The Democratic Alliance. A lost cause?

The rate at which events within South Africa’s official opposition party the Democratic Alliance (DA) have unfolded, means that a lot more might have changed by the time you read this. The phrase “at the time of going to press…” was invented for fast-flowing news events just like this.

The story so far is that party leader Mmusi Maimane, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba and Eastern Cape leader and former Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip have resigned from the party.

Their resignations followed the election of former party leader Helen Zille as the new Federal Council chair. It seems as if this was the catalyst for change.

The DA is at a crossroads. It has been heading in this direction for a while now.

It was inevitable from its founding that the party, though professing classical liberalism, would end up in disputes over what it stands for.

Formed as a conglomerate of disparate parties that had in the apartheid era served white voters with the more liberal Progressive Federal Party (which had evolved into the Democratic Party) being at the core of that new party, the DA evolved into a grouping united by the disapproval of how the ANC governed the country.

This meant that those who had previously supported conservative parties (like the National Party) during apartheid, dyed in the wool capitalists intolerant of any involvement of the state in economic affairs beyond drafting regulations to social democrats who thought the state had a lot to offer, all found a home in the DA.

In ANC language, the DA became a broad church of various interest groups all lobbying for their positions to be the accepted policy of the party.

With the party being everything to everyone and unable to properly articulate what it stood for, those voters who wanted assurance that it stood for their interests and fears, started shopping elsewhere.

Those more left inclined, mostly black, voted for the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The conservative whites found the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) an attractive proposition. These two parties had the best performance in the last General Elections.

Given all this, the DA had no option but to draw a line on the sand. It had to state where it stood on the matters that had caused it to lose votes.

In the long term, the self-purging of those leaders and members is not necessarily a bad thing for the party. It may not have the numbers it previously had, but it will have a clearer direction of where it wants to go.

Perhaps former President Thabo Mbeki’s phrase, “better fewer but better” is useful as the DA starts to craft its identity.

Will there be a cost to the party? Most definitely. The party is badly damaged and even if it wins back the voters it lost to the more conservative parties, its chances of becoming the first non-ANC government in the post-apartheid South Africa have diminished significantly.

Mr Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya

Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

f.moya@jesuitinstitute.org.za @fikelelom
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