Zille’s dangerous gamble

The DA is single-mindedly chasing after former ANC voters but, Stanley Uys asks,
at what cost for the party and South Africa?

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Stanley Uys. 22 October 2013. PoliticsWeb. Recently the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) announced on its Twitter account that the “ANC doesn’t do a great PR job. So over next ten days we are running an #IRRknowyourANC campaign to give them some ideas, Every day for the next ten days [we] will release one amazing fact about progress in SA under the ANC”.

This initiative provoked an irate reaction from Democratic Alliance (DA) head of communications, Gavin Davis, who responded on Twitter by asking the SAIRR’s CEO designate Frans Cronje “Why are you campaigning for the ANC? I thought you were an independent think-tank.” DA leader Helen Zille also joined in with a Tweet “SAIRR leads ANC campaign!”

This Twitter exchange, and the disputed contents of a phone call between Davis and Cronje, was reported on the front page of Beeld the next day under the heading “Dis Zille teen Dr Frans: DA en instituut haaks.”

While this exchange might appear to have been something of a storm in a tea cup it did bring to the surface deeper tensions within the liberal tradition in South Africa. As the debate gathers momentum on a potential schism within South African liberalism, this article attempts to pull the threads together. It draws on articles already published in full in Politicsweb and elsewhere: Zille in her weekly DA letter; Cronje in Maverick, columnist and former DA head of communications Gareth van Onselen on BDLive; and historian Professor Hermann Giliomee.

Pots and kettles

In her online newsletter Zille extended her party’s criticism of the Institute. She warned against the imminent danger of “state capture” in South Africa which she said was “accompanied by the ruling clique’s capture of the economy, the media, the universities, and many ‘independent’ non-governmental organisations (NGOs). I call this phenomenon ‘capture creep’.”

Zille cited a recent Daily Maverick interview with Frans Cronje in which he mentioned the difficulties of raising money from foreign donors and politically risk averse corporate sponsors and the fact that government departments were increasingly making use of the Institute’s Risk Analysis Unit’s data. She commented:

“If the SAIRR wishes to continue being thought of as an independent think tank, it is important for the public to know how much of its money is raised from the state. This will explain whether its @IRRKnowYourANC campaign has got anything to do with consolidating and expanding its client base — both in the public and private sector. In the meantime, we will continue to expose and oppose ‘capture creep’ – whether it is in the public sector, independent institutions or civil society. This is not an insignificant side-show, or diversion, as some have suggested.”

The irony is that recently the DA itself has come under criticism from the Institute and others for softening its stance on various ANC programmes. As noted previously Frans Cronje has himself accused the DA of promoting policy positions that were “virtually indistinguishable” from the ANC – something which, he said, had “dangerous implications for the future of SA”.

Outgoing SAIRR CEO John Kane Berman has also taken the DA to task for its muddled stance on Black Economic Empowerment warning that the opposition “must beware lest in pursuit of power it betray [its honourable anti-apartheid] history – and in particular the principled opposition to race classification and racial discrimination that was its single most important component.”

The DA has over the past two elections (in 2009 and 2011) had South Africa’s white and Coloured vote almost completely locked up. The party is now looking to make a breakthrough amongst black voters – something which is not unpopular with minority voters if it leads to significant electoral success.

In BDLive Gareth van Onselen, a former DA insider, noted in one column that the party’s strategic focus is now on winning over black voters who may be willing to vote DA but who remain uncertain and undecided. He writes: “Much research says black voters who are available to the DA do not want the ANC rubbished. They want to know that the DA acknowledges the ANC’s contribution to democracy, so that their hesitancy in associating with the party is eased; and, more to the point, a positive, patriotic message about how it will improve the social condition.”

The DA’s single-minded push to win over such voters has come at a significant price. Firstly, there has been a loss of ideological coherence and distinctiveness; secondly, senior party figures have come close to renouncing on occasion much of what the DA and its predecessors have stood for and against over the past few decades; and thirdly, and perhaps most critically, the party has removed itself from the debate on a whole series of critical but difficult issues, apparently for fear of scaring away potential black voters.

