Has she developed a Mrs Thatcher complex? Does Helen Zille think that she must become South Africa’s Iron Lady? The one for whom “there is no alternative”? The one whose historical role it is to “smash the unions”?
I have been thinking long and hard about the Democratic Alliance’s decision to turn its guns on Cosatu in the past few weeks and earnestly seeking to detect the thinking that lies behind this strategic choice.
But I am struggling. On a shallow reading of the story, the roots of the clash can be found in the dispute about whether Cosatu had or had not invited the DA to join its march against e-tolls earlier this year. Zille should not have been surprised to discover that Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi could not be seen to be collaborating in a protest against the government, but she chose to pretend that she was – and Vavi seized on this to claim that Zille was behaving like a jilted lover.
You will recall how their relationship fast descended into the morass of personal insults that so often characterises and masquerades as political debate in South Africa these days. But surely it would be irrational and childish if this was the reason for the DA’s decision to tackle Cosatu head-on?
There must be a better explanation. As is well understood, to grow substantially and to challenge for national power, the DA must deepen its reach into the working-class vote. Apparently, the DA sees great political mileage in being seen to be so obviously on the side of the unemployed.
Cosatu, runs the argument, is defiantly and unreasonably opposed to any labour-market reform, even one as modest as the youth subsidy that has been proposed. Hence, the march on Cosatu’s offices in Johannesburg that ended in violence two weeks ago.
It is true that Cosatu is increasingly in a minority on the issue, with a persuasively broad “coalition” of actors frustrated by their stance. These actors range from former Mbeki-ite thinkers and advisers, such as Joel Netshitenzhe, to free-marketers such as Adcorp; from Business Day to key parts of the government, such as the treasury.
Yet the strategy, if that is what it is, is flawed for several reasons.
First, it abandons the primary strategy that has been so successful for the DA in recent years and that was beginning to yield substantial results, as shown by the doubling of national support for the DA from 12% in the 2009 national elections to 24% at last year’s local government elections, alongside the decisive victories in the Western Province and Cape Town.
That strategy of electoral accumulation was underpinned by the notion of incrementalism: ward by ward, town by town, city by city, province by province – gaining steadily, as any small party should do. Not seeking to sprint before you can run, proving your case at every step. Not claiming more than you can deliver, not over-reaching yourself.
To aim now for working-class votes, when the level of DA support in working-class African communities is so small (2% to 3% at best, but up, promisingly, from zilch in 2009), is to do precisely that: to overreach oneself and to risk credibility in doing so.
Second, it is a misread. The black voters who came across to the DA in 2012 were disgruntled lower-middle and middle-class voters in yuppie wards, who had benefited from the Mbeki years and who disliked the style of Jacob Zuma and what he stands for.
They are not anti-Cosatu. On the contrary, even if they disagree with Cosatu on the wage subsidy, they will agree with them on many other things, Cosatu’s stand against corruption being the most obvious. They would see Cosatu as a voice of stability and reason compared with the confusion of Zuma’s leadership.
Third, the strategy assumes that what is obvious to Zille will be obvious to the average unemployed voter: that seeing her and some black people in DA T-shirts marching “for jobs” against Cosatu will be instantly convincing.
This denies the strength of deep emotional attachments in South African politics. They are being stretched, and slowly they may unravel. But not yet.
The DA should stick to attacking the ANC, as a party and as a national government. After all, there is plenty of material available.
I doubt whether Zille will see it in these terms. Part of her strength is her resoluteness. She is – and has to be – thick-skinned in the face of the abuse she constantly receives from ANC supporters. Once she picks a course of action – and a fight, for that matter – she will not be easily deterred.
You turn if you want to. This lady is not for turning. Perhaps, therefore, she sees herself as South Africa’s Thatcher, who took on the British unions, and especially the National Union of Mineworkers led by Arthur Scargill, in the mid-1980s.
It was a watershed clash; it came to define Thatcher as much, if not more, than any other political fight. Perhaps this will do the same for Zille, for better or for worse. There may be logic in the thinking about the “strategy”, but there is also hubris as well as a failure of intuition.
There is a line in The Iron Lady, the film depiction of Thatcher’s life, where she announces that it is time to do “more thinking and less feeling”. I used to think that this summed up former DA leader Tony Leon and that it was diagnostic of how he got it so repeatedly wrong. Now I am beginning to think Zille has succumbed to the same trait.