Serving the greater good
Helen Zille’s decision not to stand for re-election as leader of the Democratic Alliance is commendable. The succession process is as important – for the good of South Africa’s democracy as much as for the DA.
Zille’s contribution as leader of the DA has given a fairly loose alliance of conservatives and centrists, drawn mainly from minorities, coherence. Under her leadership the DA has managed to win and maintain both the Western Cape and the City of Cape Town itself. The Western Cape is one of the best-run provinces in South Africa. Its education, health and service delivery, though not without problems and inconsistencies, have been ranked at or near the top in various surveys. It is also less corrupt than other provinces.
Some of Zille’s statements and leadership style have alienated potential allies, however. My sense is that she’s realised that for the DA to grow it’s time for a change. This concern for a greater good is commendable, a mark of a leader who is not addicted to personal power.
Her successor is faced with many challenges. She or he will have to build on Zille’s legacy while avoiding her faults. He or she should consolidate the DA’s gains while seeking how to expand the DA’s support base. This is a tall order. The DA would do well to emulate the Jesuits’ way of selecting their Superior General: starting with discerning the characteristics of the leader they need rather than turning the process into a battle of personalities.
The DA will need someone attractive to its stalwarts. In addition it needs to consider how the party can appeal to new potential constituencies, the most obvious being youth and the black middle class. My sense is that these sectors are less bound by tradition, genuinely worried about the future and ready to experiment with new ideas.
The new leader must be above all a popular, politically attractive figure, as much at ease among ordinary people as among Parliamentarians. She or he would do well to avoid populist demagoguery: we have had too many of these in South Africa. A democratic opposition leader must of necessity be forceful. We’ve also had too many ‘toy telephone’ opposition parties and leaders in the country. But forcefulness should be through statesmanlike appeal to reason. Such a person impresses without bullying the electorate into thinking “Perhaps I should give him/her my vote next time.”
And that’s what opposition in a democracy is about: giving people an option. No ruling party or politician – however popular or capable – should monopolise power. For any state where one party or person is dominant the risks of state failure rise exponentially. With no effective opposition even the best ruling party in the world runs the risk of complacency, corruption and the attitude that governance is its right, which is a major step on the road to dictatorship. Alternative voices and views create conditions where real democracy can thrive. Good opposition leadership serves the greater good of everyone.