Leader of the DA Helen Zille talks to supporters from a truck after the DA march on Luthuli House. The partys display of muscle made many white supporters uncomfortable, the writer observes. Picture: Chris Collingridge

The new black leaders and members are now making an impact on the party’s culture, and this could prove too much for many, says Max du Preez.

The ANC is not the only South African party in an identity crisis. The DA is also facing a battle for its soul. The ANC is torn between the nationalists, some with a strong traditionalist bent, the progressives in the centre and the SACP.

What complicates these divisions even more is the fact that the communists are, opportunistically, at present the strongest backers of the nationalist faction of Jacob Zuma. What will they do after Zuma?

The DA is divided between old-style liberals, progressives and conservatives. These divisions have become very clear in recent times with the DA leadership’s decisions on employment equity, the failed merger with AgangSA and the reopening of the land claims process.

There is a wide range of opinions on what the party’s position on race should be, but underlying all divisions is the new political culture engendered under Helen Zille’s leadership.

Several Afrikaans commentators have in recent weeks warned that the DA was not looking after its big Afrikaner support bloc. Historian Hermann Giliomee wrote after the Agang debacle that Afrikaner voters could again be on their way to a new political home.

Tim du Plessis, executive editor of Afrikaans news with Media24, wrote that he had doubts whether the Afrikaners in the DA “had become Progs” – they merely voted DA to oppose the ANC. But now that the DA was seen as “ANC Lite”, as it changed tack to become a contender for power rather than just an opposition party, he doubted whether Afrikaners would continue to automatically vote DA just because it was the strongest opposition to the ANC.

North West University political scientist André Duvenhage said on the weekend he suspected that some Afrikaners are about to abandon the DA and join the Freedom Front Plus.

University of Johannesburg political lecturer Piet Croucamp warned that Afrikaans farmers would stop supporting the DA because the DA was not fighting for their land security. The Sunday newspaper Rapport wrote on the weekend that the reopening of land claims was seen as “the beginning of the end of commercial agriculture” (a claim that I think is quite outrageous).

I’m not so sure. Many of the staunch old Nats I have come across in recent times have embraced the DA and have grown with the party. These types are attracted to the idea that the DA should not accept that it would simply remain in opposition.

Most Afrikaners are more pragmatic than they usually get credit for. The FF+, with its Afrikaner nationalist bent and its volkstaat ideology, will not be an acceptable option to many – unless it redefines itself, of course.

On the other hand, there are still so many white racists and reactionaries around that many of them would statistically be DA members. I often encounter some of them on social media and many identify themselves as DA supporters.

Interestingly, many English speaking DA supporters who would identify themselves as liberals have similar problems with the new DA. They’re dogmatic liberal puritans and most would prefer the old Prog and Tony Leon-DA style of opposition politics. Very little pragmatism there.

I was struck by the low enthusiasm among white DA supporters for their party’s recent march on Luthuli House.

The DA strategists clearly wanted to make the point to the public, especially black voters, that whatever the ANC could do, the DA could do better, including mobilising the masses for marches and protests; showing some muscle and proving the party’s image of being mostly a bunch of snooty white liberals was no longer valid. This made many white DA supporters uncomfortable, old Nats and old Progs. They’re not the toyi-toying kind.

Locally based American journalist Sue Fairbanks recently wrote a fascinating paper on white attitudes towards change as manifested at the University of the Free State.

She found white students very accommodating when the university started allowing black students around 1992. But this changed radically when the number of black students reached the 30 percent mark and when they started becoming more assertive. The campus exploded in racial conflict after 1996.

Some whites in the DA will probably react in a similar fashion when a tipping point in black numbers is reached. These whites welcomed black members warmly, even when some of them became national leaders. But the new black leaders and members are now making an impact on the party’s culture, and this could prove too much for many.

Zille has been quite good at selling the new muscular, multiracial DA to all members. Her leadership is nearing its natural end.

The new national leader is bound to be black. She or he will have her/his work cut out to grow the party’s black base without alienating too many of its white supporters.

* Max du Preez is an author and columnist.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Indepent Newspapers.

Pretoria News