Blair's 'moment of courage' should still inspire Zille

I happened to be in England recently when Tony Blair published his eagerly awaited, and heavily sold, autobiography, A Journey, and watched part of his set-piece TV interview with the BBC in which he described himself as a “nincompoop” for having passed the Freedom of Information Act.

Though one would have little difficulty in agreeing with the proposition contained within the first part of the statement, the second made me think twice.

My first reaction was dismay that he should attack the idea of freedom of information on the basis that it undermines effective government.
My second, on considered reflection about 40 seconds later, was that in fact he had just done the cause of freedom of information a great service.

On matters of honesty and integrity Blair’s credibility is shattered. He lied to take Britain into an unlawful and deadly war. It doesn’t really get much worse than that.

Though he has retained some kind of glitzy appeal, especially when compared with the dour Gordon Brown who succeeded him, no one trusts Blair. That he should regret providing the media with the tools to expose his and his government’s dissembling and incompetence will, therefore, surprise no one.

Only the weak and the dishonest fear openness and, as Blair explains time and again in his nauseatingly hubristic book, fear was his primary feeling throughout his premiership. So, too, for some parts of the Zuma administration: the desire to restrict the flow of information is born of a real fear—not that effective government will be undermined, but that the truth will out.

That is why the secrecy bill and all other attempts to constrain public access to state information—it is our information—must be resisted.

Blair’s moment of courage, misplaced though it might have been ideologically, had come years before, long before he reached Number 10, when he took on “old Labour” and the unions over Clause 4 of the Labour Party’s constitution—the nationalisation clause—and succeeded in getting it removed.

I mention this because the leader of the opposition, Helen Zille, believes that it is time for the Democratic Alliance to have its own “clause 4 moment”. Hers is simpler but perhaps no less intense. It is the imperative, as she sees it, for the party to have a black leader.

In the longer term, she is undoubtedly right. If the DA is to challenge the ANC at national level it will have to appeal to millions of black, working-class voters.

There is no opinion-survey evidence yet available to suggest that it would be plausible to do so with anything other than a black African leader.

Zille claims to want to reach this point as early as 2012, to enable the new leader to have a trial run in 2014 before the big push in 2019. But less haste and more speed might be a better approach. When her predecessor, Tony Leon, proclaimed at election times that his party was pressing to win nationally, it lacked any credibility. Since Zille took over, the DA—as any small minority party should—has pushed steadily ahead, building a national constituency piece by piece, area by area, town by town.

There is still a mighty long way to go and reaching 20% of the national vote in 2014 might still be the realistic limit of the DA’s medium-term ambitions. But the platform created by holding power in both the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape provincial government is a potentially sturdy springboard for progress elsewhere, notwithstanding the distinctive demographics of the region.

If there is a black person able and willing to succeed Zille, so be it. But she will be a hard act to match. She is as tough as teak and as sharp as a pin. She has integrity and decency. Though I do not share her politics or ideology, it is impossible not to admire her resolve.

At close quarters during a TV panel debate recorded during the election campaign last year, I witnessed the intensity of the intimidation and name-calling that she has to withstand. To do so requires more than a thick skin—it requires a sense of heroic purpose.

Leading an effective opposition is also about building an organisation by raising the necessary levels of human and financial capacity: plenty of cash and decent people to stand on your ticket—not dodgy opportunists looking for an MP’s salary for a few years.

This is where all the other smaller parties, especially those created anew since 1994, have struggled. It’s a soul-destroying job and one cannot blame Patricia de Lille or even Bantu Holomisa, should he choose to join the Independent Democrats’ leader in agreeing to merge his United Democratic Movement into the DA.

Zille believes that her young leaders’ programme is beginning to deliver some serious results. If so, and with the Congress of the People (Cope) in apparently terminal disarray, then the DA will in due course be able to present itself as a diverse, as well as a fresh, single alternative to the ANC.

Unless the ANC leadership pulled off some kind of miracle last week in Durban and cemented together the deep cracks in the organisation that the Cosatu discussion paper—far better than any of the ANC papers—dissected so formidably when it was published after its August central executive committee meeting, it will enter the 2014 election in an ostensibly precarious, as well as fluid, state.

In 2009, the ANC vote was rescued by Zuma’s appeal in his home province, KwaZulu-Natal, where its vote went up 16%, but in the other eight provinces it went down on average 8%. With or without Zuma at the helm in 2014, the ruling party may come very close, or even beneath, the 60% mark.

That is a game-changer: once into the 50s, a majority suddenly looks vulnerable—the opposition can start to entertain the possibility, after 2019, of an ANC minority government. Yet this may serve to distract the DA from its new, post-Leon steady-but-sure political growth strategy and lure it into trying to run before it can walk. The DA has still to overcome the legitimacy deficit that it has in comparison with the ANC.

Understandably, the liberation-movement dividend and brand recognition will take some time longer to dissipate, even if the ANC’s progressive traditionalists are rapidly squeezed out by what Cosatu describes as its new elite’s conservative, predatory tendency.

So, although this may be the only thing she shares with Julius Malema, Zille, like the nincompoop ANC Youth League leader, should keep her eye firmly on 2019, whether the party has had its “clause 4 moment” by then or not.

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