South Africa – Liberal opposition faces existential crisis

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South Africa’s opposition party appears to be falling apart following a period of gradual growth. Does this mean even greater ANC dominance? And what might a new opposition look like? Jason Robinson investigates … 

The first black leader of South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), Mmusi Maimane, resigned last week. This follows the party’s disappointing May 2019 general election showing, in which the DA suffered its first national loss of support since its inception. Since then, a series of poor by-election showings, several personal scandals and internal ideological ruptures have heaped additional pressure on Maimane.

Eyes on the prize

An historically white-dominated party that has gradually became the political home for most of South Africa’s racial minorities (white, coloured, Indian), the DA appeared to be on an unstoppable rise as former President Jacob Zuma’s (2009-18) tenure grew ever more mired in controversy.

The party emerged as an important guarantor of constitutional checks and balances, achieving notable court victories against Zuma.

In 2015, Maimane succeeded Helen Zille as party leader. While he had a dearth of notable political achievements, Maimane was viewed as a charismatic, fresh new figure for the DA which was expected to finally make inroads with the majority black electorate. Just over a year into his tenure, the DA appeared to have begun to have made good on such promise in the 2016 local elections.

The DA retained Cape Town but also took control of three coalition governments in Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria) and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) with the informal backing of the populist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

The DA aimed to show voters that its city governments were better run than those of a corrupt ruling ANC and that the main opposition was ready to take power nationally.

Bitter interlude

Things did not go to plan.

Over the subsequent three years, the DA-led coalitions had mixed success (at best), with one (Nelson Mandela Bay) controversially falling apart in 2018 and the other two brittle. The mayoralties of Solly Msimanga (Tshwane) and Herman Mashaba (Johannesburg) also proved underwhelming.

While Mashaba preached an anti-graft platform, despite his apparent cosiness with the corruption-accused EFF, he was a loose cannon and regularly espoused divisive anti-immigrant rhetoric, something that the DA itself later tacitly embraced as the 2019 election approached.

All the while, the party was riven by several debilitating scandals and ideological divisions. This included the 2017 controversy surrounding Zille’s tweet that the legacy of colonialism was not “only negative”, and the party’s falling out in 2017-18 with then-Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille amid allegations of corruption and nepotism. De Lille, a popular coloured politician, accused a ‘white cabal’ of plotting her ouster.

Maimane’s tenure was also accompanied by renewed soul-searching over the party’s liberal principles and ideology.

Such divisions crystallised around contentious internal debates on ‘diversity’ and the party’s approach to Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policies and race-based redress. Simultaneously, various race-based scandals prompted unease among the party’s whites and Afrikaans-speaking supporters.

Internal concerns that the party had become ‘ANC-lite’ became even more acute when Zuma was succeeded by the popular President Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2018 and the DA struggled to craft a compelling alternative to his ‘new dawn’ narrative.

Election fallout

The May 2019 election proved a major setback for the DA, with its vote share dropping from 22.2% to 20.7%. More worryingly for the party, it failed in a key electoral aim, to oust the ANC in Gauteng; it was booted into third place in two provinces; and large numbers of its white and coloured voters looked elsewhere or simply did not bother to vote.

An internal post-poll review initiated by Maimane, and published in the days prior to his resignation, noted that the DA leader’s “indecisive, inconsistent and conflict averse” approach had, among other things, led to “a lack of clarity about the party’s vision and direction” and meant the party had failed to produce a “credible policy platform”.

The review panel recommended that the party’s leadership — the Federal Executive Council Chairperson, CEO and leader — step down. In the months leading up to its publication, both the CEO and Federal Executive Council Chairperson (both white) had already done so.

On October 20, Zille, who has become a lightning rod for division since stepping down as leader, was elected to the post of Federal Executive Council Chairperson (comparable to the ANC’s powerful secretary-general post). A day later, Mashaba resigned, stating that Zille’s ascent had confirmed to him a rightward shift in the DA and a “a victory for people … who stand diametrically opposed to my beliefs and value system”. While Mashaba publicly excoriated the party, Maimane incongruously stood beside him and subsequently called Mashaba a “hero”.

Just two days later, Maimane followed Mashaba out the door. While not pointing the blame directly at Zille’s election, Maimane decried a recent “consistent and coordinated attempt to undermine my leadership”. In a damning rebuke of the party he led for over four years, he stated that “the DA is not the vehicle best suited to take forward the vision of building One South Africa for All”.

A liberal alternative?

The DA and its predecessors have experienced recurring existential crises only for Lazarus-like recoveries. However, this latest is more acute and critical, coming after a sustained period of growth and a very public effort to project itself as a credible alternative to the ANC.

Crucially, as the 2019 election made clear, its support with black voters was already tentative and lacking a solid base. The DA has long struggled, both through its own travails and a successful ANC-led strategy, to convince the black majority that it is truly committed to righting the wrongs of apartheid.

The DA leadership claims that the Mashaba/Maimane departures are viewed through an inappropriate racial lens, given the raft of recent resignations by white officials; Athol Trollip, the party’s Federal Chairperson, resigned alongside Maimane. Nevertheless, the party has, in many respects, been hoist by its own petard.

The internal review recommended that the DA focus on its ‘core values’, which many see as an abandonment of attempts to attract black voters and a consolidation of its minority base — especially given two of the report’s drafters were architects of the party’s initial strategy to consolidate this vote (former party leader Tony Leon and former policy strategist Ryan Coetzee).

Leadership contender John Steenhuisen, the DA’s new (white) parliamentary leader, accepts that race is a proxy for disadvantage, but insists the DA must go about offering a “compelling policy offer” and “find our spine again”. Yet should the party appoint a new, permanent white figure — no matter what their ideological stance — the optics post-Maimane’s ouster will be problematic.

Some analysts have welcomed the party’s apparent implosion, arguing that this could lead to a more credible liberal alternative in South Africa, yet the prospects of such a party emerging and establishing itself over the long term are distinctly remote.

The DA’s travails come at a critical juncture for South Africa, with serious crimes on the rise, unemployment at an 11-year high and state finances precariously poised amid rising public debt and stagnant growth. The need for a compelling, credible opposition is as pressing as ever.

Reports of the DA’s demise may yet prove premature, but should it retreat to a minority base or dwindle, the country’s democratic institutions may be the ones to suffer.


Dr. Jason Robinson is a Senior Africa Analyst at Oxford Analytica. All opinions expressed are his own.

Twitter handle: @SpeedTrials

One thought on “South Africa – Liberal opposition faces existential crisis

  1. This is a depressing read. For what its worth, I think the DA, along with many great democratic institutions in South Africa, is probably being judged too severely – because of the great expectations we have of everything South African. Yes, the DA is going through a rough patch at the moment. But we know from experience that a good cause, and one which is designed to be victorious, may for a season, be involved in major embarrassment and distress. This is nothing new. My counsel to those at the DA is to be cognizant of the fact that all progress, even of the best kind, is slow; and to those who work diligently and zealously the reward will, doubtless, be vouchsafed in good time. South Africa’s democracy needs a credible opposition; for where South Africa goes, the rest of Africa will probably follow. You owe it to all in Africa to ensure that democracy in South Africa does not abort…

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