The metamorphosis of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance

The metamorphosis of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance
I realise that most people are focusing on today’s election in the United States (the lizards will win, no matter what!), but I nevertheless wanted to make a few points about South Africa’s official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). This weekend, the DA held their elective congress at which the leadership was decided, and various policy positions voted on (in terms of leadership, the party leader and the chairperson of the federal executive were the key votes). As I said back in February, if I had a vote for the leadership, it would have been in favour of Mbali Ntuli, running against John Steenhuisen. The congress did not share this view, voting 1,443 to 361 for Steenhuisen, while also confirming Helen Zille’s position as federal executive chair. Both of those are to my mind poor choices in terms of short-term electoral math, and as I said to a friend the other day, something like a 15% share of the national vote in 2024 doesn’t seem implausible to me right now. I also said “For a while there, SA nearly had an opposition party.” Maybe they will have one again, and maybe that party will even be the DA. And of course, I mean “opposition” in the sense of serving as a significant corrective force, rather than just being the opposition by virtue of having come second. Peter Bruce (Business Day, paywalled) says:
Some of what the DA leadership says and does in the next few months is going to make my toes curl but I am convinced it is a temporary move to the right. The DA is an unforgiving beast. If Steenhuisen can’t reclaim PE and Johannesburg next year, or at least improve on the 2016 results, he will start feeling the heat. The party’s heart is in the centre and it will default to that place again one day.
But that (emphasis added) seems optimistic to me. A year or so ago, I said that the DA was no longer a liberal party on my preferred version of liberalism, and they have only drifted further away from that since. The congress affirmed Steenhuisen and Zille, both of whom have their virtues. But neither of them – Steenhuisen with his pugnacity and enthusiastic blocking of critics on Twitter, and Zille with cosying up to all the Jordan Peterson fans she finds on Twitter – are going to serve well in growing the party’s support. What we’ve seen during and since the congress does not offer any hope of making the DA an attractive proposition to voters. For example, the conference opened with a statement on farm murders. Farm murders are certainly an issue, but they are also an issue which is weaponised by the alt-right. You are sending a clear signal when you lead with farm murders, and that signal is to the voters that the DA lost to the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) in the last elections. You’re sending the same signal, to the same people, when you assert that you’re going to defend the status of that “indigenous language”, Afrikaans, at the University of Stellenbosch. Yes, it is one of our 11 official languages, and is indigenous – that’s not the problem. The problem is that both this, and the farm murder focus, will only serve to regain some of the FF+ voters who abandoned the party at the last time of choosing, largely because the DA was starting to be too receptive to radical ideas like thinking that race matters. (Sorry – I forgot to mention that non-racialism is back as a policy platform.) But this surely makes no sense? The party grew to 22% under a strategic framework that tried to appeal to all South Africans, rather than one that prioritised concerns that are (whether legitimately or not – that’s not my point) associated with conservative White voters. They lost 1.5% in the next National Election (2019). To be fair, that was in the context of being led by a homophobe preacher, while also beset by internal squabbles which led inter alia to a policy head being hired and then frozen out (she’s back now), and a report by informed and qualified ex-insiders that detailed the dysfunction of the DA, leading to the ousting of said preacher and others. The response to that should surely not be to start sending out the sorts of signals that will get some of those lost to the FF+ to come back to the DA, rather than resuming the project of appealing to all South Africans (which means – at least in part – not sounding Trumpian)? Because, for every FF+-type voter who is attracted, I’d imagine that there’s a voter – like many-years-ago me – who starts to disbelieve the DA rhetoric, and who starts to become more sympathetic to the claims of those who say that in action (rather than policy, or the stated beliefs of members), the DA is anti-poor and anti-black? Everything leads to a fight nowadays, but as I said at the top, people are watching the US election, so maybe I’ll get away with this. I strongly believe in the integrity and good intentions of many people in the DA, and this is not a post aimed at badmouthing the party or anyone in it. I just cannot fathom the strategy being deployed. If someone said to me that “we’re playing a long game – in 50 years time, everyone will be fine because robots are doing all the work and humans are all spending their time etching thanks to UBI, so race doesn’t matter and facts don’t care about your feelings”, I’d say “fine, you might be right, but that’s stupid because you’ll be losing votes for the foreseeable future, and we can’t be certain of the upside you’re counting on”. On Earth, and in South Africa, this approach is putting the DA on the road to irrelevance. I may be proven wrong, and will no doubt be informed of that if that’s how it pans out. Things might of course change, too, making all these thoughts redundant. Generally, though, best wishes and strength to the liberals in the DA, and to the DA in general. Even though I would not vote for you at present, we do need an effective and credible opposition, and you’ve always been at least one of those things.

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