There is something disturbing happening in South African politics.
For near-on a decade, under the ruinous leadership of Jacob Zuma, the opposition, civil society and the fourth estate mobilised as one against the now former president. Even the ANC, in part, would join the chorus. And while the means and methods might have varied, the end was shared as a common moral and political purpose.
Many of those who, in the hegemonic age of Thabo Mbeki, had denigrated and maligned the official opposition as an inconvenient, ill-conceived nuisance, to be indulged but never endorsed, incorporated it into their single-minded narrative. Because when it came to Zuma, all weapons were best aligned in one direction. The DA’s legitimacy was thus accepted, and it was imbued with a certain moral authority.
However, with Zuma’s excommunication and the Cyril Ramaphosa presidency – and with it the manufactured hope and optimism on which South Africa has always nurtured its outlook – those once united have fallen apart. And the DA, the official opposition, has once again found itself boxed into the nuisance role assigned to it years ago, and its moral authority stripped from it.
All the old taunts are back. Where once its criticism, its talk of a “broken man”, was celebrated as righteous moral anger, now it just criticises. Where once its court actions served as the backbone of any ethical case against Zuma, now it is petty and out of touch. Where once it was a critical counter-balance, its election victories marvelled at, now it is doomed to failure.
Underpinning it all, is a widely-held belief that the party is inherently illegitimate. All the old-school ANC faithful who populated public commentary with implicit and explicit ANC-centric analysis for so long, are coming out of the shadows, revelling in their abuse of the DA, not on the basis of any actual argument as to its performance but rather some or other ideological opposition to the very idea of the party.
With that has come the return of a ubiquitous false moral equivalence: the suggestion that the DA’s internal problems are comparable to those in the ANC (a party where its members are assassinating each other in huge numbers) and that its performance in government is comparable to that of the ANC’s. As Ferial Haffajee put it the other day on Twitter, citing the Auditor-General, “The Western Cape and Gauteng continued to produce the best results – with 85% and 52% clean audits, respectively (AG PFMA report 2016/2017). @helenzille and @davidmakhura continue to run the best provinces”.
The DA, of course, has its problems, no doubt about that. But the point is, rarely if ever is it analysed on its own terms. These are simply not accepted. Its commitment to liberal non-racialism is rejected and mocked. Its principles and policy, as they exist on paper, are ignored in favour of innuendo and hearsay. Its moral authority (of which it has a great deal, earned with much effort, on issues of good governance) is dismissed out of hand as inconsequential. Its mistakes are escalated into catastrophes and the glee and joy with which people climb on the bandwagon, particularly on social media, is ridiculous. As Tim Cohen put it recently on Twitter, after the Maimane-“Mini-Mandela” debacle, “I'm not an uncritical DA enthusiast myself, but I do think media bias against the DA is getting out of hand.”
He is right.
The editor of the Sowetan, S’thembiso Msomi, in a remarkable column titled “Fold the DA for a viable alternative to the ANC to rise”, recently argued that “Perhaps it is time for the DA to die so that a more viable alternative to the governing ANC can emerge.”
It is remarkable because, simultaneously, on the back of nine years of Jacob Zuma’s destruction, the currently national ANC administration has just admitted that some 110 municipalities are effectively bankrupt, and 61% “dysfunctional” or “almost dysfunctional”. This, on top of a myriad of other failures so profound and far-reaching they cannot be properly calculated. Nevertheless, the same has never been suggested about the ANC – that it shut up shop. The Alpha and the Omega is eternal. Accompanying this, inevitably, is the twin demand that the DA erase its ideological distinctiveness, and become little more than a mere clone of the ANC.
You have to ask why that is. In what universe is it that the DA is the one that needs to shut up shop?
Here is the critical point: The patterns of behaviour that have defined the ANC, of corruption and mismanagement, were accelerated under Zuma (and extended to engulf even those last bulwarks of independence and merit, such as Treasury and SARS) but were perfectly evident long before he became state president. Uncritical supporters of the ANC project do not want to accept co-responsibility for these failures, which have now become both profound and common cause.
