In April and May this year, the Democratic Alliance (DA) was supposed to hold its Policy Conference and elective congress, both of which had to be postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the end of June, the ruling party – the African National Congress (ANC), had planned to hold its National General Council (NGC). The NGC, like the policy conference and elective congress of the official opposition, was postponed because of the Corona virus crisis. Both the policy conference and elective congress of the DA were necessitated by ructions within the party that were sparked by, among others, the election of former party leader, Helen Zille, as chair of the party’s Federal Council. In response to the election of Zille as Federal Chair, Herman Mashaba resigned as the executive mayor of Johannesburg and quit the party and is now in the process of forming his own. Mmusi Maimane resigned as both party leader and member of the DA. While the resignations did not come as a surprise, they did cause tremors in the party and the political landscape. Maimane and Mashaba gave, more or less, the same reasons for their departure from the DA. Basically, their contention was that Zille’s election betrayed the emergence, if not the existence, of what they called a right-wing agenda in the party. They even intimated that this agenda ran counter to the anti-racist direction the DA was beginning to embrace under the leadership of Maimane. We must bear in mind that Western Cape leader of the DA, Patricia de Lille, left the party and her position as Cape Town mayor in 2018 after allegations of corruption were leveled against her by the party. She, in response, argued that the allegations were simply a racist ruse to undermine her.
All of this coincided with factional battles in the ANC – a problem that was not solved by the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president in December 2017 and head of state in February 2018. Because of the slim margin by which Ramaphosa ascended to the ANC throne, he now faces two challenges: First, he can govern nether party nor country without, to some degree, the consent of his political opponents and enemies within the ruling party. Second, his main challenge is, therefore, internal opposition within the ruling party.
But, another challenge has attached itself to his political image during the past two years. Inside the leadership structures of the party there is a growing perception that Ramaphosa is loyal more to interests whose residence is outside the ANC. Out of this has morphed another perception – the perception that, when it comes to critical decisions, he takes instructions from entities located outside the ANC. If this is true, it is not unreasonable to surmise that both those who opposed and supported his election as ANC president at the 2017 Nasrec conference are now part of the dynamic of growing levels of antipathy towards the president. Put another way, to the extent that Ramaphosa has, for some time, had to live with the accusation that he is a lackey of white capital, he finds himself in the invidious position of being unable to deliver to either his supporters or those on whose behalf he is, allegedly, betraying his party, the factions in the party which supported his leadership ambitions, as well as, the people on whose behalf the ANC claimed to prosecute the struggle against apartheid colonialism. In fact, if reports from party insiders about what happened in the last three National Executive Committee (NEC) meetings of the ruling party are anything to go by, an increasing number of his comrades in the NEC are beginning to question and challenge his leadership and authority. If this is true, the president is going through a crisis of isolation within the leadership of the party and must, therefore, be thankful that the NGC was postponed or be fearful of the NGC happening at a point too soon in the future.
What this means is that the ANC and the DA – the two biggest political parties in the country are in a state of flux. They both need to rebuild and renew themselves in preparation for the 2021 local government elections and the 2024 general election. This they must do for a reason that is obvious to very few of their respective supporters. What many who vote for the ANC and the DA do not realise is that, to some extent, the two parties are tied to the hip. Like the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in the USA, the DA and the ANC are representatives of the establishment. They both represent elite interests and voters – black and white, particularly black voters who vote for the two parties – are pawns in the political and economic games played by economic and political elites in this country. This is what Maimane failed to understand.
Maimane failed to understand the significance of the election of Ramaphosa as ANC president and that of Helen Zille as federal chair. He failed to understand the meaning of Ramaphosa and Zille to the DA, partly because of how the DA succeeded in misrepresenting itself to black voters.
The DA has never been able to successfully manage the perception that it is a racist party of white interests. I have argued in the past that, objectively, the DA may not be racist but what counts in the end are the subjective perceptions and orientation of the voter. The problem the DA still faces is that there are still too many black voters who see it as a racist party of white interests. Some of these voters even express the fear that the DA will reinstate apartheid if it becomes the ruling party. Allied to this perception was another – the perception that Maimane was a puppet of white interests. So, the leaders of the two biggest parties in South Africa, Ramaphosa and Maimane, found themselves, rightly or wrongly, on the wrong side of the perception that they are lackeys of white interests. In my view, there are too many who, in relation to the two men, saw themselves and still see themselves as ventriloquists. As for the DA and how it misrepresented itself among black voters, Zille, upon realising that the official opposition had maximised its support among white voters, decided to embark on a new political adventure. This entailed growing the number of black DA members and voters. In this regard, she achieved a spectacular success. But what she bequeathed to Maimane is a DA that was going through an identity crisis in political, ideological, policy and racial terms. While the DA establishment was happy with the electoral growth that was delivered by Zille’s strategy, some within it felt it came at too high a price. Within the party establishment there were those who felt the DA had become too black. Others felt that this blackening of the DA compromised the party’s liberal values and identity. They also felt that when, in 2013, the DA came out of a policy meeting arguing that race was a predictor of advantage and disadvantage in South Africa, it undermined its position and standing among white voters. I suppose what Maimane and Mashaba were trying to say as they bid the DA adieu is that, faced with a choice between foregrounding redress or whiteness, the DA went for the latter.
