The Democratic Alliance (DA) is holding its Federal Congress this weekend in Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB), where it will elect a successor to Helen Zille. This Congress promises to be historical, not only for the party, but also for South Africa. The DA will get its first black leader with Mmusi Maimane and Wilmot James jostling for the position, in what seems to be an increasingly bitter battle between the two. It seems likely that Maimane will emerge victorious but, no matter who wins, it will be a game changer for the party and the country for the DA to have a black leader.
Although the DA is perceived by many for being a ‘white’ party the rise of leaders such as Maimane, Makashule Gana (who is also standing for the position of federal chairperson at this weekend’s Congress) and prominent Members of Parliament (MPs) such as Solly Malatsi and Phumzile van Damme is making this an increasingly hard claim to make. In addition, the party’s recent win in student council elections at the University of Fort Hare further shows that claims that the DA is a ‘white’ party ring hollow. This should be making the governing African National Congress (ANC) nervous. Often, the ANC’s attacks on the DA have been around the perception that the latter is a protector of minorities and of white privilege. With a black leader at the helm this claim will have far less credibility, and the DA will pose a far greater challenge to the ANC in future.
The DA is unlikely to come close to winning any other metros but will continue to eat into the ANC’s support in cities and towns.
The immediate next challenge for South Africa’s political parties is next year’s local government elections; and it is no sheer coincidence that the DA is holding its federal congress in NMB. The municipality will be high on the party’s list of targets for the 2016 poll. Already, the ANC holds only a small majority in the council (holding 63 of the 120 seats). In last year’s general election, the ANC won less than 50% of the vote, with the DA securing 40%. In addition, a former ANC ward councillor, Andile Gqabi, won a ward in the city running as an independent in a November 2014 by-election, showing that the governing party will face serious challenges not only from the DA next year. Opposition parties tend to fare better in local elections than national ones, so the ANC’s vote share is likely to drop further in 2016. Whether the DA manages to win enough votes to govern NMB remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to have the momentum to do so. In addition, it has already announced its mayoral candidate for the municipality. DA Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip is a party veteran and fluent in English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa. It seems rather likely that Trollip could be the next mayor of NMB after the 2016 vote. Success in municipal elections has served the DA well in the past, and has proven to be a springboard for the party. Much of its recent success can be attributed to the Cape Town beachhead it secured in the 2006 local government elections. Helen Zille, soon to be the former leader of the DA, managed to cobble together a seven-party coalition to govern the city and she was elected mayor. Three years later, in 2009, the party went on to win the Western Cape, nearly doubling its vote in the province. This victory is in large part due to the relatively clean governance the DA brought to Cape Town and other municipalities in the Western Cape. The DA, which had only won 42% of the vote in Cape Town in 2006, saw its vote share increase to over 60% in 2011, approximately the same proportion of the vote it won in the Western Cape in 2014. This strategy of winning municipal governments as a springboard to winning provincial governments worked well for it in the Western Cape and it is clear that the party will use this strategy in other parts of the country. It has also made Cape Town and the Western Cape safe DA territory for the foreseeable future. The ANC there should be very concerned and get its house in order. Factionalism is only likely to further implode the party.
Of South Africa’s other six metropolitan municipalities, the DA will have its sights on two in Gauteng especially, Johannesburg and Tshwane. If the DA wins either of these, or even manages to push the ANC below 50% to force them to govern in coalition, it will be a huge blow to the governing party. In 2011, the ANC won both municipalities comfortably, securing close to 60% of the vote in each municipality. However in 2014, the ANC saw its share of the vote drop to just over 50% in Tshwane (with the DA on 31%), and to just under 54% in Johannesburg (with the DA on 30%). Even in Ekurhuleni, which has always been a stronghold in Gauteng for the ANC the party saw its vote share drop sharply. While in 2011 it had won 62% of the vote, last year it won only 56% of the vote, with the DA managing 27%. In the 2011 local government elections the DA managed more than 30% of the vote in each these municipalities. Although national and local elections are not strictly comparable, one can use national election trends to determine what could happen in local polls. It is thus likely that the DA’s vote share in Gauteng’s metros will grow further next year, and it is not inconceivable that the party could win Johannesburg or Tshwane. This trend is likely to be similar in South Africa’s other urban areas – the DA is unlikely to come close to winning any other metros but will continue to eat into the ANC’s support in cities and towns. However, the DA is not without its problems. The public leadership contest has shown there are some relatively large schisms in the party around a number of issues. It is clear that some want the party to remain more classically liberal, while others seem to want to push it into a more social democratic direction. In addition, Mmusi Maimane’s faux pas when he said that he would be in favour of a referendum on the death penalty, shows that some in the party may hold views at odds with the DA’s commitment to the Constitution. Furthermore, the DA does not have things all its own way in local by-elections. Although it has fared relatively well in most by-elections, it has also lost a number of marginal wards to the ANC. The DA will thus have to work hard in areas and communities where it has managed to gain a foothold but is not an established presence.
Despite these issues the DA seems set to grow further. The ANC continues to lurch from crisis to disaster under President Zuma, and the DA has been relatively adept at exploiting this. Although the DA would have likely increased its vote share even if Helen Zille had remained leader in next year’s elections, the presence of a black leader (whoever that may be) means that will have an even greater chance of making a real breakthrough among black voters and of challenging the ANC at national level. Marius Roodt is a Researcher at the Centre for Development and Enterprise. He writes in his personal capacity.
– By Opinion by Marius Roodt