The thinking is that, if everyone is co-opted into the grand political project of which the ANC is the ultimate custodian, there is no need to face up to the moral responsibility for the self-evident failures of that project. This belief serves to sublimate, suppress or project their guilt onto party’s like the DA which, because it has always rejected that paradigm, is thus viewed as treasonous and illegitimate. Its moral authority on the subject must be denied because to reward the party for it, is to simultaneously acknowledge how complicit so many were in South Africa’s decent towards ruin.
On both this front and in terms of performance, the DA and the ANC occupy different moral universes.
None of this is to say the DA is perfect. It is far from that. But the DA delivers more than it does not. It values excellence and runs generally clean and effective administrations. Politically and ideologically, it fights for non-racialism, upholds the constitution, defends civil liberties inside and outside of court, and will die in the ditch for accountability in parliament.
In each of these areas there are problems to be sure. It does compromise on excellence and indulge expediency. It flirts with populism on issues around race and identity. Its leadership and strategy appear recently confused and unclear. It hasn’t been that great on free speech. It is struggling with factionalism, an inevitable by-product of growth. Its coalition governments are fraught and fragile, as it desperately tries to offer an alternative model of governance. And it tends to elevate its oversight role above its duty to deliver policy and ideas.
All of these are worthy of serious criticism. Don’t think for the moment the DA doesn’t have considerable shortcomings and failures. But they have a context: an ethos that is not defined by greed, mediocrity and corruption. And that matters. Indeed, all the more reason to be critical of the DA when it strays from the course; because it, unlike the ANC, is open to persuasion, whatever the vitriol its public representatives spit out on social media. For every crisis the DA has faced, it has been met with a genuine attempt to address it in turn. The same cannot be said of the ANC.
Yet it does not enjoy any commensurate reputation. Its bona fides are never accepted. They needn’t be always accepted. The point is, they never are. Quite the contrary, it is the ANC, the party that has abused and reneged on its public trust, we are now told we must believe in. Not the DA.
Consider the past fortnight. The DA did the following things over that period: Proposed extending the child support grant, an idea shut down by the ANC on the grounds that, among other things, it would “undermine humanity”. It put forward a bill designed to ensure greater fiscal responsibility. Also rejected by the ANC. And on Friday, parliament declined a DA request for an urgent debate on the unemployment crisis, because, well, who knows? None of this resulted in a single column inch of positive editorial or opinion comment.
What was the DA’s reward for this? A hatchet job, published on the City Press front page, which suggested, on the basis of no evidence and nothing but hearsay, that a “DA split looms”. The DA, which has well over 1,000 public representatives, that newspaper would have readers believe, is about to be split down the middle because five MPs allegedly had a discussion.
As preposterous as that was, soon after it was published, it emerged that some of the people contacted for comment had denied on the record any truth to the suggestion, but were omitted from the final version of the story. DA MP Gavin Davis, for example, would tweet, “I was contacted. I gave an on-the-record comment to say that it was not true. And the paper didn't publish it.” That, frankly, is scandalous – the elevation of a clear agenda over facts to the contrary. On Monday, the Huffington Post would publish a piece in which all suspects, unnamed by the City Press, denied any truth to the story. There will, as is so often the case, be no consequences. Because it is the DA, the ultimate punching bag.
Over at the Sunday Times, in an editorial one could only describe as clueless, the DA was berated for allegedly not providing any proof Patricia de Lille was compromised. Has the Sunday Times even read the affidavits lodged at the City of Cape Town, detailing the very serious allegations against her? Bowman Gilfillan has. It says they constitute a prima facia case of wrongdoing. Hence the investigation. Has it seen the SMS de Lille supposedly sent and which she refuses to address, playing the press and public for fools? By all means, have a go at the DA for its shoddy procedures, but this idea there is no evidence is just, well, it does violence to the very idea of rationality and reason.
Elsewhere, News24 reported the following, about EFF leader Julius Malema’s Africa Day address: “Malema mocks Ramaphosa’s accent and says the President blames his parents for being black. Malema says Ramaphosa must adjust his beautiful nose so he sounds like white people”. His acolytes were busy hammering away at the racist workbench too. The EFF secretary-general (no less) described a DA public representative as a “garden boy” on Twitter. Also on Twitter, an EFF councillor would describe the DA’s Nqaba Bhanga, as a “house nigger”.
