The DA cannot seem to win. If they perform well at the polls, it is put down to ANC voters staying away. And if they don't perform, the critics say the party has been found out.
The country's largest opposition party concluded its federal congress on Sunday afternoon with a stirring call to arms by its leader, Mmusi Maimane, who implored his charges to focus on the 2019 general election and knock on every door in the country for the party to achieve what it has set out to do: unseat the ANC as the governing party. Roughly 2,000 delegates left the Pretoria showgrounds seemingly enthused about the road ahead, united by a newly elected leadership and certain about ideology.
DA operators say the party is growing exponentially, that it has reached out to between three and four times more potential voters in Gauteng alone since the 2016 municipal election and that the decision to relocate the party's headquarters to Johannesburg (in Bruma) are signs of a party preparing for electoral leaps. There is confidence that the DA will be able to build on the support of its estimated 650,000 black votes (in the municipal election in 2016) and that its main target, the Gauteng provincial government, is within reach.
It certainly looks every bit the professional outfit, with the "business side" of the party managed by a CEO and a team of executives to ensure that the political side of the organisation is served with the infrastructure and resources needed to grow its footprint. The congress is also a far cry from the days of yore, with the venue styled in the tradition of US political events, complete with the pageantry, sloganeering and signage.
But there wasn't much in the sense of hard policy discussions about job creation, the alleviation of poverty, the complex issue of land reform and restitution, health, education or social welfare.
The congress certainly was not besieged by a "race war" as some would have it and there were no obvious lines of division between different groupings or factions. While race was the hot-button topic, as it is everywhere in South Africa, a number of important policy positions were affirmed and amendments to the party's constitution effected.
But there wasn't much in the sense of hard policy discussions about job creation, the alleviation of poverty, the complex issue of land reform and restitution, health, education or social welfare. Yes, resolutions were put to delegates, some changes made and then voted on. But the DA is pretty much staying the course it was on before congress. No rumble about issues similar to the ANC's conference at Nasrec, which, while totally dominated by the leadership battle, did produce conundrums such as expropriation without compensation. Besides giving workers the choice of opting out of the national minimum wage and agreeing to can the VAT increase should the DA come into government tomorrow, there hasn't been a sea change in party positions.
There was some degree of unrest among delegates about the manner in which the party finalised its policy positions. A number of speakers took to the stage to bemoan the fact that policy had largely been decided before the congress by the DA's federal council and only after that being put to a vote in front of delegates. This, they said, is undemocratic and there should be more space to discuss and fine-tune policy by congress, which, like the ANC's national conference, is the highest decision-making body in the party.
Beyond policy, the party has taken a firm stance on racial quotas. It's constitution now says explicitly that the party is not in favour of racial quotas and that it will "take action" to ensure diversity in its ranks. The original clause to be inserted into the constitution referred to efforts to "replicate" diversity in its ranks. It was then amended by removing the word "replicate", which insinuated a form of manipulation, to add the words "without recourse to rigid formulae or quotas". This phrase was removed wholly and the clause moved to another section of the constitution, which means the party's commitment to diversity – without resorting to quotas – is now firmly entrenched.
The party is clear on land reform and restitution, saying it will defend the property clause in the Constitution and that it believes giving title deeds to those who want them - in rural or urban areas - is an important part of an extremely complex process.
"I'm extremely happy with this," Maimane told HuffPost afterwards. "It was something I fought for." It does, however, remain insightful that the traditional custodian of liberalism has to explicitly include a clause to champion diversity, one that implicitly rejects quotas. Many in the DA say the reason for this is in reaction to the growing internal pressure in the party to adopt "ANC-style" quotas and classification to ensure representation.
This approach was roundly rejected by Maimane and others after the congress, with Refiloe Nt'sekhe, newly elected deputy federal chairperson, saying she is "comfortable" with the leadership election, the electorate and her the composition of the leadership core.
The party is clear on land reform and restitution, saying it will defend the property clause in the Constitution and that it believes giving title deeds to those who want them - in rural or urban areas - is an important part of an extremely complex process. This sets it apart from the ANC and the EFF.
DA members seem to be largely in lockstep behind Maimane and the blue edifice constructed over the past decade. The party appears to be grappling with various internal issues, which seems to be a function of a growing political organisation where position, power and policy will always be contested – race and the debacle around Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille being cases in point.
The DA's congress, as far as these things go, was pretty uneventful. The leader was elected unopposed, the party entrenched traditional beliefs about race and individuality in its constitution, and it started to put flesh on the bones of its land strategy.
For Maimane and co, it's steady as she goes.