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News24.com | Ralph Mathekga: The DA has been crippled by playing populist politics. It’s not too late to recover

2019-10-08 07:34

The fact that the DA failed to grow in the elections this year should not discourage the party from pursuing a vision based on inclusivity and tolerance, writes Ralph Mathekga.

The official
opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) is in a tailspin, about to crash out
of opposition politics. Recent developments within the party have exposed deep
seated divisions mainly on which direction the party should take to renew its
legitimacy as an opposition party capable of winning elections.

A few months ago,
on May 8, voters issued a harsh notice to the DA saying that the party’s
opposition style is becoming stale and lacks imagination. In the period leading
to the elections, it was clear that the DA was going to face electoral
stagnation for the first time in its existence.

Since the 2014
general elections, the DA’s opposition style has faced serious challenges, and
the problem has only been growing since then. Its main challenge came in the
form of the EFF becoming an opposition party following the elections.

The EFF went to Parliament
with a simple idea in mind: to pursue a simple disruptive opposition style. It
was ultimately rewarded for its project of disrupting Jacob Zuma’s
administration with marginal growth in the 2019 elections.

Since the EFF
joined Parliament, the DA has found itself becoming more radical in its
opposition posture towards the ANC. The DA was also enticed to pursue
disruptive politics through which to show relevance in the policy discourse.
The challenge with this shift was that the DA has a long history as a party
that cherishes consensus politics, instead of being a disruptive party.

Even whilst
struggling with positioning the party on race related issues, the DA has in the
past pursued moderate politics largely propagating efficiency of government.
Beyond efficiency, there just wasn’t much about the DA as a political party.

In contrast, in the
2014 elections, the EFF proved that rhetorical populist politics completely
devoid of substance but preying on the genuine fears of the people can be electorally
rewarding. The party performed relatively well in its first election in 2014 after
staging an anti-capitalist and anti-establishment campaign. It would
subsequently intensify this strategy as an opposition party by attacking just
about everyone, growing further in the 2019 elections.  

Before the EFF
was formed, the DA pursued a “get along” opposition style towards the
ANC. The party did not challenge the moral legitimacy of the ANC to govern and
even implement policy. In those years, it was not embarrassing for the DA to be
cordial to the ANC under Thabo Mbeki’s leadership. The DA’s chief proposition
as a political party was simply to be a better implementer of ANC policies. Its
opposition style was relatively amicable.

The entry of the
EFF as a serious competitor in the opposition space – backed by its continuing
growth – is the main issue that has precipitated the DA’s identity crisis. The
EFF rattled and radicalised both the DA and the ANC, with the ANC embracing
more radical policy postures to counteract the growing popularity of the EFF.

If we take into
consideration the fact that the two most radical political parties were
rewarded with electoral growth in the 2019 elections (i.e. the EFF and Freedom
Front Plus), it is understandable that the DA is currently vulnerable to a
heist by radicals in the party who posture as true liberals who will guarantee
the party a place in history.

By positioning
the DA as a radical minority party with the pretence of protecting individual
freedom, the DA will have opted for an easier route that guarantees certainty
in terms of its political support base. The DA will be guaranteed a place as a
serious contender when it comes to rallying (most likely the white
conservatives) as the main electoral base of the party. This route is seen by
some in the party as the only one that guarantees its survival. I find this
option quite short-sighted and lacking in imagination.

The DA can
embrace change and explore opportunities to reposition itself as a party of the
future that pursues consensus moderate politics based on multiculturalism and
multiracialism, among other progressive ideals. The fact that the DA failed to
grow in the elections this year should not discourage the party from pursuing a
vision based on inclusivity and tolerance.

These are
characteristics of the politics of moderation, as opposed to narrow radicalism
representing the privileges of the few instead of building a more inclusive
society based on shared values. This choice would require deeper and honest
reflections by DA members, yet the choice does not guarantee survival of the
DA. This however provides wider opportunities for the DA to become a party that
is genuinely concerned with building an inclusive society. 

Whether or not Mmusi
Maimane is removed as party leader, the DA still has to address the question of
whether it will shift towards protecting narrow interests, or will opt for the
noble and yet uncertain future of trying to build an inclusive society.

– Dr Ralph Mathekga is a political analyst and author of When Zuma Goes and Ramaphosa’s Turn.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views.The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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