Know Your DA (A Tale Of Two Helens)

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The Democratic Alliance’s “Know Your DA” campaign, launched a month ago, has attracted criticism from those who accuse the opposition of airbrushing its history and attempting to co-opt ownership of the struggle against Apartheid from the ANC. But the DA is unbowed. On Monday, the party launched a video to accompany the campaign which it intends to show to one million South Africans, and leaders insisted that the campaign is working exactly as they had hoped.

“For too long have we allowed ourselves to be defined by our opponents,” begins the DA’s “Know Your DA” film: white letters on a black background. “This is the story they don’t want you to know.”

The story they don’t want you to know, it turns out, could be titled “A Tale Of Two Helens”. It opens in 1959, with the formation of the Progressive Party by Jan Steytler, and then skips briskly forward to 1961, when Helen Suzman was elected as a member of the National Assembly. Cue black and white footage of Suzman’s lonely berth in Parliament, while a voiceover pays tribute to her “relentless exposure” of Apartheid laws and the fact that her “principles never wavered”. Suzman, the voiceover states, “did the work of an entire opposition party”.

A slew of glowing Suzman-directed testimonials from ANC luminaries follows – in the form of their words on the screen, obviously, and not actual talking heads. Winnie Mandela is quoted: “Helen fought alone to save Mandela’s life in a water-logged cell.” Madiba himself is quoted, in the light of Suzman’s visit to Robben Island: “She was the first and only woman to grace our cells”. A letter from Albert Luthuli to Suzman describes her as “a bright star in a dark chamber”.

We might press pause on the video here to consider what seems to be a slight contradiction. On the one hand, the DA has said that the “Know Your DA” campaign is intended to wrestle control of the DA’s narrative from other political parties, and particularly the ANC. In its press release to mark the launch of this video, the party states: “For too long we have allowed our political opponents to define us”. Yet simultaneously, there seems a tacit acknowledgement that affirmation by ANC stalwarts constitutes legitimacy: why else trot out Mandelas and Luthulis to praise Suzman?

Back to the film. Mandela thought so highly of Suzman that he asked her to accompany him when he signed the Constitution into law in 1996, it informs us. During Suzman’s career, it continues, she fought against pass laws, the Group Areas Act, forced removals, detention without trial, separate amenities, job reservation, the Mixed Marriages Act, and the Immorality Act.

Cut to Helen II. September 1977: a young newspaper reporter travels to PE following Biko’s death, and exposes the truth behind his murder in detention. Zille’s byline is highlighted in the resulting piece for the Rand Daily Mail. She was subsequently pursued by the Press Council for the story. The footage of young Helen is interspersed with footage of present-day Helen reminiscing: it was, she says, “quite routine” to get death threats. Rushing to the Cape Flats to cover the burning of shacks, she was arrested for being in the area without a permit.

The video fleshes out Zilla’s struggle CV by telling us that she hid various activists from the security police. During the Q&A after the video’s screening, journalists were curious to know who these activists were. Zille named two: Dorothy Zihlangu, who died in 1991, and was involved in important struggles for gender equality; and Dorothy Mfaco, whose grandson Bulelani Mfaco wrote an article in 2011 about “the nice white woman who gave my granny shelter”.

Zille said she felt comfortable naming Zihlangu and Mfaco as they have both passed away, but said she could not name other activists that she had sheltered without their permission. She would say only that “they are very well known and prominent people today”.

The Daily Maverick is reliably informed that among their number was one Tony Yengeni.

Recalling the days of Apartheid, current-day Zille admits on camera: “I did feel terrified”. As a result, she went into hiding with her two-year-old son. The testimonial for Zille is given by shadow minister of trade and industry Wilmot James, who says that the DA leader has “confirmed her place in history as a defender of freedom and champion of democracy”.

The final act of the “Know Your DA” video is devoted to the DA today, which is presented as a convergence of people brought together by shared values. Some have roots in the ANC, PAC, UDF, or trade unions, the video notes (though there is no mention of the NP). The DA is growing, Zille says, because people understand that the DA’s one big idea is the “open opportunity society”. This is a concept frequently returned to by the party, with the open opportunity society presented as a meritocracy which is the opposite of the ANC’s cronyistic tendencies.

It’s an intuitively appealing idea, and writing for the South African Civil Society Information Service before the 2011 local government elections, academic Jane Duncan pointed out that this concept is a well-established one in political theory internationally. In it, government “enables individual advancement on the basis of supposedly inherent talents and industriousness, measured usually through academic credentials, rather than on characteristics such as race, gender or political affiliation.” But the downside of the idea, Duncan wrote, is that “the children of the historically advantaged invariably have a head start in realising inherent talent. This society attributes an individual’s lack of success to individual weaknesses, not the system.”

