The DA’s strategists must be proud of how they outplayed the ANC on its strongest suit, the past, writes Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya.
Durban - In the aftermath of the local government elections, the Democratic Alliance strategists must be proud of how they outplayed the ANC on its strongest suit, the past.
The ANC frothed at the mouth as party leader Mmusi Maimane took every opportunity he could get to sound more like an ANC leader who had since seen the error of his ways, than as a DA man.
Even as late as last Saturday when he held his post-elections media briefing, Maimane mentioned how Helen Zille had grown the party but consciously avoided mentioning her predecessor Tony Leon, who also had done the same in his time.
Unlike what many of its voters would prefer, that the past stays in the past, the DA has learnt that the past never passes.
If the past did not matter or resonate with the people, the ANC would not bother invoking it.
It has worked for the ANC over the years, hence the party again couching its electoral message along the lines of its previous achievements and heroes, in contrast to the DA’s past as a white-dominated party and therefore a party of apartheid beneficiaries or even racists.
The DA strategists responded to this by adding the names of Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo and of course Nelson Mandela to its own messaging.
As it is always the case with the dead, the struggle deceased too find they have words put in their mouths, their thoughts interpreted, their intentions and conduct under certain circumstances declared as if those telling have a special line to the afterlife.
And so if the ANC will invoke the past to get present day benefits, so will the DA, and it has with devastating effect on its arch foes.
But it is not only in rhetoric and tactics that the DA is becoming a blue ANC.
The official opposition is becoming “a broad church” in much the same way that the ANC describes itself. It is becoming a home for all classes and ideological bents.
Though the party and its forebears have drawn their support from the English-speaking, upper middle classes - the High Tea set - today it is to be found in the squalor of the shacks, black urban settings and white, old money neighbourhoods. Last year its student organisation controlled Fort Hare University, the institution that once was to African nationalism what the University of Stellenbosch was to Afrikaner nationalism.
The DA has learnt from the ANC that to grow in the current political climate stringent, adherence to political dogma will lead the party nowhere.
Even the left-leaning EFF is not as purist as some of its followers and detractors would have. It is something of a “broad chapel” combining Bikoist, Sobukweist and Charterist thoughts, all the while tapping into neo-Marxist and neo-Pan Africanist strands.
With regard to the DA, though the party styles itself as a liberal outfit, not everyone in it agrees what that means precisely.
The desire to remove the ANC from power appears to be the glue that holds the various and disparate viewpoints that make up the DA. It is this, more than the academic or philosophical debates, that the party spends its energies on.
The effect is that not everybody agrees with what policies should replace those of the ANC should the DA eventually topple the ANC.
For example, the party was embarrassed in November 2013 when parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and then party leader Helen Zille disagreed on what the party’s stance on broad-based black economic empowerment should be.
Zille told the Cape Town Press Club that Mazibuko had “got it completely wrong” with regard to the party’s stance on economic equality legislation.
It is hard to believe that Mazibuko, a highly regarded brain (even by political opponents) in national politics, would not have been aware of what the party’s stance was.
If anything it proved that the party stance on the issue was opaque.
Employment equity and black economic empowerment have proven to be the stone in the party shoe.
On one hand, the party needs to have a clear position on these if it is to attract the black majority, particularly the professional and entrepreneurial classes.
On the other hand, it must deal with the reality that its traditional constituency views these measures as anti-white or as “reverse racism”.
The effect is that the party remains open to criticism by its opponents on the right and the left of the political sphere, who see it as mealy-mouthed as regards its true stance on these issues.
There have been moments when the party’s leadership has struck a more centrist, social democratic note, just as some party members have approvingly mentioned Margaret Thatcher’s political economics.
For some in the party, the goal is to replace the ANC’s perceived left-wing inclinations which they see as an obstacle to free economic activity.
One such figure is the DA’s mayoral candidate for Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba.
Mashaba is a recent head of the Free Market Foundation, a libertarian think tank which, in true libertarian traditions, wants unfettered capitalism and eschews all forms of state intervention in the life of the individual citizen.
Speaking at the launch of his book Capitalist Crusader in September last year, Mashaba said: “As past chairman of the FMF, I identified a single piece of legislation (and there are many) that I felt intolerably crippled employment.
“After discussing it with business leaders, both locally and internationally, writing articles on it, and discussing it on radio talk shows, I realised that I had to make my distaste absolutely blatant.
“Through the FMF, I challenged section 32 of the Labour Relations Act in court.
“It has been met with vociferous objection, but I believe that we will have our day in court and the judiciary will eventually make a decision that will enable the minister of labour to fairly adjudicate the merits of each bargaining council’s recommendations.”
In essence, Mashaba and the Free Market Foundation believe that the laws forcing firms to agree to minimum wages are unfair to business and the unemployed because the unemployed are not allowed to take jobs at lower rates than the minimum wage set by the bargaining council.
He believes that the poor and the unemployed should be allowed to choose to take whatever they are happy to take.
In a country where the majority has had to break the law and form trade unions because of rampant exploitation, Mashaba represents a high-risk option by the DA because he can easily be seen as a successful black man who tells the barefoot to pull themselves up by their shoestrings, without caring why they are barefoot in the first place.
Contrast this with Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille’s background as a worker activist.
De Lille is a former South African Chemical Workers Union shop steward and former member of the Black Consciousness Movement and Pan Africanist Congress-aligned National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).
She entered Parliament in 1994 under the banner of the “One Settler, One Bullet” chanting Pan Africanist Congress. De Lille has gone milder since her days in Africanist politics.
In KwaZulu-Natal, the party is led by Zwakele Mncwango, a self-declared Zulu traditionalist liberal. In some quarters of the party, Mncwango must account for how he reconciles his liberalism with his acceptance that in some cultures such as the one he was born in, a man may have more than one wife, but the woman does not have the pleasure of having more than one spouse.
As the DA continues to grow and lead municipalities, its internal contradictions will become more pronounced.
As it has done appropriating the ANC’s past it must now learn to take from the ANC’s present skill of juggling the ideological balls.
When this happens, it will have to take a leaf from the ANC and realise that being vague as to where it stands on a particular issue will be its strength more than it will be its weakness.
The purists will leave the party, but those who appreciate that society is made up by its different stance will stay and make peace with the fact that they will have to share the table and sometimes the stage with ideological opponents.
In short, the DA will have to not stop at taking the ANC’s struggle heroes if it wants to grow. It will have to out-ANC the ANC itself.
For even the DA must accept that the ANC has become a master in keeping the centre holding.
* Moya is the editor of The Mercury. Follow him on Twitter @fikelelom.or email him at [email protected]