Ralph Mathekga: The DA has been crippled by playing populist politics. It's not too late to recover
The fact that the DA failed to grow in the elections this year should not discourage the party from pursuing a vision based on inclusivity and tolerance, writes Ralph Mathekga.
The official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is in a tailspin, about to crash out of opposition politics. Recent developments within the party have exposed deep seated divisions mainly on which direction the party should take to renew its legitimacy as an opposition party capable of winning elections.
A few months ago, on May 8, voters issued a harsh notice to the DA saying that the party's opposition style is becoming stale and lacks imagination. In the period leading to the elections, it was clear that the DA was going to face electoral stagnation for the first time in its existence.
Since the 2014 general elections, the DA's opposition style has faced serious challenges, and the problem has only been growing since then. Its main challenge came in the form of the EFF becoming an opposition party following the elections.
The EFF went to Parliament with a simple idea in mind: to pursue a simple disruptive opposition style. It was ultimately rewarded for its project of disrupting Jacob Zuma's administration with marginal growth in the 2019 elections.
Since the EFF joined Parliament, the DA has found itself becoming more radical in its opposition posture towards the ANC. The DA was also enticed to pursue disruptive politics through which to show relevance in the policy discourse. The challenge with this shift was that the DA has a long history as a party that cherishes consensus politics, instead of being a disruptive party.
Even whilst struggling with positioning the party on race related issues, the DA has in the past pursued moderate politics largely propagating efficiency of government. Beyond efficiency, there just wasn't much about the DA as a political party.
In contrast, in the 2014 elections, the EFF proved that rhetorical populist politics completely devoid of substance but preying on the genuine fears of the people can be electorally rewarding. The party performed relatively well in its first election in 2014 after staging an anti-capitalist and anti-establishment campaign. It would subsequently intensify this strategy as an opposition party by attacking just about everyone, growing further in the 2019 elections.
Before the EFF was formed, the DA pursued a "get along" opposition style towards the ANC. The party did not challenge the moral legitimacy of the ANC to govern and even implement policy. In those years, it was not embarrassing for the DA to be cordial to the ANC under Thabo Mbeki's leadership. The DA's chief proposition as a political party was simply to be a better implementer of ANC policies. Its opposition style was relatively amicable.
The entry of the EFF as a serious competitor in the opposition space – backed by its continuing growth – is the main issue that has precipitated the DA's identity crisis. The EFF rattled and radicalised both the DA and the ANC, with the ANC embracing more radical policy postures to counteract the growing popularity of the EFF.
If we take into consideration the fact that the two most radical political parties were rewarded with electoral growth in the 2019 elections (i.e. the EFF and Freedom Front Plus), it is understandable that the DA is currently vulnerable to a heist by radicals in the party who posture as true liberals who will guarantee the party a place in history.
By positioning itself as a radical minority party with the pretence of protecting individual freedom, the DA will have opted for an easier route that guarantees certainty in terms of its political support base. The DA will be guaranteed a place as a serious contender when it comes to rallying (most likely the white conservatives) as the main electoral base of the party. This route is seen by some in the party as the only one that guarantees its survival. I find this option quite short-sighted and lacking in imagination.
The DA can embrace change and explore opportunities to reposition itself as a party of the future that pursues consensus moderate politics based on multiculturalism and multiracialism, among other progressive ideals. The fact that the DA failed to grow in the elections this year should not discourage the party from pursuing a vision based on inclusivity and tolerance.
These are characteristics of the politics of moderation, as opposed to narrow radicalism representing the privileges of the few instead of building a more inclusive society based on shared values. This choice would require deeper and honest reflections by DA members, yet the choice does not guarantee survival of the DA. This however provides wider opportunities for the DA to become a party that is genuinely concerned with building an inclusive society.
Whether or not Mmusi Maimane is removed as party leader, the DA still has to address the question of whether it will shift towards protecting narrow interests, or will opt for the noble and yet uncertain future of trying to build an inclusive society.
- Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa's Turn.
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