But not a murmur from the press. No problem there. Because, of course, that is fine. It is fine to be racist if you are in the EFF, because the EFF is a “black party”. It is symptomatic of another anti-DA bias: it alone is the party struggling with race and racism. Likewise, of the contempt people have for black DA voters, ignored, maligned and written out of the South African story as non-existent; they are no more than fodder.
Here is that report on Julius Malema, with the name Helen Zille transposed in his place:
“Helen Zille mocks Ramaphosa’s accent and says the President blames his parents for being black. Zille says Ramaphosa must adjust his beautiful nose so he sounds like white people”.
Now, how do you think that would have gone down? But, if the EFF - or the ANC for that matter - accuse the DA of racism, then it must be taken seriously. Both those parties act despicably on the subject, but enjoy all the moral authority regardless.
It was a typical week for the DA. It fought the good fight. Got no credit and was taken to the cleaners on Sunday. And its opponents carried on regardless.
It is worth saying something about the City Press story. First, there are no doubt rumblings in the DA about the ideological drift that has gripped the party. It is a problem and many in the DA are seized by it. But conversations are not formal plans. Politicians have conversations about many things. Second, on the evidence, it would seem a mad undertaking, to try and form a liberal party, simply because the numbers don’t exist and prospect of success – that is actually winning seats in parliament – is negligible. There is, perhaps a small market for this kind of thing, but really, whatever the DA’s problems, they represent a contest over the kind of liberalism it offers, yet generally remain within the parameters of what is liberal. The core ideological character of the DA remains perfectly intact and worth fighting for.
If it is the liberal cause people care about, then the DA is best placed to uphold it.
And that is the point. Decades of hard work, blood, sweat and tears have gone into establishing not just the idea of an opposition as legitimate and necessary, but the DA itself, as a party of four million voters and of government. The DA is a fragile, delicate idea that survives in spite of an incredible hostile, disdainful environment, that cares nothing for the service the DA provides.
The party now controls some 80% of the R233bn total budget of the metros. It governs over some 12m people in those four metros. And that is before you get to the Western Cape as a whole. And it grows, incrementally but relentlessly, election after election. But because it is not in national power, it is generally regarded as a sideshow. There is a profound disjuncture on this front, between analysis of the DA in the media and how the electorate experiences the party.
This latent impulse, that seems to permeate the South African press, is deeply disturbing. The desire seems always to weaken and damage the DA, not strengthen and improve it. To do the former, one must ignore or downplay its achievements, and suggest some false moral equivalence between it and the ANC. At the same time, to exaggerate its problems and damn it by hearsay. To do the latter, one must criticise it on its own terms, hold it up against its own principles and values and analyse it by what it purports to be, not by what people wish it was. And, just to be clear, now more than ever, the DA needs this kind of criticism, as it muddles through some of the most treacherous terrain it has ever encountered.
If people want something other than the DA to be the official opposition, by all means, advocate that and damn its particular ideology to your heart’s content. But don’t expect the DA to become what you want it to be. It is a very particular beast. And that is its offer to South Africa. It will live or die by what voters make of it, and its ability to deliver on it. But this idea that it should “shut up shop” is disgraceful.
South Africa is very quickly reverting to the characteristics that defined the age of Mbeki - a kind of omni-present and insidious deference before the ANC and President Cyril Ramaphosa. With Zuma now gone, the DA’s opposition role is now seen as redundant, and now claims are increasingly being made that the party is illegitimate, doomed and certainly no better than the ANC.
But if the DA did not exist, South Africa would be weaker for it, the ANC politically unchecked and our democracy farcical. Do you think it mere coincidence that in the provinces were the DA is the weakest, the ANC is at its most destructive? Indeed, in the ultimate irony, it is likely that the best argument Ramaphosa has against the internal ANC looters and criminals is that if the ANC does not reform, it will be the DA that benefits. The eradication of the DA, in favour of some alternative version of the ANC, is a dangerous fantasy far too many are willing to indulge. In truth, it is to attack the very nature of our constitutional dispensation and the ethos that should animate it. It is self-destructive, and it needs to stop.
Gareth van Onselen is the Head of Politics and Governance at the South African Institute of Race Relations