POLITICS
07/04/2018 06:18 SAST | Updated 07/04/2018 06:18 SAST

Post-Zuma: Can The DA At Last Address The White Elephant In The Room?

The country's largest opposition party is holding its congress this weekend. Its grappling with some pretty fundamental issues.

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James Selfe, chairperson of the DA's federal executive, and Mmusi Maimane, DA leader, at a press conference in March.

ANALYSIS

DA leader Mmusi Maimane will this weekend attempt to force the country's largest opposition party to change tack when it holds its federal congress in Pretoria.

More than 2,000 delegates from across the country will converge on the Tshwane events centre in the west of the city, where decisions will be taken about ideological fine-tuning, the powers of the party's federal leader, and the shape of its leadership structures.

The party's successes in 2004 coincided with the high-water mark of ANC electoral dominance, when the governing party won 69,69 percent of votes.

The DA has for a long time been defined by its relentless opposition to the electoral gift that was former president Jacob Zuma, having been able to contrast itself to the misrule of the ousted head of state. It effectively positioned itself as champion of the rule of law and defender of institutions.

Now, with Zuma ejected from office, the party will have to do what all normal parties do: develop and sell a proper and considered policy platform.

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A DA election poster hangs askew in a township in Hammanskraal, north of Pretoria, ahead of the general election in 2014. The DA garnered 22 percent of the popular vote, its best performance to date.

The DA has been growing steadily since its forerunner, the Democratic Party (DP), was almost wiped out in the 1994 election. It took up the mantle of official opposition in 1999 and killed off the National Party in 2004, when it garnered 12,37 percent of the vote.

The party's successes in 2004 coincided with the high water mark of ANC electoral dominance, when the governing party won 69,69 percent of votes. The ANC's support has since been eroded steadily, while the DA has increased its support to 22,23 percent in 2014.

Although DA support in the general election is still way below the ANC's numbers (the governing party still commands 62,15 percent of the vote), the sea-change came in the municipal elections in 2016, when the ANC's rapid decline in Gauteng and Port Elizabeth in 2014 was confirmed by voters' rejection of ANC mayoralties in the metropolitan municipalities of Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay.

It meant that minority governments were led by DA mayors and, including Cape Town and Western Cape, the party was now governing more than 16-million citizens and controlling billions of rand in budget.

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Tony Leon launches the DA's manifesto on January 26, 2006. His signature campaign was the "Fight back!" effort of 1999.

But Maimane and his inner-circle know that he, as his predecessors Tony Leon and Helen Zille did, will have to offer something clear to current and prospective supporters. There must an unambiguous and tangible message around which Maimane can rally voters, is the feeling in some quarters in the DA. It isn't there yet, they say.

Leon – remembered for the "Fight back!" slogan – had to consolidate white and other minority voters. Zille's mission was to prepare the party for government and to attempt to craft the party's own approach to non-racialism through the slogan "An open-opportunity society".

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Helen Zille after she was elected DA leader at the party's conference in Midrand on May 6, 2007.

It seems Maimane's slogan – and therefore his mission – will revolve around the party's catchphrase of "Freedom, fairness and opportunity", which is largely centred on the issue of race and representivity.

The party's leadership was on Friday involved in intense debate around the exact wording of a clause to be inserted in the party's constitution that deals with diversity: what it means, and how it should be worded. This clause will be presented to the DA congress for adoption.

'Fairness' according to Maimane means an acknowledgement that unfairness in society is still to a large extent based on race and that steps need to be taken to address it, be it through redress or affirmative action.

The proposed clause – which was the subject of a long Friday afternoon debate by the party's leadership – talks about a diverse society with people of different origins, cultures and customs, and that the party will do its best "to replicate diversity in its structures".

How that will be done is unclear, because there is seemingly also common agreement that the imposition of quotas in the party is antithetical to its "values of democracy".

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Mmusi Maimane was elected DA leader at the party's congress in Port Elizabeth on May 10, 2015.

"Fairness" according to Maimane means an acknowledgement that unfairness in society is still to a large extent based on race and that steps need to be taken to address it, be it through redress or affirmative action. That seems a departure from the party's previous approach, which, while in support for active intervention in righting past wrongs, was much more focused on "a level playing field for all".

The end of Zuma – a reprieve for the ANC – came at the exact same time as the Cape Town drought crisis and bitter fight with Patricia de Lille.

Beyond the perennial South African issue of race, the DA will have to adopt clear and alternate policies to the governing party's. At the conclusion of its congress, the DA must be able to articulate its positions on the economy, small business, land reform, health and education.

Shortly after the municipal election, at the beginning of last year, the optimism in the party was palpable, with internal workshops around governance and planning for national government taking place. The end of Zuma – a reprieve for the ANC – came at the exact same time as the Cape Town drought crisis and bitter fight with Patricia de Lille.

This weekend's congress is an opportunity for a reset – and for Maimane to set the course for the almighty battle which will be next year's election.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR

1. Will the term of leadership be extended from three to five years, and how will it affect Maimane's position in the party?

2. Will the National Management Committee, tasked with the day-to-day running of the party, be shrunk – and what will the effect on internal democracy be?

3. Will the stoic Athol Trollip be able to hold off the challenge from popular Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga for the position of federal chairperson?

4. How will the party construct the diversity clause in its constitution, and what will the impact be on its ideology?

5. Will the party be able to prepare and articulate policy positions clearly different from the ANC, and will these resonate with voters?