The Democratic Alliance (DA) finds itself in an unenviable phase of stagnation. As it approaches its Federal Congress of 7-8 April 2018 it is bogged down in identity battles. Furthermore, its 2019 plans of being the lead party in a new government may be up in smoke.

The DA’s current problems are of manifold origins: President Cyril Ramaphosa’s African National Congress (ANC) take-over is depriving opposition parties of the political oxygen they need to expand into ANC space, the DA’s coalition government ‘spear’ had been blunted, and big ANC changes are monopolising public attention.

South Africa’s opposition parties – and the DA in particular – have been left in the lurch, deprived of tangible grounds on which to attack the ANC now that Jacob Zuma has departed from important positions of political power.

The opposition contributed substantially to this major change in party politics and governance, yet it was the ANC that benefitted overwhelmingly. In the place of the Zuma-ANC there arrived a Ramaphosa-ANC (even if still fragile), for all practical purposes a new political party. We know by now that the DA is still working on the strategy to counter the new phenomenon.

In the second place, for the last five years and specifically since the run-up to the 2014 national-provincial elections, the DA has known it needs to penetrate the ANC support base in order to grow. It was with this in mind that the DA had solicited the services of former ANC pollster Stanley Greenberg. The DA of Elections 2014 and 2016 was the ‘new ANC’ of the time. It tried to be more ANC than the ANC. It was Ayisafani when it came to the ANC: the ANC was not the same anymore… and the DA offered itself as the new, real ANC.

This had a limited electoral impact – the DA was simply not the credible bearer of the message. The DA continued hovering electorally at the level of 22-25 per cent support. Specifically, the DA still failed to crack the code that ties the ANC to its supporters, ‘through thick and thin’ and specifically also in the rosier times of Ramaphosa rule.

Major obstacles were that the DA was seen as too white, elitist and liberal, and that even the leadership of a sincere black leader like Mmusi Maimane (plus some policy changes) did not crack the support ceiling. The DA became the arena for struggles between the thrusts of liberalism and its associated open opportunity society, on the one hand, and more, structured space for Black Nationalism, quotas and guaranteed racial representation, on the other hand. This ‘contest’ is ongoing; it is one of the major points of contention at the weekend’s congress. Both constitutional amendments and leadership elections will pivot around this issue of party identity.

The DA until recently lived in the hope that its 2016 document of Road to 2019, and its Vision 2019 would be its beacons into Election 2019. It envisaged that the DA would do sufficiently well in the 2019 national elections to lead opposition party coalitions in a 2019 government. This dream went up in flames.

Post-Nasrec opinion polling, such as the poll conducted by Citizen Surveys, suggests that the ANC has been recovering well from the Zuma-to-Ramaphosa transition and that Ramaphosa’s ‘New Dawn ANC’ (at least by current indications) will have no problem achieving an outright electoral majority. The DA’s own research reportedly shows that it had stagnated around the 25 per cent level of national support. Specifically, the DA’s objective of 30 per cent in a national election seems to be a mirage.

Leadership image problems around former DA leader and Western Cape premier Helen Zille, a spectrum of racist and semi-racist utterances by DA associates contributed (Diane Kohler-Barnard, former MP, and Penny Sparrow, a DA member, come to mind). The DA’s problems in handling Patricia de Lille’s case in Cape Town is wrong-footing the DA similarly.

An integral part of the DA’s stagnation-meets-dead-end is the volatility of the municipal coalitions in major metro municipalities. Opposition party alliances / cooperative arrangements were to have been the model for the DA to pursue in its quest to capture national power from the ANC. These arrangements are now in doubt because policy differences (especially on land expropriation) and a new affinity between the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have drawn the ANC and EFF closer. The EFF is unlikely if the ANC dips below 50 per cent in 2019 to align with the DA and help it to govern nationally.

In addition, the DA has drawn the short end of the stick in terms of creating excitement and interest for its congress decisions. Conferences are often big spectacles with opportunities to generate hype and expectations. This weekend’s DA event will be sandwiched between the scheduled court appearance of Jacob Zuma on Friday and the memorial services and state funeral for struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela next week.

Even if prospects generally had been better, and even if the DA deserves much of the credit for hauling Zuma back to court, the coming weekend will not be the best of times for opposition parties to capture the public imagination.

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Leadership image problems around former DA leader and Western Cape premier Helen Zille, a spectrum of racist and semi-racist utterances by DA associates contributed (Diane Kohler-Barnard, former MP, and Penny Sparrow, a DA member, come to mind). The DA’s problems in handling Patricia de Lille’s case in Cape Town is wrong-footing the DA similarly.

An integral part of the DA’s stagnation-meets-dead-end is the volatility of the municipal coalitions in major metro municipalities. Opposition party alliances / cooperative arrangements were to have been the model for the DA to pursue in its quest to capture national power from the ANC. These arrangements are now in doubt because policy differences (especially on land expropriation) and a new affinity between the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have drawn the ANC and EFF closer. The EFF is unlikely if the ANC dips below 50 per cent in 2019 to align with the DA and help it to govern nationally.

In addition, the DA has drawn the short end of the stick in terms of creating excitement and interest for its congress decisions. Conferences are often big spectacles with opportunities to generate hype and expectations. This weekend’s DA event will be sandwiched between the scheduled court appearance of Jacob Zuma on Friday and the memorial services and state funeral for struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela next week.

Even if prospects generally had been better, and even if the DA deserves much of the credit for hauling Zuma back to court, the coming weekend will not be the best of times for opposition parties to capture the public imagination.

 

-Susan Booysen is Professor at the Wits School of Governance