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The party struggles to strike a balance between electoral volume, racial harmony and principles, writes Moshoeshoe Monare.
Johannesburg - When the DA’s Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane were 10 years old, and probably in Grade 4, the former leader of the Democratic Party (the DP, the DA’s predecessor) warned that the organisation should not only understand the needs of black voters, but also “relate to their struggles and identify with their emotions”.
DA leader Helen Zille was either a consultant or a spin doctor at the University of Cape Town while party federal chairman Wilmot James was a visiting fellow at Indiana University Bloomington.
Now at the helm of the same but repaired ship – facing a similar tempest – they would do well to remember the words of former Progressive Federal Party (PFP) leader Colin Eglin.
On its first anniversary in 1990, he urged the DP to change its attitude towards the new political market – black voters – and to adjust to the realities of the new South Africa.
“In the past, the DP’s main target market was the white minority, for that was where the power lay. That market was not only white, it was privileged and wealthy and intent on enforcing apartheid.
“In future, the DP’s main market will be black, and underprivileged and poor. It will consist of people who were not advocates, but the victims, of apartheid,” Eglin said.
His prophecy should guide the DA’s policy conference taking place this weekend when the party is, again, caught between moral conscience and political expediency – not knowing what to do when faced with white fears and black aspirations.
From its birth in 2000 (and its predecessor the DP’s a decade earlier) the party has always battled to find a balance between increasing its electoral volume and appeasing its core white membership and breaking the ethnic ceiling by turning black. This, while maintaining its liberal principles.
No leader of the DA or the DP ever succeeded in doing this.
Funnily, Tony Leon was even accused of darkening his election poster picture in 2000 in a desperate attempt to get it right.
It’s a knotty issue. It cost brilliant leaders such as Zach de Beer in 1994 and his co-leader, Dennis Worral, in 1990, their careers. It prodded the likes of Leon and Zille into a defensive corner.
For years the party’s critics could not offer alternative tactics apart from expecting the DA to take the moral route – a safe and politically correct, but suicidal, path.
At the heart of the DA’s (and the DP’s) ideological and electoral tensions are racially explosive policy positions. They were the death penalty, affirmative action and black economic empowerment.
Fortunately, the death penalty died. But affirmative action and BEE won’t go away and continue to shatter the party’s non-racial harmony. In 1999, for instance, the DP’s Mike Waters rejected the white paper on international migration because it required investors to train a certain number of blacks. “The DP’s main objection is the affirmative action in migration,” Waters said.
The racially sensitive policies have plunged the DA into an identity crisis, making it difficult to shed its race tag.
Eglin, writing in the Sunday Times in 1990, cautioned that “at the moment of the DP’s achievements, it faces a problem of both identity and purpose”.
The identity crisis always fractures its leadership cohesion. It splintered the DP’s leadership troika of De Beer, Wynand Malan and Worral in 1990, caused a tense leadership race between Leon and Ken Andrew in 1994, and sparked acrimonious friction between Leon and Marthinus van Schalkwyk a decade later. Zille now faces a cacophony from the black caucus this weekend.
The DA’s identity crisis began when FW de Klerk, the last apartheid president, altered the political landscape on February 2, 1990.
By unbanning liberation movements and releasing Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, he changed the fortunes of the once lone voice of reason in the white political wilderness.
Overnight, the DP became an irrelevant, squeaky dwarf. Malan resigned, and in an interview with author Padraig O’Malley in the winter of 1990, he declared: “There is no future for the DP and they won’t recognise it.”
De Beer admitted that De Klerk “had stolen their clothes while bathing”. In the words of former PFP (predecessor of the DP) leader Frederik van Zyl Slabbert – De Klerk’s National Party (which later changed its name to the New National Party) moved into the space previously occupied by the DP.
The ANC also stole the DP’s underwear by pushing for a liberal constitutional democracy, reducing the DP’s liberal cause to that of a pressure group, a tiny one.
The party’s co-leaders were unprepared and disoriented.
While DP leaders asked for directions and members were stuck at the crossroads, the party wobbled between two extreme poles: the National Party at the right of centre and the now unbanned ANC on the left.
Malan – a former NP MP – ironically propagated leaning towards the ANC. “We are closer to (The ANC and the UDF) than any other party,” he said in March 1990.
Worral pushed for power at all costs. Some members opted for the NP as their political home.
De Beer defended the party’s liberal independence. For him, the middle ground caved after political plates were shifted violently by De Klerk’s volcanic speech.
De Beer’s troika became dysfunctional. Some, like a young Houghton MP called Tony Leon, pushed for a single leader. This eventually led to a congress electing De Beer to take the party to the first democratic elections in 1994. It was disastrous. The DP was humiliated. It became a party of seven MPs, representing 1.7 percent of voters. De Beer quit.
Along came a sharp, fiery Leon. The Citizen newspaper in May 1994 described him as sounding more like a verligte Nat than a liberal democrat.
He realised that race politics was the key to the party’s success; but also its albatross.
In 1993, Leon admitted in an interview that “every 1 percent of black votes translated into 100 000 votes against a meagre 30 000 from (an) equivalent percentage of white votes” .
But he realised six years later that the racial wall was too high to climb. It was easier and quicker to attract fearful whites than aspirant blacks.
He adopted the infamous “Fight Back” campaign in 1999. It worked brilliantly – the party quadrupled its support.
The following year it built a super-opposition by merging with the NNP to form the DA. But at what cost? Leon took flak from his critics. They accused him of racism and liberal chauvinism. His earlier career as an apartheid military-embedded journalist did not help his cause.
On the eve of the 1999 elections the late Kader Asmal, an ANC thinker, said Leon was “an urban scarecrow” who scared more whites than blacks.
