Merging with an apartheid-era party has been the DA’s undoing

The Democratic Alliance’s decision in 2000 to merge with the New National Party (NNP) is coming back to bite it in the rear end. And the heart. And the neck. And also the leg and the fleshy part of the upper arm.

The much talked-about poll by the Institute of Race Relations that came out last week had many intriguing points that have been discussed in the media. But one of its most interesting findings hasn’t received much attention at all.

It was the finding that almost a quarter of respondents said that they felt the party was unsympathetic to poor black people.

Allegations of racism have dogged the DA as doggedly as a small, angry, elderly and slightly smelly dog denied its Woolies mid-afternoon snack. Or as doggedly as corruption issues follow the ANC.

This problem has its unsavoury roots in the decision by the DA (or Democratic Party, as it was then) to merge with the New (was it really new?) National Party in 2000. This was the party of apartheid. Not a party that was sympathetic to apartheid, or a party that had supported apartheid. It was the party that had invented and enforced apartheid for decades.

It was the party behind the Group Areas Act, Sharpeville, forced removals and the Treason Trial, to name just a few of its ghastly and inglorious achievements.

The party of Helen Suzman et al, who had fought apartheid tooth and nail, had made a deal. It may not have been a deal with the devil, but it was definitely a deal with people who were acquainted with the devil and had been to braais at his house.

The merger may have been short-lived, but when it ended, virtually all of the NNP members stayed inside the DA and made it their political home. Their support worked well in the short term, enabling the DA to take control of the Western Cape, but it came at a high price. The ex-NNP cohort spoke in a tone of voice that consistently created tension around racial issues and generated an ongoing trail of high-profile racially tinged incidents.

Perhaps even more importantly, it created a political landscape where there was no real party to the right of the DA. This made sense in terms of keeping power in the Western Cape, but nationally it positioned the DA as the party of the right. The absence of a politically viable entity to its right — the Freedom Front Plus was perhaps too small and extreme to be relevant? — prevented the DA from being the truly centrist party it could have been. All its energy went into attacks against the ANC and never into confrontations with anyone on its right wing. Over the years, this damaged the DA brand badly in the minds of black voters.

Who knows what would have happened if Helen Zille had angrily thrown certain people out of the DA in the early 2000s and banished them to their smallholdings where they could concentrate on important tasks, like combing their moustaches and putting angrily worded bumper stickers on their bakkies? Would the DA now face a more favourable political environment in the upcoming elections?

It’s hard to say. But what we do know is that the DA now seems to face a ceiling of roughly 20% of the vote. And it’s no glass ceiling. It appears to be made of solid concrete, and perhaps be some form of bunker.

Interestingly, the same Institute of Race Relations poll showed that while race was a problem for the DA, “being soft on corruption” was one of the key things that voters associated with the ANC. Much as corruption may be the stain from which the ANC struggles to escape, it seems that the decision to merge with the NNP almost 20 years ago may turn out to be the DA’s original sin.

John Davenport is the chief creative officer at advertising and communications company Havas. These are his own views

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John Davenport
John Davenport is the chief creative officer of Havas Southern Africa.

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