The ideological contortions the DA has managed to force itself into are well illustrated by its stance on Black Economic Empowerment. This is well described by Van Onselen who notes:

“For many black voters, [BEE] is the barometer of an organisation’s commitment to economic restitution. And therein lies the conundrum the DA faces: how can the party show to potential black voters that it cares about rectifying the socio-economic wrongs of the past while it stands opposed to the racial foundation of BEE? Either principle or pragmatism must give way. Faced with this paradox, the DA has, with typically brazen self-belief, decided to try to have the best of both worlds: the practical advantage of being able to say it supports BEE, in general terms, and the principled advantage of saying that it rejects BEE’s racial criteria for beneficiaries, in specific terms. But on something so fundamental, that is like being half-pregnant.”

The flattering remarks the DA’s national spokesman and Gauteng Premier Candidate Mmusi Maimane has recently made about Thabo Mbeki have also raised eyebrows in liberal circles. In a speech criticizing the Gauteng ANC for wanting to bring Mbeki in to campaign for them Maimane commented:

“When President Mbeki proclaimed that he was an African, born of the people of this continent, we shared his pride. President Mbeki wasn’t perfect. Nobody is. But during his presidency we saw progress. He got the economy on track. Houses were built and electricity and sanitation was delivered. He also introduced Black Economic Empowerment. There may be some problems with the implementation of BEE, but at least it signalled that the injustices of apartheid would be redressed. In those days I was an ANC voter. And I was an Mbeki supporter. Things have now changed.”

This campaign speech for the ghost of the ANC past (if not present) provoked no Twitter rebuke from senior DA figures. It was left toformer DA leader Tony Leon – who had spent much of his leadership of the party publicly opposing the serious abuses of the Mbeki Presidency – to note wryly that Maimane, in “repeatedly praising Thabo Mbeki’s record in office” had “joined the Mbeki revival club.” Leon added: “… by casting politics in terms of a narrative – ‘the previous president was good, this one is bad’ – suggests that the difference between the two largest parties in the country is a disagreement on the leadership choices of the ANC. Perhaps that was not the intention. But, then again, motive is less relevant than result.”

Perhaps it is the silences of the DA which are most telling. The DA said almost nothing against the Department of Correctional Services’ policy of enforcing a 79.3% black African quota in the Western Cape against its Coloured and white employees. It was left to the FW de Klerk Foundation and Solidarity to take the matter up publicly and challenge it in court. This despite the fact that the DA’s hold on power in the province is completely dependent on support from the white and particularly Coloured communities. The DA has also said little against the JSC’s repeated refusal, on racial grounds, to appoint some of South Africa’s most able and independent-minded lawyers to the judiciary or promote them to the Constitutional Court. Recently, the party has kept quiet about another event – a lecture by the rector of the Free State University, Dr Jonathan Jansen on the future of Afrikaans in the schools and universities. Jansen argued that pupils and teachers should be instructed in English across the board from their first day in school.

He argued that “language differences are in and of themselves not contentious; it is of course the mobilization of languages (or any other cultural assets) for political purposes that constitute the problem. This is why Afrikaans‐exclusive or even Afrikaans‐dominant white schools and universities represent a serious threat to race relations in South Africa.”

Jansen then stated, “Quite simply, it is English and not Afrikaans that could be the “taal van versoening” [language of reconciliation] for it lays the foundation for a common language that then enables encounters in Afrikaans and our other indigenous languages.”

Jansen’s address, which was republished in full in Beeld newspaper, caused consternation within the Afrikaner community. Yet as Professor Hermann Giliomee has noted while “Rapport published five articles very critical of the Jansen speech. The DA, as far as I am aware, has been tjoepstil. Yet the DA has the right to criticise Jansen. His remarks are in conflict with the constitution which permits instruction in any of the official languages, where feasible.”

