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South Africa: Fallen opposition leader a victim of ‘Ramaphoria’

By Xolisa Phillip, in Johannesburg
Posted on Tuesday, 29 October 2019 16:26

A worker attaches an election poster of Mmusi Maimane's opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party to a lamppost in Mitchell's Plain township in Cape Town, South Africa, March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Squeezed by a moderate ANC leader and a radical EFF, Maimane found himself with little room for manoeuvre. But there are deeper structural problems with the DA, the official opposition.

The rise of Cyril Ramaphosa and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) precipitated the dramatic departure of Mmusi Maimane as the leader of the official opposition party.

  • Maimane announced his resignation as Democratic Alliance (DA) leader last Wednesday, saying he no longer believed the party was the appropriate vehicle to achieve an inclusive South Africa.
  • He was to stay on as the leader of the official opposition benches in Parliament. But on Thursday he announced his exit from the party as its member and his stepping down as its leader in the national legislature.

Following its meeting at the weekend, when former party leader Helen Zille made a comeback as Federal Council chairperson, the DA has suffered a succession of high-profile resignations.

The resignations have plunged the party into a crisis.

They include those of City of Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba and Athol Trollip, the erstwhile first citizen of Nelson Mandela Bay metro who doubled as the party’s national chairperson.

The party has appointed an interim leader in Parliament.

  • Its Federal Council is scheduled to meet on 17 November 2019 to elect interim leadership.
  • It has provisionally set April 2020 as the date it will hold its Federal congress.

The extraordinary events of the week have prompted former president Thabo Mbeki to comment on his Facebook page. “It would be a matter of the greatest concern if it were in fact true that our country’s official opposition, the DA, is going through a leadership crisis because of a hegemonic ascendance of a racist tendency […]”

This is a break from Mbeki’s stance of not commenting on domestic political affairs since he stepped down in 2008.

The Ramaphoria factor

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says the emergence of Ramaphosa as African National Congress (ANC) president and the entry into the political scene of Julius Malema’s EFF had a destabilising effect on the DA.

“Ramaphosa is moderate. That means Mmusi could not be more moderate than Ramaphosa. At the same time, Mmusi could not be as radical as Malema.

“The EFF started disrupting the political establishment and quickly gained mileage from that. The DA began getting radicalised and abandoned its centrist politics,” points out Mathekga.

The DA responded badly to both dynamics and invoked a wrong sense of the party’s identity.

At core, the DA has a conservative political brand. But this brand is being increasingly appropriated by right-wing political elements such as the Freedom Front Plus.

The Freedom Front Plus, which was on a downward spiral, has in recent years enjoyed a surprising political resurgence by eating into the DA’s conservative white voter base.

Fellow political analyst Daniel Silke agrees with Mathekga’s assessment of the DA’s political dilemmas that culminated in Maimane’s untimely departure.

A big part of the DA’s undoing was its inability to counter the popular appeal of Ramaphosa as a personality, says Silke.

“When we look at the polls of approval ratings before the May 2019 general election, we know Ramaphosa was more popular than the ANC.

“The DA underestimated the attractiveness of Ramaphosa, especially to the DA’s target market of black middle-class voters, who should have been the core of a new DA support base. In a sense, the DA lost out to changes in the leadership of the ANC,” explains Silke.

New dawn, new challenges and challengers

In December 2017, Ramaphosa defeated Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma by a slim margin and became ANC president at the governing party’s Nasrec elective congress. In February 2018, Ramaphosa took over as head of state.

During that period and in the build-up to the May 2019 general election, the country experienced what many analysts termed Ramaphoria or the new dawn.

This was characterised by renewed optimism that the Ramaphosa win at Nasrec would restore confidence in the state and mark a return to the principles of good governance.

It came in contrast to the years when Jacob Zuma was at the helm of both the ANC and South Africa. Zuma’s two terms were underscored by an erosion of state institutions and large-scale graft.

