Max Du Preez pic Fredlin Adriaan

The DA is clearly very determined to change its image as a passive opposition party as it prepares to present itself as a real alternative to the ANC within a decade.

In principle, that’s good for our democracy. Any development or move that would improve the way South Africa is governed right now should be welcomed.

I just hope Helen Zille and her advisers and co-leaders are fully aware of the potential dangers of this new assertive campaign. The ANC has shown us sufficient evidence that they are prepared to fight the threat of the DA in ways not in step with our constitutional democracy.

This surely cannot mean the DA has to back off. It does mean the DA decision-makers will have to constantly and carefully weigh up which strategies could have unintended consequences and do more damage than good.

And they have to make sure they communicate their intentions and actions properly.

Zille’s attempt to inspect President Jacob Zuma’s private villa at Nkandla last weekend elicited extreme reactions.

The Presidency angrily called it a “gimmick” and “grandstanding”, and several ANC personalities called it a “publicity stunt”.

The SA Communist Party called it a “racist act by a white madam”. The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal warned beforehand that the DA could meet a violent response.

On television we witnessed several men, reportedly Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans, lying across the road to Nkandla, with one telling the camera that he was prepared to die for Zuma.

Busloads of ANC supporters threatened and yelled and sang “Kill the Boer”.

Provincial ANC leaders on the scene said Zuma was the “father” of the people and it was their duty to protect him when attacked.

On Twitter and Facebook, several black celebrities and public personalities unleashed racist tirades against Zille and whites in general. A lot of people said Zille was irresponsible and shouldn’t whine when she gets trouble after going to look for it.

Was it worth it?

Sure, it was a publicity stunt and a gimmick of sorts. Walking past Nkandla wouldn’t really help to ascertain how much was spent on what – there are much better ways to do that. (Heard of Google Maps?)

But another term for what Zille did could be “symbolic gesture”. That’s the stuff political contestation in a democracy is made of. The ANC and other parties use this method as often as the DA.

She and her party certainly refocused the country’s attention on the irregular use of taxpayers’ money and on Zuma’s shameful abuse of office. Too many citizens were almost forgetting the Nkandla scandal, as most have forgotten the Limpopo schoolbooks scandal.

But the DA also used the occasion to tell the electorate that they’re no longer a bunch of liberal white sissies in suits sitting on the leathered benches of Parliament debating policies and raising points of order.

That’s also a legitimate statement to make in a democracy.

There were a lot of arguments that Zille simply forced the ANC’s constituency to fall in behind the party leaders, while many had serious misgivings about Nkandla; that she was insensitive to Zulu culture; that she was reckless and|confrontational.

There may be merit in the first argument, but I’m not convinced that was what was happening. If ANC supporters are prepared to condone corruption and abuse just because the opposition exposed it, then there’s little the DA can do about that.

Culturally insensitive? Yes, the DA and the rest of us, the ANC included, should always be sensitive to the different ways different groups see and experience things.

But I find that “culture” has been used far too often as an excuse for abuse and violations of our constitution. This is especially true since Zuma became president. Even the most traditionally minded Zulu patriarch should also start realising by now that our constitution overrides traditional custom and practice.

Reckless? If we allow threats of violence to inhibit our political activities, our democracy will become very limited. A middle-aged white woman from Rondebosch and her seven sidekicks were not really going to launch a violent attack on Nkandla, now were they? Just as an unarmed group of DA protesters were never going to invade and violate Cosatu House, as the Cosatu leaders said during the DA’s march some months ago and condoned the attacks on the marchers.

Having said all that, I think the DA should have been considered in their approach. They must have been able to predict the reaction and arguments beforehand. Why did they not address these before they embarked on the Nkandla march?

Zille should have communicated much more clearly beforehand that they were not planning to enter Zuma’s villa; that they meant no disrespect to any family or traditional chief; that their march wasn’t an assault on anyone’s culture or privacy, but aimed at highlighting the abuse of public money.