DAs new member: more whimper than bang?

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When the DA announced that it would present a former ANC Premier and NEC member who was joining their ranks on Tuesday, frenzied speculation began as to who it would be. The answer – former Eastern Cape Premier Nosimo Balindlela – was greeted as a let-down by many, though the DA continues to hail her arrival as a major coup.

After the DA’s press conference to welcome former Eastern Cape Premier Nosimo Balindlela to its ranks, a journalist asked leader Helen Zille why the party had chosen to make such a big song and dance about her identity. “We didn’t – you did!” she replied. Zille was partly right – social media was a-flutter with idle speculation about this latest high-profile DA recruit. Still, the DA did nothing to dissuade the hype.

Its mysterious press release on the subject guaranteed heightened interest. Its heading, “DA to announce new high profile member”, may have been interpreted at first glance to be the news that many continue to suspect is imminent – that Mamphela Ramphele will eventually cash in her chips with the blue party, the biggest prize they could imagine short of Mandela himself announcing a deathbed defection.

The description of the new member as a “former ANC Premier and NEC member” set the guessing game going, as every individual to ever have held a premiership in South Africa since 1994 was dusted off and considered for eligibility. Initially Mbhazima Shilowa was the frontrunner in the popular vote – quite mysteriously, given that it is believed that part of the conflict between Shilowa and Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota is due to the fact that Lekota supports closer cooperation with the DA and Shilowa does not. 

Besides this, a Twitter account purporting to belong to Shilowa - @Enghumbhini – dismissed the rumours with contempt immediately. “Pigs would fly,” its author wrote. “Me and the DA are oil and water! Never mixes. Would rather be a housewife.”   

Lekota himself was another popular choice, though his legal battle for the leadership of Cope might have rendered that a tricky prospect. Former Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool’s name was briefly bandied around until everyone remembered that he is ensconced as ambassador to the US and that Helen Zille has been vocal in her criticism of the corruption of his administration.

This was, however, part of the absurdity of the guessing game – that for a brief period, until sanity prevailed, it seemed that literally everyone who fit the bill of former premier and former NEC member was being considered. One of the more startling suggestions was that the mysterious defector might be Lynne Brown, who served as Premier of the Western Cape for less than a year, between replacing Rasool after his resignation in July 2008 and the ANC losing control of the province in May 2009.

But Brown is now leader of the opposition in the Western Cape provincial parliament, where she has a notably adversarial relationship with Zille. Just last week Brown put out a statement criticising Zille’s march on Nkandla which didn’t mince words. “But where in the world is the Western Cape Premier?” Brown wrote. “Like a modern day Marco Polo, she takes reporters on many disingenuously guised excursions. She pops up for the next media circus with more reporters than supporters. Failed attention-seeking stunts like the battle of Braamfontein are veiled by deception, tweets and spin!”

It is rather hilarious to believe that less than a week after penning such a critique, Brown would have a sudden change of heart and flee across the provincial parliament into Zille’s waiting arms. But such is the circus of the South African political scene that perhaps nobody would have been overly surprised.  

As former premiers were considered and discarded, the list of likely candidates for the defection became a veritable Who’s Who of SA politics, as long as we assume a question mark after each “Who”. The mention of Beatrice Marshoff sent many scurrying to Google. And indeed, when Nosimo Balindlela’s name entered the arena, a common response was: “Remind me who that is again?” Journalists grumbled that if it was Balindlela, she should surely be described as having defected from Cope – where she’s been since 2008 – rather than the ANC.

But by Tuesday morning, media outlets were reporting that the DA’s high profile new catch was indeed Balindlela, with Business Day citing reliable Cope sources. Nonetheless, DA top brass refused to confirm or deny any speculation, and so the media duly packed into the DA’s press conference for the lid to finally be lifted. “You’d think we were announcing a new policy today!” said Zille upon entering, scanning a room so full that there was standing room only.

And there, indeed, the DA’s trophy sat: Nosimo Balindlela, Eastern Cape Premier between 2004 and 2008. They used to call her the “Barefoot Premier”, for her habit of walking around sans shoes. (This was not merely for comfort; “No rural woman should feel ashamed that she has no shoes”, she once said.) On Tuesday, however, she sported a sensible pair of black shoes. There had also been some unkind speculation as to whether she would arrive wearing a school uniform – as, reportedly, she used to do while Eastern Cape Education MEC. This, too, proved unfounded.

Zille made much of a long personal history with Balindlela: “I have known Nosimo for many years as a person of integrity,” she said (the two met in the UDF). Zille said she was confident that Balindlela shares core DA values: “a respect for the constitution, a commitment to non-racialism, the need to redress the legacy of Apartheid and a desire to build a society based on opportunity for all”.

