DA should abandon crowded left, return to the centre – IRR

The Democratic Alliance’s lacklustre performance in the May elections has been chewed over by many analysts. From a steadily rising number of supporters since its inception in 2000; it has flatlined and lost supporters for the first time which some MPs have attributed to the racist leanings of former DA supporters who defected to the Freedom Front Plus. RW Johnson has told the DA it should apologise to its Afrikaans supporters for that slur and that the DA has to do some introspection on the way it treats its own members including Helen Zille. Our own Felicity Duncan wrote that by moving to the centre of South African politics, the DA has lost its right-leaning voters to the likes of the FF Plus. A Policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relation Sara Gon does not agree. She says the DA was always at the centre and the reason why it did not do any better in the recent elections was because it took a step to the left into a “already crowded terrain.” There appears not to be consensus on what went wrong with the DA; it however proves that the heat is on the party to do proper research and correct the mistakes they made if they don’t want to fade into obscurity in South Africa. – Linda van Tilburg

Really moving back to the middle is the DA’s challenge

By Sara Gon*

Felicity Duncan says that ‘some observers’ have interpreted the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) loss of voters to the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) to be a sign that ‘its attempt to become more mainstream is a mistake’. (The Editorial, The Daily Insider, BizNews, 24 May).

Duncan argues: ‘By moving to the centre of South African politics, the DA has lost its right-leaning voters to the likes of the FF Plus.’

Sara Gon

We at the Institute of Race Relations interpret the DA’s election failures differently.

First, the DA isn’t ‘moving to the centre’. The previous iterations of the DA were always at the centre: the DA lost voters to the ‘right’ because it was moving to the left, against its liberal principles, into an already crowded terrain. Its stance on black economic empowerment, the propensity of black DA politicians to making comments that offend and alienate white supporters, and the party’s failure to run a clear campaign uncontaminated by clichéd homilies contributed to the DA’s mess.

Since 2015, African National Congress (ANC) heavies from then president Jacob Zuma to many more, have upped the ante on whites. The DA has not denounced the ANC sufficiently when loose and racist comments are made either by the EFF or, more pertinently, the ANC. The lack of concern about farm murders, and even derision of such concern, comments supporting the marketing concept of ‘white monopoly capitalism’ – designed by Bell Pottinger to take attention away from Zuma – and its role in such incidents as the Schweizer-Reneke debacle are among the factors which contributed to driving away voters.

It’s worth noting that many, if not most, of those voters voted for the DA in more than one earlier election. The FF+ has been in existence and in parliament for 25 years, yet it has only picked up DA voters now. This is not the fault of the voters, but of the DA itself. It completely under-estimated the sobering effect on voters that its role in the Schweizer-Reneke debacle played.

The mess made of the Patricia de Lille controversy lost Coloured voters, not because they like De Lille but because they see only black leaders, no Coloured leaders.

The barrage of anti-white accusations and worse from the ANC, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Black First, Land First have weighed down on white voters and the DA leadership has been missing in action. There are probably two reasons for this: a faction in the party that actually believes this propaganda, and tied to this belief, statements and actions that show support for it. Either way, a lack of fundamental, classically liberal principle is missing.

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The DA certainly has to do much more to attract black voters and particularly those who didn’t register and, if they did, who didn’t vote. The number in this category is greater than the sum of people who voted. (The DA wasn’t alone in failing on this score. Every party failed, even the EFF, which grew on the back of young black support, didn’t do as much as it should have, or didn’t get it right.)

The DA’s campaign sounded like the ANC’s – repetitive, lacking in focus and unimaginative.

There’s a tendency to believe that if parties don’t offer what the populace want, they won’t attract votes. This is fundamentally wrong: a political party forms on the basis of certain principles and offers to achieve what voters want by virtue of the practical application of those principles. If the party can sell those principles and ideas, they’ll attract votes.

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When people say that the DA hasn’t done enough to attract black votes, there is an assumption that there is a gap between what their current voters want and what potential voters want. Why should there be? The DA has to reinvent itself, and daily polls and focus groups clearly won’t do it.

The DA has to do some soul searching and move back to the middle. Otherwise its best role will remain legal challenges to the ruling, immoderate elite. And that role will become irrelevant if it doesn’t grow.

  • Sara Gon is a Policy Fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by sending an SMS to 32823 (SMSes cost R1, Ts and Cs apply).