South Africa’s biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, was the first in the country to kick off its local government elections campaign, with a virtual rally over the weekend – billed as one of the biggest in South Africa to date – in line with Covid-19 lockdown regulations.
“Only the DA has a national footprint big enough to be able to represent every person in every community, and to challenge the dominance of the ANC,” party leader John Steenhuisen told those who tuned in.
The rally, which clocked up, somewhat underwhelmingly, just over 9000 live views, came at the end of a difficult week which contradicted the optimism in Steenhuisen’s speech.
‘An experiment gone wrong’
With only five months to go to the local government elections, another black leader resigned from the party; it registered yet another bad by-election loss of votes in traditional strongholds; and one of its Cape Town councillors was linked to laundering of Covid-19 relief funds.
Steenhuisen took over at the end of 2019 after former leader, Mmusi Maimane, the first and only black leader of the party thus far, was pushed out because of a dismal election turnout.
John doesn’t see they’re doing what he did to Mmusi,” a party insider says. “They use him to get [them] into a position to gain a national profile, and then they will dispose of him.”
Steenhuisen’s mandate was to arrest the decline in voter support and the party’s dithering on controversial policy issues. Instead, the party is now being accused of reverting to its campaign strategies in the early noughties when, under the leadership of Tony Leon, it had a small but loyal white voter base, a clear policy direction, and adopted an adversarial and oppositionist stance in government.
Leon is, incidentally, a personal friend of Steenhuisen and the godfather of one of his children; and recently, in a controversial interview, described Maimane as “an experiment gone wrong” for the party.
“The DA today wants to pursue [white right-wing] Freedom Front Plus voters to consolidate minorities again,” Maimane tells The Africa Report. He claims this was one of the reasons why he resigned not only from his leadership position, but also the party membership.
Maimane now heads the One South Africa movement which will support independent candidates and civic movements in the local government elections.
The resignation of the party’s former spokesperson and young black firebrand Member of Parliament, Phumzile van Damme, is perceived by many as giving credence to Maimane’s criticism. However, Van Damme said: “My resignation as an MP is not because the DA is a so-called ‘racist party’ but because of a clique of individuals.”
A close associate said the “clique” referred to the party’s leadership, which includes Steenhuisen as well as Helen Zille, former party leader and now chairperson of the party’s federal council.
It echoes the resignation of former parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko in 2014, another young black female who initially climbed the party ladder rapidly.
Some remaining black party insiders have hinted that although Van Damme didn’t want to say that her resignation was about race, the exodus of black leaders is far from over.
Van Damme rose to prominence for her role in bringing down British PR firm Bell Pottinger, after its role in a racially divisive misinformation campaign in South Africa; but at the beginning of the year, she was demoted as party spokesperson and Steenhuisen placed her on long leave over health problems.
Controversial return of Helen Zille
Zille’s return to the party, just ahead of Maimane’s exit in 2019, has been controversial. She anointed Maimane as her successor in 2015 as she entered retirement, but appears to have since done an about-turn. Zille has apparently abandoned the project she started in 2006 – of growing the party’s votes by reaching out to black and coloured voters – to add to the large white support base.
Attesting to that are, amongst others, her open Twitter spats with young, black party leaders about race issues. In a recent interview on the book she authored during the Christmas holidays, entitled #StayWoke Go Broke, she likened ‘wokeness’ to apartheid.
“The tragedy is [Hendrik] Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, was trying to banish blackness from South Africa, and now wokeness is trying to banish whiteness from SA but the fundamental architecture of the ideology remains the same,” Zille said.
Still, in a tweet, she claimed that last week’s by-elections showed the party is growing amongst 89% of the population, although it’s unclear what she based this on. In almost all of the wards where the party fielded candidates, its share of the vote declined compared to the 2016 local government elections.
Poor showing at polls
The DA also shed two safe wards in Johannesburg to the Patriotic Alliance, a party founded by a businessman and former convict. The downward trend in electoral support in four by-elections in recent months is a continuation of its downward trend in the 2019 general elections, when the party received 20.8% of the vote compared to 22% five years earlier.
Most of its votes were lost to the white, right-wing Freedom Front Plus; the ANC, newly-reinvigorated under President Cyril Ramaphosa; and, in the by-elections, to smaller parties in so-called coloured areas.
Steenhuisen’s allies, like the party’s KwaZulu-Natal chairperson and MP Dean Macpherson, says the poor showing in the polls was to be expected.
“When the leadership (Steenhuisen) were elected, no one was under any illusion how difficult it would be regain the trust of voters we lost and win new ones,” he says. “The by-elections have been litmus tests on where we are doing well and where we can do better. No loss in politics is fatal if you learn from it.”
He adds that there is clarity under Steenhuisen on where the party is headed.
The party in its official statement supported this view, saying the by-election results showed that the party was “stabilising and moving towards a trajectory of growth.”
Some have also blamed the recent bad results on party infighting. Last month, information was leaked that a high-profile party member who intended to run for a provincial position in the Western Cape, misrepresented his qualifications. His resignation saw a number of similar allegations made against other leaders in the party too.
Gauteng provincial chairperson Fred Nel admits that this didn’t help the party at the polls.
“Voters are concerned if the perception is created that the DA is squabbling internally. It is the thing that damages us the most,” he says.
It could get even worse. Insiders said some of Steenhuisen’s former supporters were quietly contemplating a palace coup because of the party’s troubles.
“John doesn’t see they’re doing what he did to Mmusi,” a party insider says. “They use him to get [them] into a position to gain a national profile, and then they will dispose of him.”
Steenhuisen campaigned for Maimane’s election as party leader in 2015.
Possibly more damaging in the eyes of voters could be the perception the party has created: of attempting to shield a municipal councillor, Nora Grose, who was accused last week of funnelling money into a church with links to city officials.
Steenhuisen has previously described wrong-doing related to government’s Covid-19 relief funds as “murder”. Grose’s case could seriously damage the image of clean governance that the party has been trying to project.
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