By Paul Pereira
Helen Zille is trying to pin the fiasco of her presumptuous elevation of rival politician, and non-party member, Mamphela Ramphele, to be DA “presidential candidate” onto Ramphele. If the DA doesn’t react by putting Zille and her surrounding clique to the sword, then we may soon see the Official Opposition start its United Party-style decline.
This week’s PR disaster for the DA, following quickly on the heels of Zille’s flip-flops over her party’s stand on race-in-law, comes in defiance of the party’s philosophical traditions, and of its own democratic processes. It is the latest example of a particular grouping’s inept attempts to control the nature of a growing party.
South African politics has always been characterised by two broad, competing political philosophies: race nationalism versus the “colour-blind ideal”. These have played out over two centuries and are now broadly housed in the transformation-by-colour approach of the ruling African National Congress, opposed by the DA, heir to “Cape Liberalism”.
Beyond this fundamental difference about which approach will bring greater justice and inclusivity to the body politic, there isn’t that much to separate them, both supporting an overarching National Development Plan, and both wedded to an expanding welfare state.
The ANC’s race-based traditions are long-toothed, and saw it organise in race-based “congresses” until it’s banning in 1960. Whites were only allowed general membership in 1968 and NEC membership in 1985.
For its part, the DA is the long result of a movement for colour-blind law and outcomes that began with 1828’s Ordinance 50 outlawing legal race discrimination in the Cape Colony. That colony’s later parliament saw a formally non-racial voter’s roll, although property qualifications effectively restricted the black franchise. As the colony expanded eastward and absorbed more blacks, so did white politicians restrict the open franchise, although liberals were sometimes able to hold their ground. But among whites, they were ever a minority.
And so it went into a 20th century of extreme segregation, with liberals and communists eventually reduced to sitting in parliament as “native representatives” until soon after mid-century.
Since then, liberal politicians have sought mergers with others of similar mind, but worried at having the non-racial political character of their own parties changed from within through absorption of newcomers.
This was a worry through the years of Helen Suzman’s Progressives expansion into the Progressive Reform Party, then Progressive Federal Party, then to its merger with the Independents and the National Democratic Movement to form the Democratic Party in 1989.
The biggest alarm for liberals, though, came with the DP’s merger with the New National Party in 2000, a process taking in the bulk of members and voters of apartheid’s former National Party. How to stop new members from changing the DA?
Increasingly, DA leaders (still mainly from the DP liberal rump) took to a version of the ANC’s Leninist “democratic centralism” whereby decisions would be imposed top-down on what had traditionally been a democratic process of branch-up power.
So it is that this year local party electoral colleges no longer decided DA candidates for the general election – they now just “recommend” names to the centre. Indeed, candidates now jump through hoops of psychometric testing and questioning set by Deloitte and Touche, of all people. Others are farmed through newspaper adverts and then put through courses and teambuilding exercises. Party leaders can cull the ones they don’t like at any time.
This means the rise of the “professional politician” in the DA, the demise of grassroots control of the party, and its paid, elected representatives being beholden to party leadership, rather than the countrywide members of this voluntary association. It is a complete sea-change in the locus of power within the party, a coup-by-stealth of a Cape-based leadership that pays little attention to DA formations beyond the Hottentots Hollands.
DA branch chairs and members across SA have taken this usurping of their traditional power without even a whimper, a shame that has even led to a serious attempt to have a complete outsider imposed on them as their leading candidate.
That such an imposition should have been justified on grounds of race is an insult to members of all races in the DA as being unworthy of the role, never mind being a flagrant repudiation of the very alternative approach to the politics of pigment that the DA supposedly offers.
The message to white voters – that theirs is to be content with being electoral fodder – will not be missed. Already they are staying away in some areas where the DA should have been able to rely on their support. Increasingly, they will choose the option of whites in Zimbabwe and Namibia – heads down, and politically inactive.
This would be disastrous for our democracy on many levels. For the DA, it would be the beginning of their UP moment – a rehash of the United Party’s unravelling in 1977, just three years after its greatest post-1948 electoral success.
Probably the only way for ordinary DA members to prevent this outcome is to take back their party from the Cape Cabal – it starts with ordinary members speaking up for the DA of internal debate, bottom-up power, and a non-racial alternative in South African politics – the DA they joined in the first place.
– Pereira was Democratic Party national youth leader in 1992.