The Paradox of the Democratic Alliance

Sorting through my PC article database, I came across this piece I wrote, but never published, ahead of South Africa’s general elections. The crux of the article is why I personally feel South Africa’s largest opposition political party continues to resonate among South Africa’s majority black population even amid the governance deficiencies of the African National Congress (ANC). Since my political loyalties is often question (or in many cases assumed) due to what some observers claim to be anti-DA rhetoric, I thought i would publish this post to give better insights to my political psyche. Please don’t judge me on this….

With general elections less than 12 months, political fervour is steadily increasing across South Africa. Political parties, both old and new, are peddling their wares and inevitably politicizing any notable civil grievance to their advantage. A party which has been particularly busy is the Democratic Alliance which officially launched the second-phase of its two-pronged ‘Know Your DA’ campaign on 10 August. What can best be described as a crusade of political enlightenment, the ‘Know Your DA’ campaign aims at educating black South Africans about the role the DA played in the apartheid struggle and, more importantly, dispelling the idea that the party seeks to reinstitute apartheid. Apart from obvious politicking by the African National Congress (ANC), I was left pondering as to why the DA continues to be viewed with so much mistrust and scepticism by many black South Africans as to compel the party to dedicate an entire campaign to changing such perceptions. Here are some of my thoughts.

One answer to this quandary is rooted in the immaturity of South Africa’s democracy. As Professor Jacques Rousseau articulated, South Africa has yet to reach a level of democratic maturity where political choices are necessarily made as a result of a careful weighing of options. Instead, many South Africans continue to base their decisions on perceptions and prejudices. In the case of the DA, the party’s lack of popular appeal could be explained as a result of its political opponents confirming a prejudicial fallacy that the party is a ‘shrill, reactionary and white political party’

It’s difficult to disagree with Rousseau’s assertion; the legacy of apartheid continues to be evident in the social and economic stratification of our society and it would naive to suggest that it does not continue to permeate on a political level. Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that the DA itself also needs to shoulder some responsibility for the negative perceptions that many black South Africans have about the party.

The paradox of the DA is that despite the party branding itself as a liberalist and non-racial political organization, much of its core constituent continues to harbour a very conservative mind-set. As much as the party has denied this claim, the DA benefitted from the dissolution of the New National Party (NNP) and much of the party’s initial political success can be attributed to its inheritance of the NNP’s conservative electorate. From the launch of the DA’s 1999 ‘Fight Back’ campaign, dubbed ‘fight black’ by the ANC government of the time, the party has provided political solace for many South Africans who have failed to reconcile with the country’s ongoing democratic transition. While the leadership of Hellen Zille has made strides in broadening the party’s racial appeal, the DA’s consciousness of the political whims of its conservative mind-set, and its subsequent appeasing thereof, is skewing the party’s attempts at being viewed as an inclusive and multi-racial political organization. Underscoring this claim was the launch of a recent billboard in downtown Johannesburg which depicted the party’s support of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) initiatives. Reading “”We (DA) support BEE that creates jobs, not billionaires”, many South Africans viewed the message as clumsy and insulting, with some even claiming that the billboard suggested that the party sees blacks as labourers and not as owners of the means of production.

Instead of using the opportunity to be unequivocal in its stance on an issue which remains intrinsic to economic transformation, it seems that the main purpose of the billboard was to sugar-coat the DA’s stance on economic reformist policies to a support base which continues to view such policy as being a reverse form of apartheid. The BEE billboard issue is one of many instances where the party has seemingly been cautious in promulgating its stance on issues deemed pro-black out of concern that this may be an affront to its conservative support base. If this trend continues, I fear the party is neither going to appease the voter it seeks to placate, nor will it convince the electorate it seeks to attract.

The DA’s historical revisionist tendencies is another issue which I feel is doing more harm than good in increasing the party’s popular appeal. Apart from highlighting its role in South Africa’s struggle for liberation, a claim which still remains open to contention, the DA has also resorted to associating itself with a number of South Africa’s struggle icons. Perhaps most disconcertingly, the party recently laid claim to former President Nelson Mandela by making him the face of its social media profile and including his image in promotional pamphlets. While I can understand that Mandela is a national treasure which belongs to all of South Africa, attempts to disassociate Mandela from the ANC is a matter of political deviance which only creates resentment among even the most disillusioned of ANC supporters. The party’s use of historic revisionism also speaks to a wider problem that the DA continues to encounter in its lobbying — its failure to disassociate its criticism of the South African government with that of ANC as a political party.

While the two are interlinked, the DA needs to realise that most South Africans are not going to change their political choices due to the development of a sudden abhorrence to the ANC but will rather do so upon finding a disconnect between the core tenets of the political party and its governmental leadership. The sooner the DA finds commonality with its vision for South Africa that is outlined, and perhaps left unfulfilled, within the ANC constitution, the greater the party’s message may resonate among South Africa’s black population. However, such commonality will never be achieved if the party continues to selectively memorialize South Africa’s history by overstating the role it played in our liberation and, as a consequence, undermine the legacy of South Africa’s true liberators.

Despite the nature of my rhetoric, I remain hopeful that the DA continues to strengthen as a political party. This is not due to me being a closet DA supporter, nor is it indicative of any antagonism I may harbour toward the ruling party. I am merely hopeful that, as the country’s largest opposition party, a strengthening of the DA would lead to the maturing of our democracy and create an environment where any elected government is compelled to be more accountable to its citizenry. But to get to this juncture, there are some difficult choices the DA needs to make in ensuring that the party is viewed as a feasible political option for South Africa’s black electorate. I am yet to be convinced that the party is in a position where it is willing to make such decisions.

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