South Africa's official national opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has been growing in popularity since 2004 — it now governs one province and key metropolitan municipalities across the country — but it has been rocked by internal party squabbles and ideological battles during one of the most heated electoral seasons to date.
The DA's growth trajectory has remained unsullied, but as the political landscape in the country begins to change, more will have to be done if the party hopes to attract more votes in the 2019 national elections.
It faces a number of challenges as electioneering season nears:
- The party's strong-arming of Patricia de Lille out of her position as mayor of Cape Town has damaged its reputation with some voters immensely;
- It has not effectively overcome issues of transformation within its leadership structures or within its parliamentary caucus;
- The party still needs to harmonise internal positions on various policies, like the highly contentious land-redistribution process. It also needs to work through its ideological standpoint urgently, and reach consensus on socioeconomic issues like acknowledging privilege, and how to square an undisputed need for transformation with its official yardstick of "colour-blind merit".
But the party has a game plan. And since its inception, it has in most cases allowed the DA to reached its electoral goals.
The rise and rise of the DA
Substantial growth was seen in the party's local-government support between the 2011 and 2016 elections — much of it stolen from the ANC in its former strongholds.
For example, in Eastern Cape's Umzimvubu Ward 23, the party grew from 1 percent in 2011 to 45 percent in 2016. Similar growth was seen in Ntabankulu's Ward 4. In Mamelodi, the DA raised its voter support by about 23 percentage points in the five-year period between both elections. Similar growth figures were seen in Phillipi in Western Cape and eDumbe in KwaZulu-Natal.
But 2016, for the DA, was the year of the metros.
It solidified its influence in Cape Town, increasing its share of the vote from 41.85 percent in 2006 to 60.92 percent in 2011 and to 67 percent in 2016. The party also grew significantly in Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane — all while the ANC suffered major losses. Entering into coalition agreements with other smaller parties to overthrow the ANC, the DA now has its mayors governing these three metros.
Outside the metros, the party also won 19 municipalities with an outright majority.
Nationally, the DA's support base grew by just more than 1-million voters between 2009 and 2014. It saw a 33.7 percent increase in votes, claiming 22.2 percent of the national total in 2014.
It saw its support increase by more than 40 percent in Gauteng, doubled its share of the vote in Northern Cape, and became the official opposition in KZN.
Run up to 2019
In an interview with HuffPost, DA national spokesperson Refiloe Nt'sekhe admitted that although about 70 percent of the party's membership is black, its parliamentary caucus is relatively untransformed.
"We must call a spade a spade," she said. "But we are working on this. Transformation is being worked on [in] all our ranks... [The perception is that] we are a party for the middle class. But this is not true."
Speaking about its plans for the metros, Nt'Sekhe said the party has made significant change in a short time.
"We suffered immense reputational damage over De Lille, so we are trying now to restore our good name in the city. We are actively working to bridge that trust deficit. In Nelson Mandela Bay, we are communicating what we are doing and what we have done already to the people. We will use this to expand our support in the province.
"It is important to let people see progress, especially in Tshwane and Johannesburg. We inherited big messes in these metros, and in most of the municipalities we took over. But we have shown progress in a short time. The people see this. It is a ladder approach. We show people in municipalities how well we work, and in turn the rest of the province sees that. Then we can take over the province."
Asked about the DA's plans to combat the ANC post Jacob Zuma, and how the party's own policies fit into the national political environment, Nt'Sekhe said the DA will remain true to its values and continue fighting the ANC.
"We think it's a good thing we don't have a Zuma to keep harping on about. Now we can actually work and debate on policy. Yes, Ramaphosa made good changes in some Cabinet [posts], but he also retained a lot of people implicated in state capture and who are accused of wrongdoing. Problems still persist in the ANC at every level, so there is no worry for us," she said.
"Our policies are good. We still have a policy conference coming up, and the plan there is to tighten our policies further. Jobs will be at the top of our agenda for the 2019 campaign."
But is the DA reaching a plateau?
Independent political analyst Lawrence Fengu said the party has major challenges it must confront before it hopes to increase its supporter base.
"It cannot continue to ride on the wave of fighting scandals and pointing out issues in the ANC. With Ramaphosa being seen to confront the issues in his party, the DA and other opposition parties will have to amend their tactics," he said.
"Are the DA really in a position to look at the country's socioeconomic problems? One must ask, because of its leadership's reaction to Maimane's statements on white privilege. The land issue and transformation will remain a problem argument for the DA then. The only way [it] can grow significantly now, and hope to one day govern the country, is to do better in appealing to the black majority, especially the poor."
Fengu believes that if the DA does not do so, it will reach a plateau among its current constituencies.