‘Race barrier falls’

In October 2006 then Democratic Alliance chief executive Ryan Coetzee circulated to the party a document titled “Becoming a Party for All the People: A New Approach for the DA”.

The extent to which this paper underpins the party strategy that has been in evidence during the local government election campaign, and early indications from tracking polls, are that it has borne fruit in the form of growing support from voters who would never previously have considered a vote for the DA.

In the paper Coetzee set out starkly the electoral reality facing the party: despite its gradual consolidation of support from racial minorities, it had never polled more than 1% or 2% among black voters. Unless that changed dramatically, he argued, the party faced “irrelevance and slow disintegration over time”.

It’s past midnight at the IEC Election Centre, but DA leader Helen Zille joined us for a quick chat about her experience of and thoughts on how election day went.

It would not, he said, be easy. “Our challenge — is to do what no party in South Africa’s history has ever managed: to unite in one political home people of all races.

“We must not underestimate the scale of this challenge: it will be very difficult to succeed, because we are taking on all of South Africa’s history and the way in which that history has divided people.”

It would be only in 2011 when this strategy, having been vigorously debated in party structures, would pay off.

And the gains might have been small, but not insignificant. According to Jonathan Moakes, Coetzee’s successor as chief executive, election results by Thursday afternoon showed “a big advance” in relation to the black voters the DA had in 2009. “The difference is comprehensive, it shows we have a presence in all communities and that makes a difference,” he told the Mail & Guardian at the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) results centre in Pretoria.

In Port St Johns and Matatiele the DA will for the first time have councillors in municipalities.

The party won 100% black voting districts in Mpumalanga and North West and two wards in Limpopo, one in Makhado and another in Mokganawena. In Buffalo City one ward with a large number of black voters went to the DA, while in parts of Mpumalanga the DA accounted for 10% of the black voters in the province.

What made the difference? Not long before the document was circulated, then DA leader Tony Leon, whose tone was deemed offensive by many black people, left the party. Then, under Helen Zille’s leadership, the party had to rethink and rebrand itself, diversify its top leadership structures and get rid of the image of the DA as a “white party”. Zille was unequivocal about the fact that far-rightwingers and those who did not support this vision had no place in the DA anymore.

“We don’t have a choice. If we didn’t go this route we would be nowhere by now. I have not guaranteed it will work, but it was our only option,” she said in an interview with the M&G at the IEC results centre late on Wednesday night.

Building on the 2% of the black vote the DA garnered in 2009, the party set to work in communities where they had not had a presence before. “We were present on the ground,” Moakes said. “But communities also felt less beholden to the ANC and more willing to consider us as an alternative. It was also about the candidates, we tried to get candidates who are fit for purpose.”

He said that communities where the DA made inroads were “less beholden to the ANC and therefore willing to consider voting for the DA”. In the 2011 elections the target was around 7% to 8%, but Moakes said any increases would make a difference.

According to Idasa researcher Justin Sylvester the increase in DA support among black voters was not indicative of a major swing. “But it does show the DA is cracking the race glass ceiling,” he said.

By the time the M&G went to press, most of the votes from metros had not been counted. The urban vote was where the DA was especially hopeful of bringing out its black support. If the DA is able to poll an average of 10% in black areas its leaders will chalk it up as a good foundation for the real fight in 2014.

In a previous version of this article we reported that a document written by then Democratic Alliance chief executive, Ryan Coetzee, on the future direction of the party had called for the departure of Tony Leon from the leadership. This was an error introduced in the editing process — the document made no such call. The Mail & Guardian apologises for the mistake.

For exclusively M&G articles and multimedia on the local government elections 2011 click here:

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Mandy Rossouw
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