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IN WHAT could be seen as an attempt to address perceptions that the DA was lily-white and protected the privileges of the minorities at the expense of black people, party leader Helen Zille has promised to reduce inequality between rich and poor and “beat” poverty.
The re-elected DA leader used her opening address to the party’s federal congress in Boksburg, Gauteng, at the weekend to ally the fears of black voters and make a case that her party was ready to govern inclusively if given a chance.
Acknowledging that the gap between rich and poor was “much too wide”, Zille promised sweeping changes and a different approach to improve the socio-economic conditions of underprivileged people.
In a fiery, 30-minute speech that sought to strike a balance between the competing interests of her party’s different races and classes, the Western Cape premier pledged to work towards redress.
She vehemently denied that the DA was racist and a home for people “who think that life was better under apartheid”.
“The DA is not a party for racists. It is not a party for sexists, xenophobes or homophobes. It is not a party for people who think that life was better under apartheid. And it is not a white party,” Zille said.
She said party members who were not committed to reconciliation, redress, delivery, diversity and non-racialism had “no place” in the DA.
Recent internal surveys commissioned by the DA have revealed that potential black members rejected the party because they perceived it as too white and feared it could take them back to apartheid, according to party sources.
Party insiders told The Star last month that former DA strategist Ryan Coetzee had left for the UK’s Liberal Democrats party because he felt the DA leadership paid lip service to his strategies to transform the party and bring black leaders on board.
Zille and Coetzee have denied the allegations.
Black voters are crucial for the DA if its ambitions of increasing its share of the vote, or taking over through a coalition in 2019, are to be realised.
Zille again took her fight to the ruling ANC, highlighting the DA’s service delivery record and denouncing inadequate basic services, corruption, crime, unemployment and the looting of public money by some ANC politicians.
Maintaining that people who were oppressed by apartheid remained so because the 1994 watershed elections brought only the “promise” of freedom, Zille said: “But freedom means nothing if you cannot find a job… our children have no textbooks… gives politicians licence to steal money”.
She said because of poverty and a lack of education needed “to open the door of opportunity”, many people could not use that freedom.
“And the gap between the rich and the poor is much too wide.
‘‘We are working every day to close this gap, to educate our kids and create jobs so we can beat poverty,” added Zille
However, she dismissed as a “myth” accusations that DA- run Cape Town was more unequal than other South African cities, citing a UN report titled the “State of World Cities”.
Most DA members shared Zille’s vision for an “open opportunity society”, but said the party faced various challenges to get there.
Twenty-seven-year-old Thabiso Bingwa, a DA councillor at the Buffalo City municipality in the Eastern Cape, joined the party in 2008. He said the issues Zille raised would help him sell the party’s vision to sceptical black people.
“When we go to the elderly people to canvass, they say we are taking them back to the apartheid system and say ‘we don’t want this DA here’. They don’t understand.
‘‘When we go to young people, there are those who find the DA as a solution and a party for the way forward,” said Bingwa, clad in Julius Malema’s trademark beret.
For Pat Collins, a 72-year-old DA councillor in Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, Zille’s speech was “topical” and spoke to the party’s “core vision”.
He said even though DA councillors were relatively trained, educated and supported by the party, “the challenge is to develop the voter base to get the majority in council so that we can govern properly”.
A confident Zille, who led the official opposition to impressive growth levels since taking over from Tony Leon in 2007, vowed to build a “non-racial centre” of South African politics.
Comprising people who were committed to the constitution despite their divided past, that centre would rule the country “sooner” than many people thought, Zille maintained.
She also pledged to honour the legacy of Struggle heroes who died for democracy and “fulfil their vision”.