Zille has a pathway to the future; not a set strategy for the DA – Response to RW Johnson

A spat has erupted between the Democratic Alliance Federal Chairperson Helen Zille and RW Johnson, after Johnson shot down Zille’s “strategy” for the DA that she articulated at the third BizNews Conference (BNC#3). Zille says Johnson’s attack on her analysis was “twisted and false”. In this article, Zille is at pains to point out her analysis of the next 10 years in South Africa and how the DA should position itself for the future, is not a ‘Zille strategy’ but rather a scenario or pathway into the future. Zille also denies she has expressed “unlimited confidence in President Ramaphosa” but says she does believe Ramaphosa is a constitutionalist at heart. These two heavyweights will both be at BNC#4 to be held from August 30 to September 2 at the Champagne Resort in the Drakensberg. Zille and Johnson are known to speak their minds, but we can be confident it will all be in good spirits and will not result in a ‘Will Smith’ moment. – Linda van Tilburg

RW Johnson’s attack on my analysis is twisted and false

By Helen Zille* 

In RW Johnson’s recent article on Politicsweb he attacks (yet again) his own distorted version of what he claims is my analysis of the politically messy decade that lies ahead for South Africa.

He has dubbed my analysis the “Zille strategy”. It is not a strategy; it is a scenario, a possible pathway into the future. This, of course, is entirely different from a strategy, as he should know.

What’s more, I (and others) have been discussing scenarios for the realignment of politics for over a decade, as my colleagues can attest. As circumstances change, some scenarios become more feasible than others. Indeed, in the short time available to me at the BizNews conference, I referred in passing to four other scenarios recently compiled by Jakkie Cilliers of the Institute for Strategic Studies, and suggested which I thought would be most likely to unfold (given current circumstances). Of course, this projection may change. That is how scenario planning works.

Confusing a scenario with strategy, Johnson lambasts me for supposedly revealing DA strategy in public. I have not done so, and nor am I in a position to do so. My role in the party is primarily internal, to ensure strategies are implemented, once they have been accepted by the relevant structures under the leadership of John Steenhuisen.

Johnson also claims that I have “unlimited confidence only in Ramaphosa”. This statement is a complete invention. It is not even a valid deduction from my analysis. The opposite is true. I was busy debunking the rampant Ramaphoria even before the 2019 election. And my projection of South Africa’s possible future over the next decade is based precisely on my lack of confidence in Ramaphosa’s leadership. He hasn’t got the qualities required – grit, drive and courage – to do what is necessary.

Yet, I do believe he is a constitutionalist at heart. Although that does not turn him into a leader, it is certainly preferable to the growing chorus of voices in the ANC’s ranks calling for an end to our constitutional democracy and a return to the sovereignty of parliament.

Sihle Zikalala, premier of KwaZulu-Natal, is the latest politician to add his voice to this demand to enable an electoral majority (comprising the ANC’s RET faction and the EFF) to impose its will on everyone else, irrespective of how many rights they violate in the process, while emasculating the courts’ role in preventing power abuse.

To say I prefer the position taken by Ramaphosa certainly does not imply that I have “unlimited confidence only in Ramaphosa”. In fact, attributing this view to me is a blatant falsehood.

Next, Johnson ascribes to me the view that the DA’s only hope is to become the junior partner in a coalition with our chief opponent, and bizarrely suggests I am “begging” for such a deal.

My current role in the DA includes overseeing some two dozen coalitions across seven provinces. In all but one of these coalitions, the DA is the majority party, its anchor tenant.

Ironically, the one in which we are the junior partner sometimes works more smoothly than some in which we are the largest party by a substantial margin. Often, we have little in common with our coalition partners and sometimes they even have a publicly stated agenda of destroying us.

Yet, in specific circumstances, in certain municipalities, we have concluded that attempting to govern in such complex coalitions is preferable to being in opposition. In other cases, we opt for an opposition role instead.

These decisions are contextual. We make them on the basis of answering some key questions: what are our options; what would be in the best interests of the residents; and which choice would best advance these interests?

More often than not, it is a matter of choosing the least-worst option because there is none that can be described as “good”, let alone “best”. This is how Realpolitik works. To quote a famous politician (who also studied at Oxford): “The key question to ask in politics is: compared to what?”

As we make hard choices in highly uncertain contexts, we ask ourselves that question every day.

There are places where we could conceivably be in a coalition government, but have declined to do so because we do not believe the circumstances are propitious to establish a foundation for good governance. We believe it is preferable for the residents (and for the DA) to be an effective opposition, rather than a paralysed partner in a failing government. And we have certainly never begged to become a junior partner anywhere, to anyone.

Of course, it is far preferable to govern with an overall majority as we do in 12 towns as far afield as Cape Town, Midvaal and Umgeni. There residents can really see the DA difference. But winning a 50% is not a realistic option as we prepare for national elections.

