Since the dawn of democracy in 1994, South African politics and party affiliation have been racially defined. Having secured their democratic right to vote for the first time in 1994 following a lengthy liberation struggle led by the African National Congress (ANC), black people saw the ANC as their only political home and hope for a better future. The ANC began its maiden term in government by introducing legislative reforms and policies aimed at redressing the injustices of the apartheid regime. However, having stretched its legs and comfortably tucking itself in government for three – arguably successful – consecutive administrations, the ANC found itself deep in division in the run up to the 2007 National Elective Conference and its fourth administration. The divisions saw the removal of Thabo Mbeki as President of South Africa and breakaway parties from the ANC in the form of the Congress of the People (COPE) led by Mosiua Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa, and later in 2013 the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by expelled ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema.
The adverse effects of divisions within the ANC changed South Africa’s political landscape forever. Many voters fled the ANC in search of other political homes as divisions coupled with mounting corruption, high unemployment and rising inequality meant that the ANC had failed to deliver on its core mandate.
Coincidently, in the mist of political uncertainty within the ANC, another political party in the form of the Democratic Alliance (DA) ushered in its new leadership in 2008 led by Helen Zille. For much of its history, black voters have perceived the DA as a ‘white party’ nostalgic of the apartheid past – perceptions which remain ubiquitous in some contours of society, including opponents of the DA. However, the arrival of Helen Zille dawned a new era for the party, one that the former leader asserted would be “more reflective of South Africa’s rich racial, linguistic and cultural heritage”. Zille furthermore described the future of the DA as one of a “party for all the people”. New slogans reflecting the aforementioned vision were encapsulated in the “One Nation, One Future” catchphrase which became synonymous with the DA until it was substituted when Mmusi Maimane launched the party’s “Freedom, Fairness and Opportunity” values charter, a catchphrase reinforcing the party’s transformation since democracy.
Owing to transformation under Helen Zille and continued growth with black voters under Mmusi Maimane, the DA rose from a small seemingly insignificant party in the early years of democracy, to become a real force to reckon with. The DA has become the country’s official opposition, a strong alternative to the ANC and a party of government in the Western Cape including some 38 municipalities nationally.
More so to the DA’s success than its achievement in transformation is its record as a party of government. The 2015/16 Auditor General Report released in June 2017 revealed that DA governments were less susceptible to corruption with 80% of its municipalities receiving clean audits. Clean government have always been a part of the DA’s philosophy and they’ve managed to capitalise heavily on ANC’s poor performance in audits owing to a surge of corruption in their governments. Unlike its opponents, the DA is attempting to shift from ideology and race-based politics to performance-based politics. Through this, the DA sees itself as an instrument of clean and effective government that delivers to the people rather than focusing on rhetoric and promises which may never be delivered.
“Where the DA governs in the Western Cape Province, 80% of municipalities received clean audits making the DA-governed province the best performing province in the country. In the City of Cape Town, not a single cent in unauthorised or fruitless and wasteful expenditure was recorded. This is the fourth consecutive clean audit that the City has received.”
– DA response to clean audits
However, it should be said that the party has had its fair share of problems both in in and out of government.
The City of Cape Town, which the DA lords as the best-run city and often refers to as “where we govern” in their election campaigns, is also one of the most unequal cities in the world. Those of you who’ve flown to Cape Town International Airport would recall seeing large stretches of slums as the plane descends on final approach to the airport. An astonishing contrast considering that just a few kilometres away lays a playground of the rich and famous. How then can we truly say the DA is the best in government? What is the party doing about the growing demand for basic services in the city and surrounding townships? Answering these questions requires one to acknowledge the material conditions of the majority of people in South Africa vis-à-vis their history.
