This week, the Democratic Alliance inaugurated its headquarters in Johannesburg, a building so new the scent of paint still hangs in the air. It is, however,a sideshow to the DA’s ambitions. DA leader Mmusi Maimane has spoken proudly of the huge strides the party has made since the days of Tony Leon and Helen Zille. It is under his leadership that the party now controls four metros. The party has certainly grown but it also has to confront the challenges that come with counting many more among your numbers.
It’s quite a remarkable time for the DA.
The party has not found itself at such a critical juncture in its evolution since its formative years, when the Democratic Party mopped up what remained of the National Party (technically the New National Party) to create the DA. Such was the backstabbing that followed in the early 2000s that gangsters on the Cape Flats may have felt their livelihoods were under threat.
Since then the blue brigade have proven their ability to govern, at least on paper, though large numbers of the working class in the Western Cape remain unconvinced. Still, in that province, they stood unmatched.
Then came the fight with Patricia de Lille. Then the water crisis. Then the demise of Jacob Zuma. Then the Economic Freedom Fighters gunning for Athol Trollip. Suddenly the knives were out again and the cracks laid bare.
When the DA meets this weekend the policy debates will largely be informed by these crises that are eroding their hard-earned electoral gains.
The DA, you see, has the added challenge of not only believing its own spin but also somehow appearing to be living it.
Frustratingly for many in the party, it is the question of race that will permeate much of the conversation. Hamstrung by a still largely white leadership, Maimane’s call for a more deliberate constitutional move towards diversity faces an uphill battle. The DA has evolved, embracing the idea of black economic empowerment and slowly moving a few black leaders into highly visible positions. The congress this weekend will test whether the conservatives, who play to the minority core of the DA’s supporters, or the progressives, who are attracting younger and black voters, hold sway.