/ 4 September 2014

The DA’s kids are not all right

The party is living on the exhaust fumes of its past successes and is clamping down on the very youth leaders it needs to move forward.
The party is living on the exhaust fumes of its past successes and is clamping down on the very youth leaders it needs to move forward.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) is bound to grow its support in the 2016 local government election, and even beyond that. But the party is living on the exhaust fumes of its past successes and is clamping down on the very youth leaders it needs to move forward.

That the DA is in trouble, particularly in Parliament, is now common cause. It is running out of leaders almost as quickly as it running out of ideas. The party’s leaders won’t admit it publicly, of course. DA leader Helen Zille was dismissive when the Mail & Guardian recently asked her the question doing the political rounds: Has the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) overshadowed the country’s biggest opposition?

“They said the same thing about Cope [the Congress of the People] and the ID [Independent Democrats]. The EFF is more theatrical, but political theatre has a shelf life,” she said.

But the EFF isn’t beating the DA only at theatrics. That’s just the symptom. The game these days is energy and the DA is losing – badly. What the party should do is what it has successfully done in the past: unleash its youth to run with ideas and show some life.

The DA has flourished as a party in recent years largely thanks to Zille’s sheer force of personality, but also because of a combination of factors that saw it leap forward. From the early 2000s a group of young guns gained ascendancy in the party, with Zille’s blessing: former parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, former chief executive Ryan Coetzee, and others. They were cocky, but they had ideas and a keen eye for how the party needed to change if it was to break through the glass ceiling of opposition politics and appeal to a broader spectrum of voters.

At the same time, the party’s investment in its formidable research and planning structure started to pay off. Institutionally the party was the strongest it had ever been, with technocrats running a tight operation behind the scenes. As they gained a broader understanding of the country’s landscape and how to meet those needs, the DA started to shed its baggage of being a white party and made inroads into the electorate.

Bringing new key black leaders to the fore shook up the DA establishment, but appealed to more voters. Winning control of Cape Town in 2006 and the Western Cape in 2009 meant the DA could put into practice a smart strategy of showcasing its governance skills with a track record that was hard to ignore.

But whiz kids have a habit of getting up people’s noses, particularly in an organisation as historically conservative as the DA. The ANC is a broad church but the DA is also ideologically pretty complex, having absorbed remnants of both the National Party conservatives and the Progressive Party during its complicated history.

The same combination of factors that saw the party flourish is now being undone. Too many positions in the party’s research and communication teams are empty; people associated with Mazibuko have left, leaving the party institutionally weak. The party has nothing in place by way of succession plans, from obvious conundrums such as who should replace Zille to smaller but still key concerns such as replacing Jonathan Moakes, who recently resigned as chief executive, or former youth leader Mbali Ntuli. Any replacement would be new and hesitant when they should be acting as counterweights to an increasingly authoritarian Zille.

The party’s greatest strength and weakness, Zille was a good leader when surrounded by the right people who balanced her weaknesses. Leaving her unfettered means the organisation has come to reflect its strongest leader: a micromanager with a poor grasp of long-term planning who seems to lurch from one crisis to another, as the party’s most cutting critic, Gareth van Onselen, who once worked for the DA, put it.

So where is the DA youth?

The whiz kids were pressured until most left, which was probably a good thing to put an end to damaging factionalism in the party’s ranks. But instead of replacing their youthful vigour and ideas, the DA has clamped down on that sort of freedom within the organisation. It didn’t want the upsets such leaders could cause, but lost out on their effectiveness too. The party is possibly at its most unified under Zille, but it’s also far more boring.

Zille and her advisers have chosen to put forward leaders they can control and predict, the chief example being Mmusi Maimane. The trade-off is that he just doesn’t have the chutzpah to make much impact, particularly compared with Julius Malema.

Now talented individuals with smart ideas are subjected to tortuous bureaucratic processes that eventually lead nowhere, while their ideas are left to fester.

One of the party’s most promising leaders, federal deputy chair and parliamentarian Makashule Gana, seems to be on a lonely crusade to run political schools and recruit grassroots leaders to the DA, yet the party seniors around Zille seem almost to view his activities with suspicion instead of seeing them as precisely the fresh injection that is needed.

The EFF, meanwhile, is the direct opposite of the DA. In an interview with the M&G recently, Malema explained how he sits down with his top leadership once a week for a long session of brainstorming that can last all day. They come up with ideas, debate furiously, settle on a plan and go out and implement it immediately. The immediacy and creativity of their methods explain their success in dominating the national debate.

The DA, by contrast, has suffocated any such spontaneity in the party. DA people who tell journalists such things insist on not being named, fearful of being caught out and getting on Zille’s bad side.

Ironically, the DA has a brilliant track record of deploying its youth to senior positions. But with that has to come the freedom to make big changes.

Instead, the party’s current tranche of youthful leaders in senior positions seem to have their hands tied to a degree by the establishment, with nothing like the freedom that EFF members enjoy in their own party. Most of the party’s youthful leaders have been sent to structures such as Parliament where, as newcomers, they will find little opportunity to exercise real agency.

This is where a separate youth structure is important. As in the ANC in better times, young people in a party’s youth structure don’t have to toe the line as much as young people in the main party’s machinery. They can ask the difficult questions, make mistakes if need be, and propose new and exciting ideas that can help to move the party forward.

The DA’s youth wing, however, has been decimated over the past year. The party embarked on an unclear restructuring of the wing, along with the DA Student Organisation (Daso). This seemed to mean relegating its needs to the back burner while the party elders focused on elections for one long year. In that time, youth leaders’ hands were tied by red tape or lack of funding, few initiatives could get off the ground and, as the EFF surged ahead, the ideas and people that could have combated the EFF were not given the attention they needed.

Now the party’s youth structures are a mess, with a high leadership turnover, no permanent representatives in three of the nine provinces, no DA youth presence in the Western Cape (where the party governs) and insufficient budget for the national youth executive even to meet since it was elected in 2012.

Daso branches at tertiary institutions across the country have fallen from 27 a year ago to 15. Campuses are precisely where the DA should be pushing its ideas and promises the most. Why on earth has the party allowed these structures to degenerate so badly?

There is a sense of stasis in the party at present. Where unorthodox ideas, big, daring moves and making difficult decisions meant that the party grew in the past, now most DA people seem to stick with tried-and-tested formulas such as dutifully submitting written questions in Parliament and issuing press statements.

The EFF has changed the rules of the game. They’re street fighters who don’t bother with the polite, formal engagement procedures that are met with easy evasions by the ANC. “You can’t just ask a question; you need to know what strategic information it will bring forth,” said EFF MP Andile Mngxitama. “The DA just goes through the motions in the most superficial way.”

And that, frustratingly, is where the DA is right now. The party needs to wake up and realise its kids are just not all right.