The Democratic Alliance is like an athlete who does relatively well for the major part of a 56km ultra-marathon – despite a small cramp here and there – and, as they near the finish line, around the 53km mark, they begin to lose focus and falter, forgetting what they entered the race for in the first place.
Given its historic origins and traditional member composition, it was never going to be easy for this main opposition party to ‘up-talk’ the African National Congress – and the parties to the left of it – on some of the key burning issues facing South Africa. These are often collectively referred to as stubborn ‘apartheid legacy issues’, such as racialised wealth distribution, poverty levels in the black population, unemployment, various manifestations of persistent racist corporate cultures and discrimination at places of work, education institutions, and elsewhere in the society, for example.
At the behest of some divisive politicians to the left of it, some black people even genuinely believe that were it to win power, the DA would bring back apartheid, rolling back benefits like social grants and abolishing corrective policies such as BEE and Affirmative Action.
The DA’s communication machinery has not been effective at pushing back against such suspicions and at presenting a clear, solid, defensible alternative policy stance where it differs with the ANC; outlining how it plans to do things differently and, importantly, better, to benefit more South Africans. The result of this failure on the part of the DA is that few people out there can say with absolute certainty what South Africa should expect were the DA to come to power.
In the absence of the National Party which, upon collapsing in the aftermath of apartheid, saw its support base being swallowed up by the ANC and the Democratic Party, which later became the DA, the DA often finds itself at the receiving end of accusations linked to the broad ‘apartheid legacy issues’ and whatever else went down during apartheid. Many see it as the political heir of the NP. And it doesn’t help whenever any white person who might not even be associated with the DA does or says anything with overt or covert racist undertones, as many automatically connect the dots back to the DA.
Whenever this happens, especially if it happens in the DA-controlled Western Cape, the DA gets pushed against the wall, on the defensive, and almost has to start from the beginning explaining that it is not racist or does not support racism.
Poor situational analysis
Given all of the above, one would have expected the DA to have invested a lot of resources, including time, money and energy, into a thorough scenario mapping of the reputational threats and weaknesses that often come up and push it onto the defensive.
Going by its public communications alone, there is no indication that any of this has been done; OR else implementation is poor. First of all, there is no running away from the ideological and expectational gulf that sits between white and black South African voters, and the two groups in general. Apartheid has had many decades to make sure of that.
The everyday lived experiences and aspirations of South African blacks and whites – both of whom constitute desirable target audiences for the DA – are like sea and land; they do come into contact with each other but only sparsely and, often, superficially.
In this way, and while it might seem easy on the surface, the DA probably faces the most difficult task of any political party in South Africa. While most other parties, including the ANC, have placed “dealing with apartheid legacy issues” at the core of their political agenda and electoral offering; the DA has, necessarily, added the need to gather South Africans of all races – the land and the sea – around a set of shared values, more or less united in their diversity.
The DA should therefore expect its journey to bring the land and the sea together to be a long one. But it must have a two-headed plan. One part of it must persuade black South Africans that it is a party of the future, inspired only by the values enshrined in our Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, and the vision of a South Africa where every man, woman, and child will have a comfortable place under the sun, irrespective of racial, ethnic, religious background and gender identity.
It also has to show them that it is committed to addressing the lingering ‘apartheid legacy issues’, even though it will not necessarily use the methods tried by the ANC that have not yielded much results to celebrate for the vast majority of black South Africans.
The other part must assure whites that they too belong, that South Africa is not less theirs than it is of black South Africans, but that those who stubbornly harbor racist attitudes cultivated during apartheid are not welcomed in its fold, as they do not represent the ideals it wishes to realise.
An alternative SA
Armed with a clear plan and sure of the values that underpin it, the DA should be able to articulate an alternative South Africa. But it mustn’t fool itself into thinking its journey will be a walk in the park.
Many things will be thrown at it, some deserved and others not. But it must know how to respond firmly and assertively to each one of them.
It must also find a way to make all progressive South Africans dream of a country where everything that happened in the past, from painful apartheid-era inhumanities to post-apartheid criminalities in the form of various forms of state capture and other forms of corruption – all of which have deprived the state of the resources it needs to deliver crucial services and uplift the lives of the poor – will not happen again.
All brands, including political party brands, need strong, assertive leaders who are also credible, firm when they need to be, soft when they need to be, but visionary, emotionally intelligent, and empathetic. Not ones who cower and retreat when challenged on issues they firmly believe are right.
Anyone who leads a party with the ambitions of the DA must accept that leadership will from time to time be a lonely place to be. Everything they wish to see realised will not necessarily happen during their time. But challenging the hegemony of a governing party in power for a quarter of a century – especially one in which a lot more emotional, rather than rational, capital has been invested by many – will require steel and determination, all underpinned by a clear plan.
If the DA is not prepared to be a leader of our society, it will forever be relegated to second, even third, position, and spend eternity shouting fruitlessly from opposition benches.