Even the ANC, that former political colossus, is likely to slip below 50%, and South Africa will be irreversibly in coalition country, in all nine provinces, well into the future. More and more, we will be asking ourselves whether we should enter complex coalitions. Sometimes we will take the plunge, sometimes we won’t, and sometimes the only option will be to do so as a junior partner. Our yardstick must always be what we consider (after serious thought and consultation) to be in the best interests of our democracy and the quality of government, which has a profound effect on the lives of people living there.

One of the positive attributes of coalitions is that, if things do not work out as envisaged, there are mechanisms to withdraw. We can try, and fail, without fatal consequences.

We have, however, resolved never to go into coalitions with parties that have a diametrically opposing political philosophy to ours, such as the EFF or the RET faction of the ANC. In the years ahead, we will be faced with very difficult coalition choices. Our decisions have to be based on comparing the options that exist in the real world, and choosing the least worst.

Overall, however, we believe coalitions, as difficult as they are to manage, tend to advance our cause and have the potential to become magnets, drawing together the ‘rational centre’ in politics. Yes, I do believe there are rational centrists in parties other than the DA, but that does not turn me into a supplicant. And it does not endanger the DA as a party. In fact, to suggest this is tendentious at best.

Even worse is the suggestion that I am proposing the dissolution of the DA. When this was mooted some years ago, I vigorously opposed it. Coalitions do not imply dissolution. Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of politics knows this.

Johnson also knows that the DA evolved to become the substantial political force it is today, not by retaining the pristine purity of its Prog days, but through a series of mergers, acquisitions and adaptations which contributed to our organic growth.

We once had a single public representative in the country. Now we have 1,779. Between then and now, the Progressive Party became the Progressive Reform Party, the Progressive Federal Party, the Democratic Party and then the DA. In this step we merged with our arch-opponent the New National Party (NNP), a move far more daring and dangerous than any coalition option I have ever mooted.

Many accused us of selling-out back then. And even though the Democratic Party was the junior partner, by far, to the NNP in the Western Cape (the only province in which we had any hope of governing) we eventually succeeded in ensuring that liberal values triumphed.

A lot has happened in the DA’s past that was far more challenging than what I envisage for our future. Most scenarios are overtaken by events, particularly ‘Black Swan’ events that cannot be foreseen.

Our party’s evolution will continue. The decades that lie ahead will require as much dexterity and determination as the decades behind us, and generate just as much controversy. We have done extremely risky and audacious things before, and no doubt will do so again if the structures responsible for formulating DA strategy think there is at least an even chance of advancing our cause and breaking the current logjam of our politics through making a bold decision.

These won’t be my decisions. I am not the leader. And even the leader, in the DA, is rarely empowered to make such major decisions alone. We are a party of due process.

As Churchill apparently said: success is never final, failure is rarely fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts. And that we have, in abundance.

Through all these very difficult transitions in the past, even when all seemed lost, we triumphed in the end because of the quality of the gladiators who were actually in the arena. Not the scribes and soothsayers scribbling in the spectator stands.

I would never knowingly give up the fight for our values. The reason I returned to active politics in 2019 was to take up that fight again, following the release of a report that detailed how the party had lost its way between the 2016 and 2019 elections. We had to find our compass again, and together with many others, I was determined to ensure that we did. We are well on the road to recovery.

Of course, I have made mistakes in my political career. All leaders do. The only people who think they are infallible are political commentators who sometimes distort history to demonstrate the brilliance of their perspicacity through the rear-view mirror.

Some of my strategic errors grew out of my firm belief that our message of non-racialism, constitutionalism, and market-based economics could be conveyed more credibly in our complex society by a black leader. I made repeated premature attempts to achieve this outcome, and to step down as leader myself. None of them worked. And although I was not alone in driving this strategy, I do entirely accept responsibility for its failure.

It is also necessary, for the record, to note that I never approached Mamphela Ramphele to enter politics or join the DA. She approached me with that suggestion, and when I responded positively, she repeatedly vacillated and changed her mind. The fact that I was willing to accommodate her initial approach was indeed a grievous error. But I also know that if I had turned my back on the request from a person of her status and international recognition, I would have faced just as much flak.

While I willingly acknowledge my mistakes, I refuse to be accused of doing things I have never done, or of believing things that have never entered my head, or of devising strategies that are figments of a critic’s imagination. This is a game that I won’t facilitate.

Unlike politicians, commentators are rarely held to account for their errors of judgement.

Johnson ends his piece by exhorting the DA to do some “proper thinking” about the dangers and strategic opportunities that are emerging from what I have described as the “inexorable decline of the country under a failing state”. It may surprise him to know that we are doing exactly that. Moreover, we regularly invite experts to help us in our quest, and just yesterday, our Federal Council was addressed by two such experts well-versed in scenario planning.

Finally, I will end by citing a famous passage attributed to one of the best presidents of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming. But who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

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