The little party that could

It was a lighter moment at the Independent Electoral Centre (IEC) results centre in Pretoria in the sleep-deprived aftermath of election day. Journalists gathered to watch and not so surreptitiously film as African National Congress (ANC) Secretary General Gwede Mantashe and Democratic Alliance (DA) chief strategist Ryan Coetzee compared notes on the results trickling in from the rest of the country.

“Six wards? Did you say six wards?” Mantashe asked, peering at Coetzee’s phone as the latter scrolled through dozens of figures.

Coetzee was doing most of the talking. The DA have harnessed a range of sophisticated prediction and analysis tools to help them through this election. Coetzee confidently referred to the party’s own predictions and stats as fact while the ANC officials in interviews with the media referred to the information made available by the IEC to the press and public at large.

It’s one of a few little things that the DA, super-organised to a fault, has used to gain the advantage over a monolith ruling party that seems unstoppable.

And early predictions as 71,1% of the vote was counted by Thursday afternoon, was that the little things were adding up to make a significant difference to the small but determined opposition party.

From 14,8% in the last municipal election in 2006, the DA had 21,83% of the vote so far at 3:30pm on Thursday. Less than a third of Cape Town and Johannesburg had been counted at the time of writing, so that figure could well change, but the DA’s Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Moakes said the party was optimistic about meeting their target of 20% nationally.

It would represent a significant shift for the party that started with less than 2% of the vote in 1994 and was ridiculed for its strategy for much of the nineties.

Already the signs were looking promising on Thursday afternoon. The DA had improved on their previous results in the 2006 elections in all provinces except one. Even ANC spokesperson Keith Khoza mentioned the party’s slight increase in KwaZulu-Natal was noteworthy.

The ANC, meanwhile has seen a slight decline in all but one provinces, based on 71,1% of the vote.

Gain and loss in party support from 2006 local elections

Eastern Cape Up 7,45% Down 8,48%
Free State Up 10,69% Down 8,2%
Gauteng Up 6,54% Down 2,28%
KwaZulu-Natal Up 0,34% Up 8,44%
Limpopo Up 1,57% Down 1,43%
Mpumalanga Up 4,58% Down 1,92%
North West Up 7,36% Down 2,09%
Northern Cape Up 8,29% Down 6,4%
Western Cape Up 19, 86% Down 9,69%

It’s been a slow and fraught battle, laden with racial baggage, for the historically white party. They took 1,73% of the first democratic election in 1994 in their previous incarnation as the Democratic Party. Under Tony Leon’s controversial and antagonistic “Fight Back” campaign the party dramatically increased their share of the vote to 9,56%. The party was rebranded as the Democratic Alliance in 2000 when the dithering New National Party aligned first with them, and then left to be absorbed by the ANC. The DA continued their slow ascent and won 12,37% of the vote in the 2004 election.

Helen Zille took the helm in 2007 and thus began a gradual push to change the party’s image from an antagonistic opposition into a viable alternative government.

It’s a matter of major debate whether the party has achieved that. They’ve been subject to intense criticism from their inception.

In the lead-up to the local government elections, the party came under fire for the toilet saga. It was part of a larger accusation, driven by some in the ruling party and others that the party is a middle-class one that cares little for the disenfranchised, poor and historically disadvantaged. The party’s over-confidence at times hasn’t helped matters, with Zille sometimes making cringe-worthy statements, such as her claim that DA voters provide the state with the biggest chunk of tax contributions.

But analyst Adam Habib said on an SABC interview that the party had been remarkably clever in its strategy, using Cape Town and then the Western Cape to showcase its governance ability and then going all out to endear itself to black voters.

“Zille has ten white males in her cabinet, but none of them featured in the campaign,” said Habib. Instead, Patricia de Lille and Lindiwe Mazibuko stood beside her — a regular rainbow nation. And that wasn’t all. She danced — much to ANCYL leader Julius Malema’s derision — she spoke Xhosa, and maybe she did kiss quite a few black babies. Then there was that SMS campaign that annoyed so many voters.

It’s all come together in a historic moment for the once-little party. And with coalitions with other dwindling parties on the horizon and the possibility of increased gains in ANC strongholds, the DA is no longer derided, as it once was, as a Mickey Mouse party.

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Verashni Pillay
Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.

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