The Democratic Alliance’s KwaZulu-Natal provincial chairperson, Dean Macpherson, is to be disciplined by the party over the controversial election posters he had displayed in the Phoenix area, where more than 30 people were killed in violence and looting during July.
Macpherson was ordered to take the posters down by the party’s federal executive (fedex), which met on Thursday morning to try to deal with the fallout over the posters, 100 sets of which were commissioned for the area.
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Macpherson is a close ally of DA leader John Steenhuisen and federal chairperson Helen Zille.
Macpherson said in a statement on Thursday that the posters were being taken down and apologised, saying they had “inadvertently caused offence”.
The posters, stating “The ANC called you racists” and “The DA calls you heroes”, appeared in the Phoenix area this week, sparking outrage from the ANC and local organisations.
The DA has also been reported to the South African Human Rights Commission by a local activist who wants action to be taken against the DA — and Macpherson — for the posters’ “racially inciting” content.
Macpherson, who had earlier defended the posters, said they were “unsanctioned by the DA leader, party structures and the campaign leadership” and were being removed.
“Sometimes in politics our words may be poorly chosen but I wish to assure the public, without contradiction, that my intentions are always secure.”
He said that “at no point” did he and the DA support or endorse vigilante actions.
Macpherson issued the apology hours after the party’s fedex ordered him to do so after it met on Thursday to try to find a way to save face over an embarrassingly difficult situation that had been further complicated by the fact that Steenhuisen had already publicly defended them.
Party members around the country, including mayoral candidates, had raised concerns over the effect of the posters on the DA’s campaign elsewhere.
A participant in Thursday’s meeting said the posters, which were “out of touch on so many levels”, were “distasteful.”
“Fedex hasn’t really sat in a while since the campaign started. The federal election oversight committee has essentially been doing the day-to-day work so we were trying to understand what happened,” the participant said.
Although Steenhuisen had defended the posters, “everyone at fedex feels that the poster doesn’t represent us as an organisation. The debate was [about] what’s going to be done now because John has defended it.
“John is scared because he thinks the party will throw him under the bus, but someone has to be held accountable. The decision is that the posters are going down today [Thursday] and Dean must apologise,” the participant said.
Steenhuisen and DA KwaZulu-Natal leader Francois Rodgers had allegedly told the meeting they did not know about the posters.
“John said he did not know about the posters. The provincial leader didn’t know. It was heated and people expressed their anger. The way forward was that once the posters come down, an apology must follow, and it had to be Dean, and the apology must be made today,” the participant said.
“There is a process that will follow for Dean to be disciplined because the entire fedex was not happy, but the problem is that John [Steenhuisen] has defended it.”
Zille is understood to have not chaired the meeting and to have only attended an hour of the four-hour session.
A senior source in the DA in KwaZulu-Natal said Macpherson was likely to survive the debacle.
“Dean did it without the knowledge of the provincial and national leaders, but because he is favoured by Helen and John he will get away with it. There are different rules for different people. He will be protected by John,” the senior DA member said, adding that the posters are likely to backfire on the party.
“It has taken us back in terms of our election work. The ANC was on the back foot — now they have something they can say. The provincial leader was furious. He wanted to know why this was done without the approval of the province.”
Macpherson is understood to have told the provincial management committee that the decision was aimed at consolidating Indian votes for the DA.
According to another source: “He [Macpherson] said it was a good strategy and that Indian voters will understand what the posters meant. He was questioned if it was only in Phoenix, or if it was targeting all Indian votes. He could not answer.
“His explanation was that our polling indicates that we are likely to get 60% of Indian voters versus the less than 10% of black voters in the provincial regions. He calculated that let’s rather go where it’s safe.
“We were risk free, there was nothing against us, we were just doing our thing at our own pace. This does not only affect the KwaZulu-Natal campaign but the national campaign.”
Another DA leader questioned how Macpherson could have the power to run such a campaign without passing it through the party leadership. The leader also questioned Steenhuisen’s immediate defence of the posters.
“They should not have commented to the media. They should have bought time to think it through. Instead Dean and John doubled down on this. The biggest problem is now how do we explain John defending the posters? He is going to look like a fool. The province will retract. That is the instruction from fedex,” the DA leader said.
“It could derail our campaign. The person who made it worse was John. He should have distanced himself from this. He is still defending it. That is the problem.”
The backlash over the posters is not limited to internal criticism and angry responses from the ANC.
Veteran Durban journalist and community activist Subry Govender on Wednesday laid a complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission over the posters.
Govender, a resident of Ottawa, adjacent to Phoenix, said he had done so because the DA posters were “racially inciting” and needed to be taken down.
“They or any other political party have no right to use people to promote their own selfish interests. The DA must pull down the posters immediately and apologise for its actions,” he said.
In his letter of complaint, Govender said that after the looting and killings in July, the posters “will only further aggravate an already tense situation in the region”.
He said news of the posters had already resulted in people going on radio to “regurgitate racism and hatred between South Africans”, adding that the DA “must be called to account for their actions”, which were contrary to the spirit of the constitution. “They cannot be allowed to promote racial hatred and divisions.”
Govender said the DA was not the only political party “using race to garner votes” and that it and other parties should learn from the actions of those who had fought to achieve a nonracial democracy and stop doing so.
The ANC said it would be laying complaints over the posters with the Human Rights Commission and the Electoral Commission of South Africa over the posters.