Giliomee comments: “In multi-lingual societies like Switzerland it is the political party that acts as defender of language rights. The DA, however, isn’t doing it because it fears that controversy surrounding Afrikaans will be seen by blacks as an Afrikaner issue – something only ex-Afrikaner nationalists worry about.”

The DA has also said nothing about the Employment Equity Act Amendment Bill which will greatly strengthen the ability of the ANC government to enforce racial quotas, based on national demographics, across the board.

The DA’s decision to remove itself from contesting the racial policies of the ANC, on principled grounds, has dramatically weakened the opposition to the ruling party’s racial nationalist agenda. This at the very moment when the full consequences of that agenda – in terms of corruption, elite enrichment, high unemployment, low growth and state dysfunction – are becoming glaringly apparent. The result is that while the ANC is in a political crisis, its ideology is perhaps as hegemonic as it has ever been.

The reasoning behind the DA’s approach is presumably that the ANC has become hopelessly corrupt, is in crisis, and everything should be subordinated to the objective of beating the ruling party at the polls. Since there is currently no viable alternative for white and Coloured voters, it is able to give itself considerable latitude in chasing after black former ANC voters. The party’s record in government in Cape Town and Western Cape has also given it a significant store of credibility among all voters.

The question though is whether this strategy will succeed and to the extent that it does, will it outweigh the significant price that has been incurred.

In an address to the Education Colloquium of the DA caucus in May this year Giliomee presented eight lessons from history for the opposition. Three of these are of particular relevance for the opposition currently. The first of these (Lesson 4) is that “A party’s greatest asset is an image of integrity, clarity and consistency. An opposition must represent starkly clear alternative policies and much better performance in delivery than the ruling party. Fatal compromises made the UP government between 1939 and 1948 a party full of unresolved contradictions, often on the defensive and almost always lacking in conviction.”

The second (Lesson 5) is to “Never bat on your opponent’s pitch”. Giliomee noted: “The DA can never compete with the ANC with a policy to improve BEE implementation. It must offer a clear alternative to the ANC’s race-based policies. It should take the form of a class-based support for poor children and small business, and a much better balance between the requirements of merit and regstelling together with the promise of efficient service delivery.”

The third (Lesson 7) is that “No party must ever take its existing constituency for granted.” Giliomee observes: “The DA did very well to capture the support of the New National Party (NNP) once it became clear that party wanted above all to become a junior partner and a pale semblance of the ANC rather than an autonomous force.”

Precisely at this moment, BDlive (Oct 21,2013) reports that about 10 of the DA’s “highly experienced veterans” (12% of current DA MPs, all named) will not stand for reelection in next year’s national elections.  Lindiwe Mazibuko (Zille’s appointee as DA parliamentary leader) stays buoyant though, saying that not only will there be a large number of new DA members, but possibly even the majority will be new. She chirrups cheerfully that she expects the new caucus to be “more diverse” – and “there will be a larger proportion of black members.”

With its loins thus regirded, the DA will storm the ANC’s ramparts next year.

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One thought on “Helen Zille’s dangerous gamble

  1. “A party’s greatest asset is an image of integrity, clarity and consistency. An opposition must represent starkly clear alternative policies and much better performance in delivery than the ruling party.”

    Indeed. The new herstory destroyed all of that. The performance of the DA in government in places like Eden, Odn and Plett is no different to that of the ANC, most certainly not better. Local government lies at the interface between the voters and government. It is where they will be judged and found wanting.

    “Since there is currently no viable alternative for white and Coloured voters, it is able to give itself considerable latitude in chasing after black former ANC voters.”

    This may be so in the upcoming general election, but 2016 may just see a crop of independents offering real viable alternatives at municipal level. That is where the bleeding will start and the move away from the DA (and ANC) will gather momentum in 2019.

    The DA’s impatience to grow at all costs in order to satisfy egos rather than to consolidate its position will be its downfall.

    They have indeed done their supporters and the country a disservice.

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