Tony Leon

Gaye Davis

Political Bureau

THE DA cannot be “just a patronage machine” that scoops up disaffected ANC supporters and should provide an alternative that is “not just another version of the ruling party”, its former leader has said.

Tony Leon, who returned late last year from his posting as South Africa’s ambassador in Argentina, was speaking at a meeting of the party’s Sandton branch in Joburg yesterday.

“Obviously politics is crucially about numbers. But as the party grows and as some outsize personalities, some carrying a great deal of baggage… are attracted to its ranks, just be sure that the welcome mat is also marked with some clear red lines which old and new recruits cross at their peril,” Leon’s prepared text said.

Outlining key challenges facing the party he led from 1999 until handing over the reins to Helen Zille in 2007, Leon said the DA’s core constituency – minorities – was diminishing.

“The last election revealed that the DA has unchallenged support among minority voters; the last census showed that this is a reducing bloc of supporters,” Leon said.

Growing DA support in a “new market”, among the majority of South Africans, while “retaining faith with core values and old voters” was not a new dilemma, but was now “more urgent”.

“In order to attract more votes from black South Africans the party has to close the distance between itself and the majority, something which has far more to do with tone, familiarity, identity and other intangibles and less to do with objective policy propositions.”

There would be “a temptation to soft-pedal certain propositions in order not to scare off new potential voters”, Leon said, warning that “culture” was a “political quicksand”.

“If I were the current DA leadership… I would not get into a bargain of ‘Africanness’ et al. Make your point and move on,” he said.

A second challenge was whether the DA could retain its identity and core values and attract new supporters, or whether there would be an “automatic blurring of vision and values” as its support grew.

More competitive politics was “profoundly important” for the country’s “democratic health”, he said.