DA federal council chair Helen Zille addresses the media with former leader Mmusi Maimane and ex-Nelson Mandela mayor Athol Trollip. Picture: Itumeleng English African News Agency (ANA)
IT HAS been a devastating week for the DA. So devastating, that the party had little constitutional precedence to guide it through the simultaneous resignations of both its leader, Mmusi Maimane, and chairperson of the party, Atholl Trollip following the dramatic resignation of Herman Mashaba, the mayor of Johannesburg.

Much has been written about the causes of the DA’s troubles: weak and indecisive leadership; the Patricia de Lille spat; a messy water crisis in Cape Town; policy confusion; an undisciplined party running amok on Twitter are but a few.

Fundamentally, the DA’s leadership troubles are a direct result of a poor poll result in May and the continuing voter erosion suffered at the hands of the Freedom Front - and to some degree, the ANC as well.

There should be little surprise that when a party does poorly at the polls it looks inwards, often with damaging consequences.

When the party was winning (as the DA was for much of the past decade), everyone wanted to be part of it and it sucked them in gladly.

There has been much reference this week to the suggestions that racism has played a part in the DA’s internal meltdown. The argument suggests that a deliberate plot by white members in the party to undermine the transformation project is at the root cause of the resignations and resultant recriminations.

It is true that race has played a part in the DA’s decline. But, simply ascribing this to a pre-mediated and orchestrated plot to undermine emerging black leadership is an argument that fails to address much bigger macro-political trends at play.

If truth be told - and race aside - the DA’s downward spiral had three distinct threads to it.

First, the party rode the crest of the wave over the past decade on the back of the negative effects of the Jacob Zuma years.

The 2016 local government election result saw the DA score, not necessarily due to massive voter shifts, but due to large-scale ANC poll stay-aways. This favoured the DA in a proportional representation system where high voter turnouts in predominantly white wards shifted the balance of power away from the ANC in Gauteng especially and other urban areas.

It was Maimane’s good fortune and timing that as a new leader, he was able to cement his position on the back of very favourable results. Zuma was the gift that kept on giving for the DA and the party lapped up the greater electoral representivity this afforded.

But 18 months later, the DA was faced with a changing dynamic within the ANC.

The presidency of Cyril Ramaphosa left the party bereft of a compelling proposition to put to the electorate. Ramaphosa was the candidate of hope and of a “new dawn”.

While the DA has become a much more racially diverse political force, it could not cement a fair quantity of its nascent black support who saw Ramaphosa as an eminently credible offering from the ANC. And, the rest is history as they say - the May 2019 elections saw the DA retreat for the first time since 1994 with losses not only among its “township” vote but even more significant losses among white conservatives.

The second core reason for the party’s troubles were centred on its policies and its political messaging. In attempting to be a “broad church”, the DA couldn’t satisfy anyone. Its mixed messaging on redress, inequality and the “black experience” clashed with its desire to hold onto a more conservative white support base it has nurtured for the prior decade.

The party failed to adequately grasp the deep-rooted emotional effects of apartheid on black South Africans and was unable to translate its liberal philosophy into constructive policies to ameliorate the legacy of the past.

In this sense, race did play a role - but not as deliberately as some would argue. It was a deficiency in empathy and grasp of the group experience that those who were somewhat blinded by their “individual” ethos just could not grasp.

But there’s more.

While the DA was at fault in some aspects as outlined, it also was buffeted by the ANC and EFF, who successfully painted the party into a corner on race. Done more out of playing politics than reality, the DA succumbed to being defined in the terms of its political enemies and was left reeling. Unable to defend itself, it fell deeper into the web of traps set by the ANC in particular and had little to counter the attacks.

It’s a complex picture of trouble for the major opposition party. And, there is another major macro-factor that has often been overlooked. While the DA’s success chart was beginning to move south after Ramaphosa’s appointment, it was also beginning to look poorly as a result of the growth of the EFF.

The EFF was able - in many ways - to usurp the mantle of opposition. From protest politics to the battle for the hearts and minds on university campuses, the EFF was gobbling up young independent thinkers who were disillusioned with the ANC and keen to mobilse accordingly.

The DA was no longer the only opposition game in town - in fact, it looked positively limp and tepid in comparison.

These three key elements - along with the many own goals scored by the DA - led to this week.

Maimane’s resignation was as a result of all of these factors. He bowed to the internal review report and left - albeit in a messy way which did not endear him to his former caucus members.

Mashaba’s resignation - perhaps as a result of the possible plug being pulled on the DA’s governing arrangement with the EFF - has also left a void for the party at local government level. Mashaba was a maverick, for sure, but he was (and perhaps still is) a major political asset around which many might coalesce in future.

The DA therefore faces an existential threat to its future as a major political force. Should the ANC perform better under the “new dawn”, the DA will struggle.

Should the party continue to be unable to translate its message to the life experience of millions of black South Africans, it too will be relegated to a small niche player among minorities.

But, and it’s a big but, the diminishing of opposition should not be rejoiced at.

Keeping a strong governing party like the ANC in check is critical. Without a competitive democracy, South Africa can descend once again into the depths of state capture and resultant despair.

While the DA is now gasping for breath, this may well simply be another stage in South Africa’s political history where shifts occur among the established brands - and those shifts herald new outcomes.

The space for opposition is there, for sure, but who will fill it now is up for grabs.

Silke is the director of the Political Futures Consultancy

The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of Independent Media