Daniel Silke: As political allegiances shift, it's bad news for the DA (and ANC)

The DA's current problems are largely as a result of shifting fundamentals in political allegiance. When you try and play to all sides, you end up losing to all as well, writes Daniel Silke.

South Africa's official opposition, the DA, now finds itself spending as much time – if not more – on managing and even exacerbating its own internal destabilisation than it does on fighting the ANC. Its electoral losses and inability to play all sides of its target market successfully has brought it to a crucial tipping point both in terms of leadership and policy direction.

Yet, the dilemma facing the DA is not that dissimilar to the one facing the ANC. The governing party edged out a sitting president (Jacob Zuma), installed a new leader (Cyril Ramaphosa) and continues to witness deep internal divisions on both factional and policy fronts. With both the DA and ANC losing a similar percentage of their vote, the pressures that both face are strikingly similar.

Now, although leadership of any political party is crucial to its performance both internally and at the polls, it is entirely conceivable that the "old" style politics of South Africa – namely a hegemonic nationalist incumbent versus a "liberal" alternative might just not be sustainable into the future.

While the EFF has already broken the mould offering a relatively clear "populist" choice which has gained traction amongst 10% of the electorate, both the DA and ANC are now finding that holding their own party together is proving to be energy-sapping in every respect.

With just under 80% of the popular vote going to the ANC and DA, it is these two parties that are struggling with cohesiveness. But we probably should not be surprised at all by this occurrence.

The complexities of South Africa – its apartheid history, political transformation, legacy of deep-rooted inequality, quasi-ungovernability and declining economic fortunes add multiple layers of difficulties likely to stymie the best political brains and consultants of the world. It may just be, therefore, that attempting to sustain the larger DA and ANC as a "broad church" is a bridge too far as the country enters the second decade of the 21st century.

South Africa is not alone when it comes to larger, more centrist political parties struggling to gain sufficient traction for power. There is a balkanisation taking place in political opinion across the world. And, especially in countries with a proportional representation system, the advent of smaller niche players can be effective and often quite dramatic.

From Italy, to Israel to Spain (amongst many others), larger parties face the rise of a plethora of choices offering voters a larger variety of options. In this way, voters do not need to compromise their principles – they can find a suitable political party even outside the traditional mainstream.

It might just be that South Africa is headed this way too. After all, the Freedom Front Plus was able to gobble up some 400 000 DA voters in the May elections by offering a clearer, more nuanced approach to identity-based politics.

Era of broad-church politics over

The bad news for the DA (and the ANC) is that the era of the broad-church political party might be over. Yes, a large rump of both parties will continue to exist – but possibly alongside newer players offering critical variations in policy and approach to an increasingly polarised electorate.

The DA's current problems are largely as a result of these shifting fundamentals. When you try and play to all sides, you end up losing to all as well. The DA idealistically assumes that it can present a compelling ideological approach which will find favour amongst both the majority and minority communities within the country. However, it might just be a step too far under current conditions.

Indeed, the liberal values which underpin much of the South African Constitution have to be preserved in order for the country to work. Despite their apparent disdain for liberalism, it's the very ANC that work within the parameters of the broader philosophy – at least within the domestic constitutional framework in South Africa.

But selling a theoretical form of liberalism to the electorate is increasingly tough when there are no jobs and violence threatens everyone equally. And that's where a new era of nuanced political offerings becomes important.

For the DA, keeping the broad church together is looking tough. Already accused by some of being akin to an ANC-lite, the Maimane faction hopes to offer a tweaked but quasi-ANC to the electorate – already with very mixed fortunes. Alternatively, it may just be that someone like Herman Mashaba can appeal to a broad swathe of voters seeking a more right-wing (certainly on immigration) and free-market approach than what the DA currently offers. And the liberals of old want a return to a more "purified" or classic interpretation of values and principles.

DA's problem also the ANC's problem

The DA is therefore finding that choosing the dominant stream without splitting the party is increasingly problematic. But this is not just a DA problem. The ANC has it too. On economic policy there is little cohesion. The ANC is currently stitched together by the virtue of holding power, but finding a middle ground between the Mboweni/Ramaphosa axis, the trade unions, the socialists, the communists, the populists, the crony-capitalists and the patronage brigade offer similar challenges.

Ultimately, South Africa's major political parties all face internal upheaval. It won't be pretty. Splinter movements are tough to start and sustain and that's largely why the big parties attempt to keep everyone on board for as long as they can. Few can stomach the immense stress of splits and the sweat and guts to raise funds and organise a new movement.

Yet, the world – and South Africa – is more complex than what broad-church parties can offer. Voters want a close ideological and practical identification with a party before lending them their support. With the significant challenges the country faces, what the DA is going through now is likely to affect the ANC – if it hasn't already. But it's not a bad thing. It can change domestic politics, shift it out of the rut it is in and forge new alliances. Nothing wrong with that!

- Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website

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