/ 21 June 2019

DA in want of leadership and an identity

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)

The Democratic Alliance’s poor 2019 election results can only be reversed if the DA is brutally honest in its diagnosis of what went wrong. It won with a reduced majority in the Western Cape; it failed to win in another province; it is no longer the official opposition in KwaZulu-Natal and the North West; and its share of the national vote declined (from 22.23% in 2014 to 20.77% this year), as did its total number of votes nationally (from 4.1-million to 3.6-million).

The party’s leader, Mmusi Maimane, would have resigned immediately after the results were announced if this were an election in a democracy such as the United Kingdom.

It is impossible to justify a decline in the electoral fortunes of the DA given the gift of an ANC-led government that resulted in years of state capture, an economy on its knees, and inequality, poverty and unemployment staggeringly high.

How could the official opposition possibly get anything less than 25% of the vote? I would even say that 30% should have been the success criterion for the leaders of the party to stay on. This was an electoral gift from our former president, Jacob Zuma, and his friends, the Guptas, and the DA squandered it.

Maimane didn’t resign, but only because of two South African realities. For one thing, there is no culture of resigning in our body politic so the question of doing so doesn’t really arise and, for another, the leadership pipeline in our main political parties, including the DA, is not a long one, so there are no candidates who could immediately replace him. If the party doesn’t invest in new leaders, this factor alone will come back to haunt it in a few years’ time.

Maimane is one of the nicest human beings in South African politics and one feels horrible for pointing out his political weaknesses, but they are real weaknesses, and there are several. The DA needs someone who is not only a nice guy but one who can also be an effective opposition party leader.

The hard debate inside the DA now is a spirited contest, and one that doesn’t have to be divisive about what truly has gone wrong.

As an observer of opposition politics, I want to offer a view that runs counter to some of the public criticism that has, so far, been levelled against the architects of the party’s election campaign.

The DA is accused of flirting with racialism and identity politics and, so one theory goes, the election results were poor because the party was mimicking the ANC’s penchant for racialism. This criticism ironically gives Maimane and Jonathan Moakes, who was in charge of the national elections campaign, way too much credit.

To ascribe to them even a rudimentary understanding of identity politics and a leveraging of the discourse of racial politics in their 2019 election campaign messaging is to misdiagnose what they got wrong.

The DA would have done a hell of lot better, in my opinion, if it actually grasped identity politics, and had a sophisticated campaign that spoke to our racialised lived experiences, including the burden of racial capitalism that leaves millions of black people still on the margins of the economy.

The DA needs (better) identity politics. We didn’t get that from its election campaign. The criticism that it flirted with racialism and identity politics is therefore wrongheaded and can be ignored as fallacious.

Maimane should have done what his DA peers to the right of him ideologically accuse him of having done.

The DA made one basic mistake this year: it had no message. Cheesy, empty slogans about “one South Africa for all” and variations on it mean nothing. Absolutely nothing. Sure, you can say it a million times over, spray it on to T-shirts, posters and billboards, but ultimately it does not communicate a clear, ideological message to the public of who and what you are, and what signature policies you champion in response to the critical social, economic and political issues of the day.

This is where one of Maimane’s political weaknesses is most apparent. The pastor/Mr Nice Guy in Maimane, attracted to kumbaya-ism, wanting us all to get along, loves motifs and slogans of that kind because they are easy bits of speech that can be thrown at a diverse crowd without offending anyone in attendance. But they do not work.

Slogans without an identity will fail you. Just as overly academic ideas about ideology and policy without smart communication devices to deliver them to a broad range of people will also fail you. You need both identity and clever messaging. Once you have a clear identity, you can give your communications experts the creative challenge to translate the complex stuff into language that can travel.

The DA simply had no messaging because it never bothered to sort out what role it wanted to play in contemporary politics beyond fighting Zuma. Once Zuma left, the inchoate and anti-intellectual nature of the party’s politics were shown up. It is what it is.

The critics who have been active on social media are better organised than those who are silent. Those who are classic liberals or libertarians are vocal, can make an argument for their convictions, and even rehearse the usual criticisms of identity politics, racialism and structural analysis. They know that they do not need Maimane to resign or to be replaced. They simply need to control what he says, and what the party says. They know that influence is potentially more powerful than visibility. And this group isn’t motivated racially, by the way. Some of them are happy that Moakes resigned in the hopes that others, such as chief whip John Steenhuisen, may begin to wield greater influence over the trajectory of the party as the elections’ review debate unfolds. Notice how absent Steenhuisen was, for example, from the Electoral Commission of South Africa’s results operations centre. Moakes wasn’t necessarily all that keen on him. Not everything in the DA is black and white. The ideological differences are enmeshed with racial cleavages.

The more conservative wing of the party will be delighted at the choice of former strategist Ryan Coetzee to head the review process under way. They have an ally in him. If the technical staff and structures can be whittled down (so that silly titles such as chief executive officer can be done away with), the politicians gain power, and the most persuasive politicians in the party can convince the political leadership that left-wing tools of analysis should never be used to make sense of life in South Africa in 2019, then the party will return to a kind of liberal individualism that will give it ideological clarity.

But if the social democratic group that gets the phenomenology of race, and the intersection between race and class, does not win the battle for the soul of the DA, then the DA will have a clear campaign in the next election, but one that is out of kilter with what the voters need in a time of deep structural injustices everywhere.

Meanwhile, across these fascinating divisions, few care what Maimane thinks. They do not genuinely respect him and all of their plotting, debating and disagreements are taking place without their losing sleep thinking about him. This alone tells you how weak Maimane is politically. He should be leading the conversation on the way forward. Alas, he is simply the face of whichever group emerges victorious. Which is why, for example, they feed him slogans about an imagined centre of South African politics, appealing to his need for rallying black and white sheep around him, while secretly knowing that the centre is occupied more convincingly by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who embodies the centrism message better than Maimane ever could.

Behind Maimane’s back, those who tell him to talk about the centre publicly are really interested in a dialectic between their centre-left and their centre-right differences. And he is not invited into any of those WhatsApp groups. That is why the DA is a gift for the ANC. No one is in charge of the DA, and this allows the ANC to continue limping from crisis to crisis without fatal political consequence.

The DA needs a strong leader. It doesn’t have one. It doesn’t have an identity. While it is searching for these, our national politics is impoverished by the state of the official opposition.