Political scientist Vincent Ma-phai rhetorically asked what if the DP’s “racial mobilisation could push the ANC into similar exploitation of black anger?” Considering the its election campaigns a decade later, it was the right question.
Our editorial after the 1999 elections noted that the “DP attracted NNP supporters in large numbers with an effective campaign that exploited white fears, played on racial division and was completely off-key to the vast majority of black South Africans”.
In June 1999 Slabbert wrote in this newspaper that “most whites voted DP because they were fearful, angry and frustrated”. He opined that they liked the DP’s feisty style more than its principles, and warned that the party was succumbing to expediency by aggressively appealing to the NNP supporters.
But the unrepentant Leon disagreed. Writing in Business Day in July 1999, in response to political commentator Steven Friedman’s accusations that his campaign was insensitive to the country’s racial realities, Leon said: “NP supporters all over the country had to realise the value of liberal democratic principles when faced with a powerful and antagonistic government… They could have chosen the Freedom Front or (the then leader of the Freedom Alliance) Louis Luyt… We secured their support by promising to fight back against crime, unemployment, and race-based affirmative action.”
But Slabbert warned: “The DP’s preoccupation with volume in the short term will have painted it into a corner in the long run.”
For the 2000 local polls, Leon tacitly admitted that the ethnic vote was not sustainable and toned down the Fight Back slogan, still holding to his core white vote.
He told the party’s March 2000 congress that they would “protect and advance the interests of the 1.5 million voters (but) extend support to all” by taking the message to the townships.
However, the party dusted off its Fight Back campaign in the form of “Take your City Back” in 2004, directed at the Western Cape, its power base. This prompted Thabo Mbeki, who was leading the ANC campaign, to ask: “Taking the city back from whom?”
Internally, Leon faced off against his arch nemesis Van Schalkwyk (a deputy leader after the merger of the DP and NNP) who was gravitating towards the ANC. The latter joined the ruling party in 2004.
Getting rid of Van Schalkwyk was not the only headache for Leon – the chronic migraine was blacks within the DA. Some black leaders still felt that the DA’s policy stances were indifferent towards them and their constituencies.
At the Durban November 2004 congress, a senior black DA leader told your correspondent that senior black leaders urged Leon to tone down his speech and attitude. A year later, most of these leaders crossed the floor to the ANC.
Ironically, the DA’s black membership grew under Leon, but overall, the support was only 1 percent of the black vote.
On his departure in 2006, a leaked report by the then party strategist Ryan Coetzee revealed that the party could not be complacent with its predominantly white membership. Coetzee echoed Eglin’s prophecy 16 years earlier.
“If we are going to become a party that is attractive to South Africans of all races, then we need to find a way to do two things: first, care as deeply about the ‘delivery issues’ that affect black South Africans as we do about those that affect whites; second, find a way to bridge the racial divide on ‘identity’ issues.”
He warned that the “DA cannot afford to remain a party of minorities, because in each election, minorities account for a smaller proportion of the total electorate, and so the pool of available minority voters will slowly dry up over time”.
This is what kept Zille awake at night. She told reporters shortly after taking over from Leon in 2007 – and supported by the majority of black party delegates – that she endorsed Coetzee’s document.
She succeeded in changing the tone and attitude of the party.
For the first time the DA painted the townships blue. Zille rebranded the party and elevated the careers of leaders such as Mazibuko and Maimane.
But she could hardly afford to alienate the party’s core supporters among minorities, especially whites and coloureds in the Western Cape, where a few remnants of the NP are still influential.
When her 2009 campaign was faced with the ANC behemoth and Cope’s tenacity, she also unveiled a “Stop Zuma” poster. This prompted her critics to accuse her of regurgitating the “Fight Back” strategy.
She rode through the turbulence and maintained the party’s position as the official opposition.
But her ship is headed for rough waters this weekend after a disastrous flip-flop on the policies that are still spooking the party – affirmative action and BEE.
In her online newsletter, Zille bemoaned how the party had “dropped the ball” by voting in favour of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill, which seeks to pass into law the regulation of demographic representation in workplaces.
In the heat of the moment, Zille and Mazibuko removed a black leader responsible for the party’s labour portfolio, Sej Motau.
Hours after Mazibuko announced Motau’s removal from the portfolio, the MP remained defiant, saying he supported the bill in its current form.
He was joined by some very cross black leaders, exposing the old, papered-over racial cracks in the party, five months before elections.
The black leaders are planning to use the party’s policy conference as a protest platform.
DA MP Masizole Mnqasela told us last week the party was at “a crossroads” and would have to use its coming policy conference to give policy certainty.
“We have got to be clear about where we stand. We want the majority of black people to sing our songs without doubt,” he said.
“There is nothing that should confuse us when we are talking about redress. We remain committed to employment equity and black economic empowerment as an edifice to reconciliation and redress,” said Mnqasela.
It was not the first time the DA came across as incoherent and confused in articulating its policies on affirmative action.
In September, the DA once again had to clarify its stance on BEE.
Federal chairman Wilmot James told radio station PowerFM that the party would dump BEE in its current form in favour of “diversity economic empowerment” should it win elections next year.
He argued that the party did not want to be “stuck” on a racial definition of BEE forever.
Realising the confusion, Maimane told our sister paper The Star that the party always supported broad-based BEE.
This is the single issue that has always polarised the party – along racial lines – for years, shattering any pretensions of cohesiveness in its leadership.
Eglin actually reprimanded its predecessor party’s leadership for faltering in the face of such a crisis. “The DP – particularly at the level of public representatives – must stop behaving like a bunch of self-indulgent prima donnas and start behaving like a cohesive team.”
It’s a pity Eglin won’t attend the policy conference.
*Additional reporting by George Matlala and Shanti Aboobaker.
Moshoeshoe Monare is the editor of the Sunday Independent.
***The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.