Now that the Democratic Alliance (DA) has taken significant steps to transform itself in response to the need to move beyond representing minorities, the party could enter a chaotic transition, which might change its voter demographics or even lead to the formation of a splinter party.
But that is the worst-case scenario. The best case is that the DA could be a great example of a political party that transforms gradually to embody the true character of the nation in the elections leading to 2029.
After succeeding Tony Leon as party leader, Helen Zille and others realised that, if the party was going to grow beyond the small share of votes it had garnered nationally in the first few elections it contested, it would have to move beyond what had become its traditional constituencies. They started to work towards a carefully managed transformation process by changing the face of the senior leadership in the party.
Many years after a bumpy but steadily successful transformation path, there is a sense in which diversifying both the support and leadership bases of the party gained a life of its own and became something beyond what might have been envisaged by those who kick-started it.
Because of that relative success, the party now faces the risk of a conservative voter exodus, if not a splinter party. There are those who may feel the DA should have remained the political home of mainly white minority interests and defend against the perceived (or real) threatened position of white people in the country.
The DA became the official political home of mainly white people and to a lesser extent some Asian and coloured voters since 2004 when it consolidated its position over rival parties.
Now that that’s gradually changing, based on recent policy positions and demographic makeovers, supporters who feel threatened or alienated are likely to abandon the DA for parties such as the Freedom Front Plus, which have not yet faced internal pressures to transform.
Although the DA has held moderate ideas on transformation and did not support race-based policies of redress, it may be perceived to be veering off that political project now that diversity has featured prominently in its conference resolutions, elections manifesto and its party list to Parliament and provincial legislatures.
But a voter exodus and a splinter party do not have to happen if those who might feel sidelined in the party choose to become sacrificial lambs for the sake of a more united South Africa.
Remaining in the party — notwithstanding its turn towards a trajectory that could never have been imagined during the time of Leon — could be the necessary self-sacrifice that can truly break the trend of racial representation among the two major political parties in the country.
The DA has introduced a manifesto that recognises the need for greater redress as it reclaims lost ground for liberals in rejecting current broad-based black economic empowerment policies. Under the section on land reform in its manifesto, the party has an inspiring plan for transforming racial patterns of spatial settlement in major towns and touts the idea of expropriating problem buildings and using them for affordable residential property, among other plans.
When reformists in the DA succeeded in including diversity among the party’s values, many members and supporters did not believe this was characteristic of a liberal party. The idea of equitable racial representation in leadership positions and in government was contested because of its similarity with the quota system.
Clearly, that contestation has gravitated towards an equilibrium, which saw some liberals accepting the transformation imperative and reformists accepting the equal opportunity and less race-based approaches to transformation, if the balanced manifesto and the more representative party list is anything to go by.
This approach to settling disagreements is more synergistic and non-zero-sum than the alternative outcome in which there could have been a clear victory for either the reformists or the “ultraliberals”.
If the leaders in the DA accept this political and policy equilibrium, they might put the party on a sustainable path towards being a true embodiment of rainbow nationhood in the country. This could bode very well for the growth trajectory of the party and could result in a net gain of voters even if a conservative or even racist section of its support base leaves the party.
But, if there is a fightback from either side, it could result in an increased risk for the formation of a splinter party. This will be worsened especially if the funding community remains suspicious of the true intentions of reformists in the party.
All this means the DA finds itself at a crossroads and its leaders will need to become more competent in political management skills and will have to keep their focus on what the future holds rather than on short-term gains.
Ongama Mtimka teaches trends in contemporary South African politics and political dynamics in the department of political and conflict studies at Nelson Mandela University. These are his own views.