DA leaks make it clear party is at a crossroads
Date Released: Thu, 24 October 2013 10:30 +0200
The racial origin of the Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) leader is much less important than the message it sends to voters.
A sign that DA politics is becoming more like the ANC’s is a media leak "revealing" that leader Helen Zille will step down next year and that a leadership battle between its head in Parliament, Lindiwe Mazibuko, and Gauteng premier candidate Mmusi Maimane has begun.
This seems to be another of the leaks that politicians feed journalists to further an agenda — and the truth matters less than the effect. Zille shows no signs of stepping down. Even if she did, the identity of the candidates for her job is unclear. But politicians feed stories to the media for a purpose. If we know what they want to achieve, we learn what is happening in their parties.
Why would anyone in the DA want to tell the media that Zille, arguably its most successful leader, should step down? The only credible answer is that whoever fed the leak believes the party would be better off under a black leader — which is why Maimane and Mazibuko are earmarked as successors.
There is nothing new about the claim that the DA’s appeal to black voters would be strengthened if its leader were black. Voters here vote their identities and so it seems logical that only a black-led party could attract black voters.
Reality is more complicated. The white-led DA attracts more black votes than several black-led parties, including the Pan Africanist Congress and the black consciousness movements. More important, as this will shape the DA’s future, whether a leader is black may matter far less than whether he and his party is in touch with the concerns and values of most voters.
And it is here that the choice between Mazibuko and Maimane may be real: the DA is being asked to choose at present not between two politicians but between the politics they represent.
Mazibuko’s record suggests that the only difference between her and the DA’s mainstream is an accident of birth. She says much the same things, and has much the same priorities as other DA leaders whose base lies in the suburbs. But Maimane seems eager to present a different face — a recent example is his comment expressing respect for former president Thabo Mbeki.
Unlike Mazibuko, he tends to speak to the majority of voters in terms to which they can relate. So the choice is what the DA wants to be: a suburban party with some black support or one that seeks to move into the mainstream.
It is perhaps no surprise that Maimane’s statements triggered a campaign against him by commentators who support the suburban version of DA politics. He has been accused of opportunism and has been criticised for seeking a seat in Parliament at the same time as he runs for premier of Gauteng — this, it is claimed, sends the defeatist message that he knows he is going to lose.
But why is it principled if DA politicians say nice things about Nelson Mandela and opportunistic if they praise Mbeki? And is there any evidence that any Gauteng votes will be influenced by whether Maimane is on a parliamentary list? The real reason for the attacks is surely that some DA traditionalists do not like adapting the party’s message to make it more palatable to black voters. This betrays a short-sighted prejudice.
Those in the DA who see Maimane as a problem assume that the fact that black voters have tended to vote African National Congress (ANC) is the fault not of the DA but of the voters. There is no need to change what it says — its support will grow when black voters see the error of their ways.
There is an interesting inconsistency here. Some of those who take this view designed or supported the DA’s 1999 "Fight Back" campaign in which it won votes by claiming to be a more aggressive ANC opponent than the National Party.
So it is acceptable to change the party’s message to appeal to racial minorities, but not to reach out to the majority? If this view wins the argument, it will place a permanent cap on the DA’s appeal to most voters. This is important not because the DA has a reasonable prospect of winning a national election — its gains among black voters have been modest and DA leaders probably know that it will not win a majority of the vote.
Its future lies in what Zille calls "realignment" — another split in the ANC, which may drive its vote below 50% and make a coalition government necessary. This would give the DA a shot at participating in the government as a partner.
But this may be difficult if the DA is seen as a suburban party — in that case, a potential partner would be tainted by a coalition. A DA speaking Maimane’s language will be a far more credible partner than one sending more traditional messages.
So the leak does tell us something. The DA is at a crossroads: the route it takes will decide its prospects of sharing in the government.
BY STEVEN FRIEDMAN
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
Article Source: Business Day