This brings me to what Maimane did not understand about the Ramaphosa moment. Why would the DA reinforce the perception that it is a racist party and alienate its ‘black caucus’ by electing as its federal chair a race denialist such as Helen Zille – a politician whose statements about race and colonialism indicate, unambiguously so, that black voters were just a means to an end to her? It seems to me that the DA establishment stumbled upon the realisation that their party did not have to win an electoral majority to achieve a hegemonic position for the economic logic of its core constituency when it could achieve the same goal through the electoral majorities of the ANC, especially with Ramaphosa as its head honcho. So, when Maimane stood up in parliament and effectively accused Ramaphosa of corruption, he became a threat and had to vamoose. Getting rid of Maimane was, at this point in his political career, always going to be easy. First, the internal research of the party showed that his image did nothing for the DA brand. Second, he had turned the DA into EFF-Lite. Third, under his leadership, the DA not only underperformed in the 2019 general election but managed, also, to lose white voters to the Freedom Front Plus. He had to go! With Maimane’s departure, internal realignment in the DA could begin but this was disrupted by Covid-19.
On 31 October and 1 November 2020 the DA will be holding a virtual elective congress. At this elective congress, the successor to Mmusi Maimane will be elected. Three candidates are vying for the leadership position – John Steenhuisen, the interim leader, Gauteng leader John Moodey and KwaZulu-Natal MPL Mbali Ntuli. Steenhuisen is the establishment candidate, and if he wins, he must help the DA achieve the following goals:
He must return the DA to its traditional values
The party must develop a healthy balance between these traditional values and today’s challenges
The DA must win back the white voters it lost to the Freedom Front Plus
The DA must either neutralise or liquidate the black caucus as part of the process of diluting the idea of redress and diversity
The economic policies of the DA must influence the content of the post-Covid structural reforms in the economy
For its part, the ANC needs to manage its image crisis and that of President Cyril Ramaphosa. To achieve this, there must be demonstrable evidence that the Ramaphosa government is committed to exorcising the demons of corruption and state capture. In the end, however, the ANC will rise or fall depending on whether it can turn around the economy and amputate from its body those whose nefarious and venal tendencies have caused the citizenry to lose confidence in its capacity to govern a modern state and a modern economy. The opponents of Ramaphosa in the ANC must be salivating in the hope that he will fail on all these fronts. The question is – who and what will rise like a scavenging vulture if Ramaphosa falls? Will such an order be better or more pernicious than the Ramaphosa moment? What is good for South Africa, another ANC leader or an alternative to the ANC? Will the DA be stronger after its elective congress? Can the DA afford to lose Ramaphosa? Where does this leave us poor voters and citizens?
As voters and citizens, we must not succumb to the folly of putting all our democratic eggs in a single basket. We must remember that neither our party politics nor our electoral politics constitutes the entirety of our democratic space, the fullness of our democratic experience or the fullest expression of our democratic will. The fullness of our democratic will must find expression both in the formal dimensions of our party system and the non-formal dimensions of our constitutional order. In the latter, lies the imperative of civic engagement, an improvement in the capacity of civil society and civil society organizations as well as a redefinition of state capacity that is not only inclusive of the people but is led, also, by the will of all citizens. This has serious implications for both citizens and political parties. Citizens must be willing to support political parties of their choice but must always be prepared to think and act beyond the confines, limits and limitations of party politics. Politicians and political parties must, for their part, be loyal to that which is truly noble about the aspirations of the people of this country. Citizens must never be a means to an end either in political or economic terms.
In the months to come the country will be engaging in endless debates about how to fix our economy. Our politicians must resist the temptation to mumble when money talks. Their words must be a bold expression of the will of the people, for leadership is a noble calling and should, therefore, be a form of healing.