/ 24 March 2023

Is the Democratic Alliance a minority party with majority concerns?

Da Protest
Supporters of the largest opposition party 'Democratic Alliance' hold banners and gather to protest against the ruling party 'African National Congress' due to the recent power cuts in Johannesburg, South Africa on January 25, 2023. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Next week, the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) decides on the face of the party to contest the 2024 general elections. Given that the ANC is tripping over itself because of a record run of load-shedding and an economy sliding backwards — the International Monetary Fund expects growth to come in at a meagre 0.1% this year — the polls suggest a new era of coalition politics on a national level. 

When the DA decided to ditch Mmusi Maimane as its leader after a less-than-stellar performance at the last general election in 2019, it seemed to withdraw from any ambition to govern the country with the election of a white male, John Steenhuisen, as leader.

Perhaps it was cowed by Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC leader, once highly favoured by business and those exhausted from the ruinous presidency of his predecessor. The DA decided to preserve its position as a party for the minority rather than pursue growth. 

With the Western Cape increasingly becoming a birthright of the party that took control there in 2014, the question voting delegates face on the first weekend of April is whether it remains a minority party with majority concerns as a by-product, or a party for the majority?

If the Ramaphosa presidency had met the expectations of an exhausted electorate, perhaps the latter would have been the only bet to make. But the presidency that came in on a wave of euphoria has fizzled in the wake of a pandemic and electricity and growth woes. The president and his party are weak, giving rise to the DA’s temptation to go for the large play — appeal to the majority of South Africans and get way beyond the paltry 3.9 million votes achieved in 2019. Playing in this league, however, dictates that you talk about race. 

The dismissiveness of the liberal party on this has always come across as tone-deaf in a country whose history has been shaped by racial politics, and whose socio-economic conditions are still very much shaped by them. Undoing the damage requires at the very least a conversation on the implementation of black economic empowerment in the country and in the party. It’s been a divisive debate in the DA and has in the past caused a rift between its “emergent” black leadership and its entrenched older white guard. Fearing the outcomes of properly embracing this most important of topics, the party has chosen to hide its head in the sand.

The effect of this has been evident at the polls, which, looking at the local government elections from 2016 to 2021, have been abysmal. The party has seen a decline of 1.4 million in terms of absolute votes.

The DA can’t shake off the question of race if it aspires to grow, but should it choose to protect its terrain, it faces the challenge of a shrinking, ageing demographic that forms the bedrock of the party whose spiritual leaders are Helen Zille and Tony Leon.