Balindlela was handed a DA membership card by DA Eastern Cape Provincial Leader Athol Trollip, who explained, to laughter, that she would also need to pay a R10 fee. “Would you also like to join the DA Women’s Movement?” he asked. “Of course!” Balindlela answered, beaming.

Balindlela described her decision as “not difficult”, and she was full of praise for both the DA and Zille, calling the latter (“dear lady Helen”) an “exemplary figure”. She was at pains not to burn any bridges with either Cope or Lekota, whom she described several times as a “great leader”. She explained that her decision to leave Cope was motivated partly by frustration at their protracted legal battles, and partly by her belief that the DA is “the future”.

For those who might accuse Balindlela of political expediency – hopping off the sinking HMS Cope before it goes down altogether – Trollip pointed out that she was renouncing her MP seat, and taking a pay cut, to join the DA. “We will sit down now and determine a job description,” Trollip said. Balindlela will be deployed to the all-important Eastern Cape, where the DA hopes she will become its weapon in the bid to win the Nelson Mandela and Buffalo City municipalities.

“We will expect her to add value to the DA, to establish branches and work very hard at building a constituency,” Trollip said, adding that she would be given a contract with measurable targets that she would be expected to meet.

Balindlela, Trollip said, “has credibility in the rural communities”; her “values and principles are unimpeachable in the Eastern Cape”; she is a “person held in high regard in the Eastern Cape”. But beyond her practical utility in winning Eastern Cape votes for the DA, her move was also presented in grander terms: as totemic, symbolic, the portent of a sea-change. The word “re-alignment” was thrown around a lot. “Today is another step in the realignment of politics in South Africa,” Zille said. “Good people from across the spectrum are starting to converge around a vision and a plan for our country.”

Is this true? Well, the growing convergence between Cope and the DA is old news – you might recall that back in August, a public “interactive chat” took place between Zille and Lekota, moderated by Lindiwe Mazibuko. Rumours of a full-blown merge between the two parties have been in the air for some time. So from this perspective, Balindlela’s “defection” – if we can even call it that – is decidedly less dramatic than would have been a similar move by a current ANC MP.   

It’s not even the case that Cope members are flocking to the DA en masse, though. Just this weekend the ANC in the Western Cape trumpeted the return of what they said was more than a dozen former Cope provincial leaders and “about 100 former Cope members”. So the “realignment” that the DA is heralding, while no doubt possible, still seems quite far off.

With regards to Balindlela herself, however, opinion was divided as to whether she actually represents a major prize for the DA – especially given the fact that the DA places great emphasis on good governance, and Balindlela had a rather chequered record as EC Premier. It seems it was Balindlela who approached Zille, rather than the other way round, and Zille stressed that subsequently she and Trollip had a long discussion about Balindlela’s political history. “If you look at her record, she did her best (in the Eastern Cape),” Zille told journalists.

It is true that Balindlela inherited a poisoned chalice in the Eastern Cape premiership from Makhenkesi Stofile. When she took over in 2004, the province was a mess: the auditor-general found 79% of the provincial government budget went unaccounted for between 1996 and 2004. She also had to deal with a deeply divided provincial branch of the ANC. But some analysts said she didn’t do much to leave the province better off: appointing incompetent service providers and ministers and presiding over a continued decline in the states of education, health and housing.

The ANC, of course, has scrambled to denounce Balindlela as the worst premier ever, even though it was clear the decision to sack her was motivated largely – if not entirely – by the fact that she was an Mbeki loyalist. “If there is anything that the DA has netted it is a political liability that will further alienate the party in the Eastern Cape,” the ANC fulminated.

“Political liability” is pushing it, but there is some doubt over whether Balindlela really commands popular support in the province in the way the DA seems to believe. Those who have experience of Balindlela seem to be in agreement that she is an extremely nice and personable individual with a heartfelt commitment to social upliftment, but it’s not clear whether she can succeed in winning the Eastern Cape hearts and minds in the way the DA envisages. There’s also the fact that as a Cope MP she was an extremely quiet and unimpressive presence – something she attributed on Tuesday to having been stymied by the party’s leadership battle.    

These kinds of political defections can be seen in two ways. You may see them as a sign that SA’s democracy is coming of age and hardened old party loyalties are no longer so uncritically accepted and maintained. Or you may see them as further evidence of an ingrained expedience in the system, where opportunists seek opportunists, with no real benefit to the voter. For the sake of staying off the Prozac, let’s go with the first option here.

Picture credit: www.da.org.za

  • Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford University. This article was published on Daily Maverick online.