‘If we build it, they will vote for it’

The Mail & Guardian asks Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille and Independent Democrats leader Patricia de Lille for their views on their proposed partnership.

M&G: What’s in a name — will the much publicised “engagement” between the DA and the ID at the DA Federal Congress last week result in a coalition, merger, or partnership?

Zille: The details are still being finalised.
De Lille: As you will know the 14th Amendment of the Constitution outlawed floor-crossing, which means a merger at this stage is not an option. A coalition, or partnership, would be more appropriate.

What qualities, strengths or benefits do your parties, as individual parties, bring to the proposed political “engagement”?

Zille: Size, diverse support base, brand. We are a party of government, not only of opposition. We have world class operational support for our political programme.
De Lille: The ID brings love, commitment and passion for our country. Besides this, we bring a strong history of activist politics, which on many occasions has led to better living conditions for our people.

What do your respective parties hope to gain from the proposed political “engagement”?

Zille: We are building a new majority in South Africa. We do this by winning votes in our own right and by political realignment. This is a step in the process. And the purpose is not to benefit the DA but to make South Africa’s democracy work.
De Lille: It is not the ID that will necessarily gain from this engagement; it is our democracy and therefore our country as a whole. The creation of a powerful and vigilant opposition is in the interests of all South Africans.

Patricia de Lille has been quoted as saying that the more the two of you talked, the more she realised there were few differences between the two parties. What differences still exist?

Zille: We have different political histories. Our parties have different organisational structures. We are finalising a joint set of local government policies.
De Lille: On some economic issues we differ. We are social democrats, while the DA are liberal democrats.

What deadlines/timelines have both parties set for the implementation of the proposed political “engagement”?

Zille: We will have an agreement ahead of next year’s local government elections.
De Lille: The 180-day deadline given by the ID’s national conference to the ID leadership to reach agreement with other opposition parties is 20 September. Thus far the process is running smoothly.

What lessons have your parties drawn from previous coalition/merger attempts — many of them flops — in SA’s political history?

Zille: Our last merger, with the NNP, taught us many lessons. Don’t rush things. Ensure that the values and principles are compatible and that they can be translated into a coherent political and policy programme. Agree on the system for membership and for candidate selection. Make sure that you get beyond individual egos.
De Lille: The difference between previous attempts and this one is that in the past the leaderships of two parties got together and agreed on positions for themselves without consulting their members and supporters.

In contrast, the ID received a clear mandate on March 20 from our special national conference, the highest decision-making body in the party (and attended by 1 250 delegates from all nine provinces) to go ahead with the talks.

The DA in turn held its own congress, where it received a mandate from its structures to do the same. Contrary to previous attempts, this time we have ensured that political mandate takes centre stage.

With the DA gaining strength politically, and the ID losing voters, how realistic is it to expect the proposed political “engagement” to result in a stronger party?

Zille: When you are building a new majority, you have to reach a critical mass, and be the clear alternative. This is what we are doing.
De Lille: This is not about simply adding up our current voter percentages. It is about building a political force that can hold the government accountable where it really counts — at the ballot box.

In order for us to succeed we will need to unite our strengths and discard our weaknesses. Our goal is to provide South Africans with an opposition force that can have a realistic opportunity of taking over national government in the near future.

We must put aside our petty differences, our egos and our entrenched positions and rather place our faith in the South African electorate. If we build it, they will vote for it.

With the ID’s limited political profile outside the Western Cape, should the DA realistically expect the “engagement” to enable the official opposition to mount a stronger national challenge to the ANC?

Zille: Yes. Patricia de Lille is a strong political brand.
De Lille: The process of building this challenge has begun and we are certainly not going to give up even before we have started. The final arbiters will be the voters, not the analysts or the pessimists.

Floor-crossing legislation would prevent a merger between the DA/ID taking place until just before the 2014 parliamentary election. How will you overcome this obstacle to challenging the ANC?

Zille: We will enable public representatives of the ID in the province and the national Parliament to take out dual membership.
De Lille: We have already agreed to dual membership.

Earlier this year, the DA, ID, Cope and UDM held talks about a possible coalition to contest the 2011 local government elections. With the clock ticking down steadily to 2011, why did Cope and UDM drop off the coalition radar at the DA’s Federal Congress this weekend?

Zille: Cope is in disarray. They need to elect a unified leadership whom the party supports; they need to clarify for themselves what it is they believe in and what their vision is for South Africa. The UDM is having a congress in September at which it will discuss the question of realignment. Depending on the outcome, we can continue discussions.
De Lille: I was invited to speak at the Cope conference that eventually did not take place. However, talks are continuing with the UDM and Cope.

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