Now that Patricia de Lille has at last resigned as Cape Town’s mayor and has surrendered her Democratic Alliance membership, the party has had to put on a brave face. Party leader Mmusi Maimane has dismissed claims of racism by five councillors who resigned and has instead spoken about a unity of purpose.
The past 18 months have been gruelling for the country’s official opposition. When it should have been riding high after a very strong showing in the last municipal elections, its increased prominence has also revealed a startling vacuity in realpolitik.
Through all the back-and-forth in the Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg, Tshwane municipalities and beyond, the one thing that has increasingly become apparent is that the DA’s professed unity is held together by too many plasters.
The history of the party, which is riddled with political mergers and partnerships, is instructive. Since the 1950s, when the Progressive Party (the DA’s precursor) was formed, the party has had a total of six mergers that have often brought together organisations with very different ideological bases.
The most recent were with the New National Party in 2000, the Independent Democrats in 2010 and the South African Democratic Congress in 2011. Throw in a dollop of office bearers who arrived from parties that included the ANC and the United Democratic Movement and you have a uniquely South African stew.
Or so you would think.
The muddled DA identity is not so much in the differences among DA leaders but in how these differences play out.
At ground level, the true blue believers seem just as confused. Last week, DA supporters lined up at the Randburg magistrate’s court to protest against the appearance of culpable homicide accused Duduzane Zuma, but some ended up fawning over the former president’s son, gushing in awe when he turned his attention to them. Protesting outside the court was a photo op, without any real political objective.
In the party, the greatest loser is Maimane, who, with varying results, has tried to straddle the divides. But it is the public who stand to lose most. A strong, viable opposition is critical to foster democracy further and hold power accountable. The DA should be applauded for what they have achieved in that respect in recent history.
On paper, their record on governance is laudable, though serious concerns have repeatedly been raised about their commitment to the most vulnerable in society. There is a wide disparity between the DA’s support and that of other opposition supporters and it will likely remain the official opposition come the 2019 elections.
But in this, its most serious crisis, the DA would do best to refrain from reactionary behaviour, change tack and embrace its diversity of views.
Should the party continue to be torn over its liberal identity, its growth will only multiply its public spats, its unexplained targeting of individual leaders and the lack of cohesion among its leaders. Perhaps the only way for the DA to solve this identity crisis is to accept that the narrow approach can no longer sustain an organisation that hopes to open its doors wider.
In this, the national motto is instructive: Unity in diversity.