In the final minutes of the DA’s film, Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille (ex-PAC), recent DA convert Nosimo Balindlela (ex-COPE, ex-ex-ANC), Breede Valley mayor Basil Kivedo (ex-Umkhonto we Sizwe) and former DA federal chair Joe Seremane (ex-PAC) all express their belief that the DA is the future of South Africa due to its diversity, dynamism, inclusive attitude, and the fact that – to quote de Lille – “we all share the same values, the same principles”. The DA is the fastest-growing party in South Africa, the film concludes: Election 2014 will see this growth continue until the DA becomes the party of national government.

The 12-minute film is an exceedingly slick product, and will be translated into nine official languages for broadcast around the country. Thirty-thousand copies of the film are to be sent to DA branches nationally, for broadcast at “weekly house meetings”, to which DA activists will invite “South Africans who have never heard our untold story or who have never voted for the DA before”. In this manner, the DA hopes to expose one million South Africans to the film within the next two months.

The “Know Your DA” campaign has not been short of controversy thus far, and this video will likely be no exception – though the ANC declined to comment on it on Monday afternoon. Zille said that she was not remotely cowed by the criticism. “We love the controversy,” she said. “When there is controversy, we break the sound barrier.” Spokesman Mmusi Maimane claimed that the criticism was a clear indication of the campaign’s success.

But in prefatory comments, Zille gave some indication that the campaign was spurred by something like desperation to persuade the South African public that the party could not be associated with white oppression. “I’m the kind of person who leaves the past behind,” she said. Research undertaken both by the DA and independently, however, has indicated that a majority of young black South Africans believes that the DA would bring back Apartheid if elected into power. A Pondering Panda survey on the matter undertaken in April, for instance, found that 52% of young black respondents held this view. At the time, Maimane said that the survey’s findings “indicates the extent of the ANC’s propaganda war against the DA”.

Nonetheless, on Monday Zille was at pains to stress that the campaign forms part of the DA’s pre-election strategy rather than the election campaign itself. “We will be running our election on the future,” she confirmed. “But before we talk credibly about the future, we have to sort out this question of the past.”

Zille acknowledged that the likes of De Lille, Seremane and Balindlela had fought Apartheid under the banner of organisations not aligned with the DA’s previous incarnations. “They come from the many tributaries which flow into the mighty river of the DA,” she said. As for the invisible NP members absorbed into the DA, parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko pointed out that old Nats are in many parties today (including the ANC, which formally absorbed them.) But, she pointed out, many members of the NP have changed their political outlook; those within the DA “have come to hold dear our values”.

What of the white males seemingly airbrushed from DA history: the Tony Leons, Frederick van Zyl Slabberts, Colin Eglins? “Their stories tend to be better known than the stories of the people we are chronicling here,” Mazibuko said. “That doesn’t mean we discard the history of our other leaders.” The name of the party may have changed from the DP to the DA, Mazibuko said, but the same political philosophy underpinned the two parties: what Zille referred to repeatedly as the “golden thread” stretching back through the decades.

The Daily Maverick asked Zille whether there were any elements of the DP’s political philosophy that she would disavow. But Zille stayed on safe ground in her answer, returning to the days of the Progressive Party – where, she said, she was opposed to the party’s advocacy for a qualified franchise. In the face of opposition from Zille and others in the party, the Progs went on to lobby for a universal franchise.

Zille said that it is activist numbers, rather than membership numbers, that the DA concerns itself with raising. She said that the DA currently has a branch in “just under half” of the more than 4,000 wards in South Africa, and that each branch will receive several copies of the “Know Your DA” film. She reiterated her claim that the DA is the most diverse party in South Africa: “Sixty-five percent of our members are black South Africans”, she said. The Daily Maverick contacted DA CEO Jonathan Moakes for advice on how this 65% figure was ascertained. “We have a tick box on our membership form that indicates the home language of our members, and we work it out from that,” Moakes said.

The DA is using the “Know Your DA” campaign as a form of guarantee for prospective voters: a party which is filled with people who fought Apartheid, it argues, must be fully committed to ongoing social equality. Naturally, the ANC can use precisely the same logic. Zille quoted Winston Churchill: “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see”. In other words, she explained, the more you know a party’s past, the more confident you can be about how it will act in future. But if the ANC’s current performance has taught us anything, it is surely that this rule can never be ironclad.

Written by: Rebecca Davis

Picture credit: Daily Maverick

  • This article was published on Daily Maverick.