The Democratic Alliance will have to change perceptions if it wants to increase its share of the vote in 2014, writes Rapule Tabane.
There was a time when critics of the Democratic Alliance did not hesitate to call it a party for whites, led by whites, formed by whites. This was a useful strategic scarecrow meant to dissuade black people from even contemplating voting for or joining the DA.
But as the complexion of the DA's leadership changes, with more black faces becoming prominent, what can its critics call it now? The "coconut party", black on the outside and white inside?
There is no doubt that DA leader Helen Zille is working hard to change the image of the party – this was the focus of last week's conference and also its outcome. The changes are visible, albeit slow.
The DA's new deputy federal leader and spokesperson Mmusi Maimane certainly can't be called names in the same way that sceptics found it so easy to criticise parliamentary caucus leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.
The DA's caucus leader has been labelled at various times as a "coconut" – a label that stuck because of her relatively better education – or as Helen Zille's "tea girl".
It is all so silly, you might say, but in politics perception can be everything. The point of the jibes against Mazibuko was to imply that, because of her privileged upbringing, she was not an ordinary township resident and, therefore, alienated from "the people".
The DA's leadership conference put more black people in its front line, but it can, and should, do more. It is telling that the most vibrant debate at the conference was about fracking, which shows exactly whose interests the party still serves.
There was no mention of revising the party's stance on affirmative action, economic redistribution and the fight against violence perpetrated against women and children.
The resolution that came closest to dealing with issues of economic redistribution was one to "support a gradual shift towards non-racial criteria to establish economic marginalisation and identify beneficiaries for economic empowerment".
The party is targeting 30% of the vote in the provincial and national elections in 2014, but it will have to sell the electorate more than a few cosmetic changes.
What has recently drawn my attention is the DA's indefatigable call for a debate on a motion of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma, which it, and other parties, want on the parliamentary agenda.
The ANC's resistance to the motion contributed to making this a drawn-out matter, one that could still end up in the Constitutional Court. There is no reason for the ANC to have positioned itself as opposed to the motion – except perhaps to delay a debate about President Jacob Zuma until after Mangaung.
If the debate had taken place in Parliament, the DA would have made the same old arguments about why it feels Zuma is not fit for the role of president. The ANC would, predictably, have accused the opposition of being motivated by racism – and not much would have shifted.
It would have been the usual sideshow and most of us would not have batted an eye. But it is the votes on the motion that could have triggered some interest.
There is no doubt the motion would have been defeated, but the current divisions in the ANC could have come to the fore.
In fact, they already have – discussions in the ANC caucus revealed deep differences about whether or not to allow the debate.
We now know where various ANC leaders, including the speaker of Parliament, Max Sisulu, chief whip Mathole Motshekga and deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe stand on this matter. That, I reckon, was a more important victory for the DA.
Had it not been for the opposition motion, these divisions would not have been laid bare. That, for me, explains the energy the DA is throwing into the issue at this late hour by trying to get the Constitutional Court to pass a ruling to reconvene Parliament to deal with this "constitutional" matter.
Because of in-fighting over leadership choices in the ruling party ahead of Mangaung, the DA is convinced that some in the ANC would support a motion of no confidence in Zuma.
You have to wonder how much they are spending on legal fees for a motion they know they cannot win. The returns in the form of confusion in ANC ranks, however, might make it worthwhile.
If there is a time when such a motion could shake foundations, it is now. The DA is aware that by the time Parliament reconvenes in the second week of February next year the dust will have settled in the ANC. By then the party will be actively engaged in healing the current divisions; the high emotions prevailing now will have been calmed.
I understand the irritation expressed by those who feel that the DA is grandstanding, but in the absence of any real power on the part of the electorate or the opposition to remove the president, the resort to showing up the ANC and its internal divisions makes political sense.
Another significant achievement of this exercise would be to define the rules around tabling motions in Parliament and to buttress the idea that it is not up to the ANC to decide whether or not such a motion is tabled and debated.