There is a bigger chance of the pope coming out as atheist than there is of the Democratic Alliance winning 30% of the national vote in 2014. But they know that, of course. However, a fascinating question to consider is what it would take for the DA to become a party that can get that large a slice of the vote as soon as possible. After all, it surely does not want to be the official opposition until Jesus comes.
The DA needs to do three things. They are, in order of importance: the party must change the tone of its communications radically and immediately, Helen Zille should step down as quickly as possible, and there needs to be clearer policy differentiation from the ruling party.
A shift in tone
The single biggest strategic mistake the DA makes is to assume that politics is a brain challenge rather than a game of the heart. They think that an online column of 2000 words of financial data analysis by one of their strategists, showing the ANC to be ruining Mangaung, will persuade voters in Mangaung to ditch the ANC. Equally, they think that complex auditing reports of how well they run municipalities in the Western Cape will be sufficient to persuade black Africans to vote DA.
But politics is not a brain sport. It is not an exercise in rational choice theory that takes you back to second-year economics lectures at the University of Cape Town. It is true here and elsewhere in the world. (Which “rational actor” would vote for George W Bush over John Kerry?)
This is not to say that voters are irrational and cannot reason about what is and is not in their self-interest. But we are also psychological creatures, not just brain machines. The trick is both to move voters and explain to them what skills you have that your political opponents do not have.
The DA obsesses about one part of that strategy — skills, facts, data – and totally neglects the other part of the political game — speaking from the heart, empathising with the disenfranchised and giving a disillusioned voter not just the promise of running water and sanitation but also that most human of responses: a hug. Both are crucial aspects of effective political communication.
There is an excellent recent example of this tone-deaf approach to political communication on the part of parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. At an event for young professionals, a black student nervously asked Mazibuko a question to the effect of: “I’m at UCT and about to graduate and am looking to enter the job market. I’m wondering what the DA can do to help us young black professionals to enter the market confidently and successfully?”
Now, perhaps the question is daft insofar as it wrongly assumes that political parties must play this kind of guidance role. But politicians need to be emotionally and politically savvy in how they respond. And so I waited keenly for Mazibuko’s response. It was most revealing, along the lines of: “I’m surprised that anyone who is at UCT should have confidence problems. If you can get into UCT, then you should not have confidence issues. It is not my job to come to UCT and give pep talks.”
The young student was crushed. I sat a few metres away from her and could see her enthusiasm draining from her face. She had asked the question nervously, politely, and had received a response that suggested she had been aggressive. The girl and her friend left the building quickly, rather than taking up the MC’s suggestion that everyone should stay behind “to network”.
The moral of the story is that Mazibuko was handed a gift of a question. She had an opportunity to empathise with a black person’s historic lack of confidence and black people’s crippling sense of being impostors in corporate South Africa. Worse still, she had a chance of capturing the vote of someone who clearly was not interested in the ANC Youth League and so had come to check out this event to see whether there was a place for her in the DA, especially with role models such as Mazibuko who might help her negotiate life’s tough trajectory.
Mazibuko’s response demonstrated two things: first, that being black does not guarantee that you “get” the headspace of the black majority and, second, that, if you do not use a tone that is aimed at stealing the heart of the voter because you prefer being brainy, then you might win the argument but you will not capture the available vote.
Of course, this example is not isolated: Zille’s references to “professional blacks”, “Aids Gestapo” and “educational refugees” are equally ripe for supporting my thesis about the tone-deaf approach to communication among the top leaders in the DA.
This, in my view, constitutes the single greatest barrier to the DA capturing as much as 30% of the national vote.
Ditch Helen Zille
Helen Zille does not get enough credit for her contribution to the growth of the DA. She has already done enough for the party to be worthy of a biography that archives and makes sense of her contribution. In essence, she has managed to divorce the party’s image from the jarringly confrontational, testosterone-loaded political instincts of the previous leader, Tony Leon.
Leon took the Westminster model of Britain too literally and, for better or worse, it did not please a South African voter base that has different political and cultural instincts than voters do in England. Zille forced the old white men of politics to take a back seat while she reached out to younger voters, such as students, and gave them an opportunity to develop a sense of ownership over the redirection of the party’s brand. She also lobbied for some non-white leaders to be the face of the party, but it remains a woeful problem for the DA. The party needs more senior black African leaders.
But overall Zille’s changes clearly marked a break from Leon’s DA. This is bad news for the likes of Athol Trollip, who now looks positively 1980s compared with the younger stars, but it is great news for the electoral calculus.
Yet I still think Zille should be replaced as soon as possible. Over the past six months, in particular, she has become hard-headed and recalcitrant. She is her own worst enemy now and is not fit to build on the great foundation she has laid for the party’s growth. Someone else is needed to build on her post-Leon legacy. If not, she will undo her own hard work.
Many assume that the most urgent reason she needs to be replaced is because the DA needs a black African leader, but it is no longer the main reason. The main reason is that Zille is spinning out of control, announcing policies on HIV/Aids without consulting the party and getting an endorsement, taking weeks to apologise for calling blacks “refugees” in their own country, instilling fear in other leaders to prevent them from disagreeing with her publicly and generally making more than a nuisance of herself with brand-diminishing behaviour on social media platforms. She has lost control of her political project. She needs to be replaced not because she is white, but because she has started to lose the political plot, visibly.
The problem, of course, is that there is no obvious replacement — so she might be safe for now on account of that challenge. But the party’s federal structure would do well to think how it might develop leadership capacity quickly enough to replace Zille. The alternative is to rein her in and manage her brand and her public performances, but the federal structure of the party has proven impotent, so one doubts it is capable of doing this with demonstrable effect.
Lastly, the DA deserves credit for offering excellent opposition analyses of the ANC’s performance. Many MPs, such as David Maynier and Ian Ollis, do a sterling job of developing a deep understanding of the ministries they are shadowing, showing up governance and leadership weaknesses. But the next step is for the party to learn to put ideas for solving big problems on the table in simple terms. They need to say to a voter: “Here is what we would do tomorrow to solve the problem of mud schools in the Eastern Cape.” They communicate policy with data dumps rather than with clear, easy-to-understand messaging. Even as an analyst I struggle to explain DA policies in contradistinction to those of the ANC — and this despite the fact that I am in regular contact with many DA leaders.
For the sake of a competitive democracy, let us hope that for once the DA leadership can reflect on constructive criticism openly, rather than being recalcitrant about its own challenges.
Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter.