In 2000 when Mpowele Swathe started the first branch of the Democratic Party in his home village outside Mokopane, Limpopo, his former comrades in the ANC threatened to burn down his parents’ house.
”They told me: Swathe, you’re lost. You are selling us to the white people,” he recounts during an interview in his plush office in the Marks Building at Parliament, where he serves as shadow minister of rural development and reform.
Swathe’s story echoes that of a significant number of black Democratic Alliance leaders who had to face tough criticism when they switched loyalties from the ANC.
Technically the DA has not been an all-white party since the first democratic elections in 1994, when its present federal chairperson, Joe Seremane, became one of the first black recruits to the then Democratic Party. But perceptions persist.
Few, however, had to face the delegation that was sent to Western Cape housing minister Bonginkosi Madikizela. His aunt, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, dispatched two messengers to ”talk some sense into me”.
It was shortly before the 2006 local government elections and Madikizela and a group of local leaders had broken away from the ANC to contest their wards as independent candidates. He joined the DA in 2008 after a short stint at the United Democratic Movement. ”They [Madikizela-Mandela’s messengers] told me what I was doing was very damaging to the ANC, but it was too late.”
The votes drawn by the independent candidates were sufficient to topple the ANC’s rule in the City of Cape Town for the first time and pave the way for DA leader Helen Zille to become mayor.
The DA’s attempts to draw votes from black communities have had mixed results. The party suffered a major blow during the floor-crossing period in 2005 when DA MPs Dan Maluleke, Richard Ntuli, Enyinna Nkem-Abonta and Bheki Mnyandu defected to the ANC. None of them, however, returned to Parliament after the 2009 elections.
Swathe, who was a close friend of these MPs, still remembers their comments at a press conference following their defections: ”They were saying the DA was racist and all that, but when they were in the party they never raised that. Not even in our private talks. They never said a word.”
Some say the party is still bruised from that experience and DA members are suspicious of new black members who become leaders.
Swathe himself says the party is plagued by black people who are there to get positions. ”I don’t like using my colour to get positions.”
What does he think of people such as Madikizela, who officially joined the party only last year and holds no position in party structures, yet has been elevated to a provincial ministerial position?
Swathe remains diplomatic.
”In the DA people get opportunities based on merit. They can’t give you positions just because you’re black. If a person has the skills and they are able to deliver, it is fine.”
One of these people is the 29-year-old Lindiwe Mazibuko from KwaZulu-Natal, who started working for the party two years ago as a researcher, then as parliamentary media officer and now serves as the deputy shadow minister of communications.
She has also been given the powerful position of national spokesperson for the party, one of her predecessors being Zille herself.
This rising star in the party has impressed her colleagues, but she has found the conservative nature of some parts of the party problematic. Mazibuko admits she was ”uncomfortable” with the DA’s objection to changing the name of the capital, Pretoria, to Tshwane.
Her entrance into the party was met with overwhelmingly positive support, although numerous white people were surprised that she was ”so eloquent”.
Does she think her skin colour helped her to become party spokesperson? ”Yes, of course! I understand that it must be one of the reasons and I have no problem with this. The DA should be communicating its diversity and I think I’m capable of doing the job.”
Her colleagues concur. ”She is so clever it is scary. You should see her in caucus,” a white male MP tells me in the corridor. Already she is touted as a future leader of the party.
Shortly after the elections Mazibuko got into the same lift at Parliament as an ANC MP who told her she must ”start thinking about coming home”.
”But my personal project is to build a credible opposition and the DA Âideology chimes with me most.”
Although the DA does not compel its black members to do constituency work in black communities, some choose to do so, says Khume Ramulifho, DA youth leader and member of the Gauteng legislature.
”You would have a better understanding of township life, you understand the issues there. Those who want to be allocated to black areas, that’s because it is where they feel they can express themselves.”
Although Ramulifho feels the party needs black representatives to change the perception that the DA is a party for whites, it is no free lunch for blacks.
”We are not going to reserve spaces for black people. Contestation will never be on a racial basis: it is about what kind of person you are.”