Why the DA must rebuild itself as a modern social democratic party

The middle ground has shifted as conservative whites abandon the DA; now the party must refashion itself to make up lost ground among voters

12 May 2019 - 00:04 By KAIZER NYATSUMBA

The electorate has sent the country's political parties a few solid messages. In the main, these messages have been aimed at the ANC and the DA.
For me, the overriding message that has come through from these elections is the degree to which SA has become racially divided. By voting in such overwhelming numbers for the right-wing Freedom Front Plus and the EFF, the electorate on either side of the political divide has indicated the extent to which the country has become polarised.
On the right, the FF Plus has emerged as the dominant voice of the aggrieved, conservative white and coloured minorities, while the EFF has entrenched its position as the voice of the discontented, impatient and even angry black majority on the left.
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Clearly, the middle ground has shifted. That would explain the DA's poor showing in these elections. From now on, the challenge will be to move the country forward sufficiently economically and in terms of transformation to reconsolidate the middle ground.The biggest loser in these elections was the DA, which was expected to build on the momentum which saw it performing so well during the 2016 local government elections. Instead, the party not only retreated electorally, but also fared worse this time around than it did in the 2014 national elections.
There are three main reasons for that poor performance. The first one is the degree to which the DA - like the ANC - has been riven with internal divisions ahead of these elections. In the main, these differences have been along both racial and ideological lines. The harder Mmusi Maimane tried to position the DA as a social democratic party that would appeal to black voters, the more conservatives "fought back" against him and his ideals.
Maimane and those who support him realised, like Helen Zille before him, that the DA's only chance of ever growing to challenge for power was if it made itself sufficiently attractive to more black compatriots than was the case during Tony Leon's era. They figured that it would have to review some of its fundamental beliefs and values and grudgingly arrive at the correct conclusion that "race is a proxy for disadvantage" in the country. Having made that jump, logically the DA had to accept that policies that sought directly to confront the disadvantage facing black South Africans had to be adopted - and many among its traditional, conservative members balked.
In the main, this became a black-versus-white conflict within the DA leadership. Very clearly, there was a conservative white caucus that dominated the DA's benches in parliament and the provincial legislature and was threatened by thorough-going transformation, and there was an increasingly influential black caucus that was alive to the fact that fundamental changes had to be made. There was, then, a real fight for the soul of the DA.
As the conservative wing of the party lost the battle, some remained within the DA's leadership and continued myopically to fight a rearguard battle against Maimane and his cohorts. However, it is now evident that many among their supporters returned to their natural ideological home and ensconced themselves in the comfortable embrace of the right-wing FF Plus. That is why the latter did so well in these elections, at the expense of the more progressive DA.
Secondly, the DA handled the whole Patricia de Lille saga most shambolically. Many within the DA in the Western Cape had their daggers drawn at De Lille and wanted her gone at all costs, to hell with due process. When their numerous attempts to get rid of her through a vote of no confidence in the Cape Town city council failed, they continued to manufacture lies about her and to throw mud at her in the hope that some of it would stick.
To their chagrin, De Lille emerged victorious each time and they ended up with bloodied noses. And yet, still they continued to lie to the public, right until the elections, that they had fired De Lille as a member when, in fact, she had resigned.
Thirdly, the DA had no appealing message in these elections. So used was it to lobbing grenades at Jacob Zuma in parliament that it persisted with a near-identical strategy against the much cleaner and more popular Cyril Ramaphosa. Maimane appeared to be desperate to create the impression that Ramaphosa was no different to the man he had succeeded, even when it was apparent that nobody bought into that false narrative.
Instead of spelling out a compelling vision that indicated clearly what it stood for, the DA continued to be obsessed with the ANC, as if the electorate needed reminding just how deeply mired in dirt the latter was. The party persisted with its free-market obsession that the answer to SA's failing state-owned companies was simply for the government to dispose of those assets. Instead of a nuanced approach, the DA's response was a mantra: privatise, privatise, privatise.
The party needs to learn that dogma is hardly an appropriate response to a complicated situation.
Though the results are disappointing for the DA, in reality they could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Thanks to the FF Plus, the DA has managed to shed its right-wing baggage. It should now proceed firmly with its commendable project of positioning itself as a social democratic party that seeks to appeal to all who want to protect the country's constitution and grow the economy through a free market.
There is a growing number of progressive, economically literate black people in the country who are persuaded by logic rather than historical accomplishments during the liberation struggle, and who want a prosperous, corruption-free country. They need a political home. The DA should go after them unashamedly. It should ensure that its benches in the legislatures are as representative as its public rallies.
Though Zille began the process of repositioning the DA, the person who has taken it furthest has been Maimane. For that, he deserves credit. Instead of the party tossing him out now because of the poor election results, it would be well advised to keep him and to work with him to build a new DA.
• Nyatsumba is a senior business executive in Johannesburg..

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