For the longest time, the DA was the only game in town in terms of opposition politics. But the EFF challenged the DA’s dominance and hegemony in that space.

“The EFF made headway with voters who were disillusioned with the ANC. As a result, the DA lost ground,” explains Silke.

DA rise in Zuma years a political fluke

During the Zuma years the DA experienced a surge in support.

This was apparent in the August 2016 local government elections, wherein South Africans elected representatives in municipal councils. The next local government elections are scheduled for 2021.

The DA’s success in 2016 resulted in the party entering into coalition agreements with other opposition parties which enabled it to unseat the ANC in major municipalities.

The municipalities include Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay metros.

  • Johannesburg is the biggest metro in the country.
  • The DA is the dominant political force in Cape Town and the wider Western Cape, the only province not in ANC control.

But the DA’s fall coincides with Ramaphosa’s ascent and the rise of the EFF. “If you were to plot this on a graph, you would see the correlation,” Silke said.

“Even during the Zuma years, the DA was [un]able to sell its message. It received good support in 2016 from a more multi-racial body of South Africans as a protest vote against the Zuma years.

“Maimane was seen as a relatively attractive person. He was not interrogated as to policies, he was just a repository, in a sense, for those frustrated ANC voters who were looking for something else [at the time],” explains Silke.

The DA failed to consolidate many of those groups, and it is now paying the price.

Maimane, architect of his own political demise

Maimane was widely credited for growing the DA’s support in the aftermath of the 2016 local government elections. However, the DA experienced a slump during the May 2019 general election.

A three-man panel comprising Tony Leon, who preceded Zille as party leader; Ryan Coetzee, the former DA chief executive; and Michiel le Roux, the founding father of Capitec bank; penned a report about the state of the party.

Maimane commissioned the panel report, but it proved to be his political undoing. So did the re-entry into active party politics of Zille, who he succeeded with her blessing in 2015.

“The DA could do without this kind of scandal. It is not in a better position after Mmusi left. They were making a weak case anyway, but it has become even weaker now. It is going to be an uphill for them,” says Mathekga.

Outside of Cape Town, nothing is going right for the DA. There are people who might be happy in Cape Town, where the DA is growing and surging because of what has happened in recent days, Mathekga says.

But the real damage are the people who have left, who are institutions themselves.

Critically, the party used them to connect to the people beyond their historic white base.

Electoral dangers of DA departures

An immediate consequence of their resignations is that the DA might perform badly in the 2021 local government elections.

“In the long term, the party might have difficulty growing and reaching out to the black constituency. If the DA does not recast this thing and gain control of it, it might find itself entrenched in the position of a full-time opposition minority party,” cautions Mathekga.

The DA member of the provincial legislature in Gauteng Khume Ramulifho disagrees with a characterisation of what has happened in the party as a crisis.

Ramulifho is part of what is termed the Black Caucus in the DA. He is the former chairperson of the DA in the Gauteng South region.

To him, the issues related to the resignations have nothing to do with policy.

“What we have are personality disputes,” says Ramulifho. “It is disappointing how things are unfolding,” he concedes.

“We are operating within a democracy, we don’t necessarily get what we want or what we prefer. This is especially so when there is contestation. That should not trigger unhappiness. This is a sign that people are not accepting the outcome,” said Ramulifho, alluding to the discontent caused by Zille’s election as Federal Council chairperson.

Don’t discount the DA, yet

He believes the party will recover.

His optimism about his party’s prospects is based on the fact that in the period between 2000 and 2004, the DA experienced a significant drop in support at local government level.

This was the period when it rebranded from the Democratic Party to the DA. Part of the rebranding exercise involved subsuming remnants of the New National Party.

“We had about 18 municipalities, and through that process we lost 15 and were left with three. But come 2006, we bounced back,” says Ramulifho.

“Our commitment to good governance remains. Going into 2021, we need to ensure that people are happy with what we are offering,” he says.

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