As an incident of apartheid’s Group Areas Act and other criminal laws of that deplorable regime, poor black people were moved into locations on the outskirts of towns and cities. The fact that these locations are reminiscent of apartheid is an indication of how slow transformation has been in South Africa. To broaden the scope, one need not look at Cape Town in isolation for the very same story plays out in other major towns and cities in South Africa. Moreover, it would be cynical and totally divorced from the truth to assert that the DA is not doing anything about the situation in Cape Town’s townships, in fact, it has done more in the province and the city then the ANC has ever done in the years of its governance and yet, of course, more needs to be done. In 2017, the Western Cape provincial government passed a budget of R59.360 billion for the 2017/18 financial year with a substantial chunk of it being invested in various community upliftment initiatives directed at the poor such as the R6.641 billion allocated for social development and the R7.977 billion allocated for human settlements over the 2017 MTEF.
“In aggregate, the 2017 Provincial Budget provides for total expenditure amounting to R59.360 billion in 2017/18, R62.155 billion in 2018/19 and R65.397 billion in 2019/20.”
– Western Cape Government
In theory, the passing of budgets and allocation is something that’s done in every municipality, yet change seems slow or non-existent as such one would ask what’s special about the DA’s budget. However, consider this: a clean audit government often means that each and every cent spent is accounted for and with the DA boasting 80% of clean governments means that they are far ahead of the ANC in performance-based politics. The DA’s performance as a party of government is supported by their electoral growth in areas which they govern, in contrast to the ANC’s declining trajectory owing to their poor performance.
To delve into the DA outside of politics and governance, one need not go too far to find controversy.
Helen Zille was found to have brought the DA into disrepute following a series of 12 tweets in March 2017. At the crest of the 12 series tweets, was the tweet where Zille asserted that, “For those the claiming legacy of colonialism was only negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.” This single tweet saw the image of the party dwindle and reinforced the perception that the DA is a ‘white party’ nostalgic of the past.
The contents of the tweets are debatable, however.
The fact that the tweets were offensive cannot be airbrushed considering the fact that South Africa remains a racially charged country with everything from economics to politics remaining racially defined and skewed. In light of Zilles misdeeds, is it fair to punish the DA at the ballot? To answer that particular question, one should assess the DA’s performance in government and in relation to the people and compare with other political parties. For example, many leaders in the ANC and EFF have said equally-offensive things in public and no one was ever removed from their position nor had any action been taken against them. Even with state capture hovering on Zuma’s presidency, the Constitutional Court ruling that Zuma had failed to protect the Constitution and uphold his oath of office, he remains the President and unpunished. On the other hand, Zille apologised and still lost her privileges within the DA.
What has become increasingly clear for the DA and those who support it is that it’s not the perfect party that everyone deems it to be. Everyone makes mistakes – political parties too – but it’s not a matter of trying to avoid making mistakes. But how does a political party learn from its mistakes and what measures does it employ to avert further misconduct on its part?
In light of this, it is clear that the DA emerges as the ideal party.
The whole Helen Zille debacle spanned over 3 months with the party suspending her and relieving her of her duties in the Federal Council and other party bodies. For the DA to take action against arguably its biggest figure in contemporary history is a telltale sign of a party which truly embodies its values to the highest order and strives for what is morally and legally right. More so, it is indicative of a party which is transformed under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane and refuted the claims that a ‘white force’ pulls the strings in the DA.
In the build up to the 2019 general elections, the DA is preparing itself as a party of government via coalition. The results of the 2016 local government election gave the opposition the zest to push national government in 2019 as the ANC was humbled in key areas of the country. Many South Africans are open to the idea of a coalition government as it would improve service delivery and accountability. However, coalition governments can also fail owing to differences in ideology and manifesto targets. With the EFF the likeliest DA coalition partner and with both parties miles apart in ideology and principles, the prospect of success in a DA-EFF coalition remains a contentious debate. However, in light of what we know of the DA as a clean and effective governor, we can rest assured that with the DA running the country from 2019, the future will potentially be bright.
Author: Neo Mkwane is a liberal thinker, youth activist and democrat. He holds a BA in politics and public management from the North West University and is pursuing post-graduate studies in politics at the University of Cape Town. He’s a former commentator on the blog Think Like a Liberal and has an obsession with political current affairs.