DA strategy unravels – IRR’s Cronjé

CAPE TOWN — Thought-provoking and credible, if laced with a touch of “I told you so,” this retrospective analysis by Institute of Race Relations CEO, Frans Cronjé, demands an answer from the DA, accused as it is of “going soft” on the ANC. Cronjé argues that the DA, under Mmusi Maimane, made a cardinal strategic error in the early Zuma years by abandoning its liberal principles in favour of trying to woo ANC supporters away with watered down ANC-like policies. The DA alumni argued in a think-tank Cronjé was part of, that their traditional support base was too thin to swell their support, so poaching people from the ANC was a no-brainer. Cronjé warned that they’d come short should the ANC reform itself with an entirely new approach instead of drowning in a cesspool of corruption and dysfunction. By failing to offer a clear alternative, based on solid liberal values, the DA risked becoming a watered-down version of the ANC as those it targeted returned to the reformed ruling party fold. Given the almost unprecedented opportunity for the DA to make hay while the Zuptoid clouds gathered and rained on our parade, Cronjé claims they messed-up, big time. The DA’s poll results illustrate this all too well, he says. Story courtesy of The Daily Friend. – Chris Bateman

Soft-ANC has failed and the DA must go back to liberalism

By Frans Cronjé*

“I’ve never wished a man dead but I have read some obituaries with a great deal of satisfaction” is a quote disputably attributed to Mark Twain and one, I am sure, that comes close to how many critics of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in the liberal community feel about the party’s appalling election performance.

Of course, there is no satisfaction in its regression, but the results firmly establish that the DA leadership’s mad strategy to jettison its liberal heritage in favour of a “soft-ANC” approach has failed and must be abandoned.       

Frans Cronje
Frans Cronjé

You should not tell about mostly private meetings, but this one took place quite a number of years ago, many of the people in attendance have moved on, and I will remain deliberately vague about the detail – but given the DA’s election showing the story justifies telling.

It goes something like this.

A number of years ago a group of opposition strategists got together with some think-tankers for an informal chat about the future of opposition politics. At around that time, the IRR had attracted some critical scrutiny for developing an argument that the ANC might surprise its critics, change direction, and get its act together. The argument was published through a short scenario set that we called New Dawn vs Dark Night.

A number of versions of the argument were published, some in private and some in the media, one of which from 2013 you can read here.

Going by the date, you can see that we produced the argument well ahead of both the 2014 and 2016 national and local elections. At the time, the era of Jacob Zuma was just getting into full swing. Those in the know understood the full extent of the looting and destruction of institutions that was taking place, although the public was only beginning to see the same picture.

That was a time that had seen the ANC lose its better people. COPE was still a thing – and seen as the political home of the Mbeki-ites. Those leaders remaining in the ANC had abandoned the partial pragmatism of GEAR and leftist ideologues were back in charge. The economy was not going to follow emerging markets out of the global financial crisis. Living standards were beginning to stagnate. Levels of protest were rising. The media and civil society were poised to turn on the ANC.

For the opposition, it could not have been better scripted and the assembled trends were stacking up as the greatest opportunity liberal politicians in South Africa had ever confronted.

Our Dark Night scenario suggested that the events being set in motion would not be interrupted. The ANC could not reform or win back public confidence. Public opinion would turn against the ANC and its policies and demand for an opposition alternative would surge. It was an outcome in which practically any policy offering from the DA was sure to secure growing electoral support.

But New Dawn said something else. I quote the critical paragraph from the piece referenced above – “increasing demands on the ANC, and its declining resources to meet those demands, serve as a catalyst for policy reform. The reformists within the party, building largely on the blueprint laid down in the National Development Plan, seize policy control of the ANC and bring about a series of initially unpopular changes that do, however, have the long-term outcome of securing that party’s future in power”.

In other words, at odds with established trends, we asked the question: what might happen should the ANC, at the very end, and by a whisper, turn itself around, elect a respectable leader, and try to change tack?

In this, we explained to the assembled attendees, lay a great risk to the DA.

As Mr Zuma came to power, the DA had begun to position itself as a better version of the ANC, rather than a clear liberal alternative to the ANC. The argument from DA strategists was that the ANC was sure to fail while the DA’s traditional support base had nowhere else to go. The party could therefore begin to adopt soft versions of ANC policy and even endorse former ANC stalwarts and leaders (some of whom were welcomed into its ranks) in order to attract disillusioned ANC voters with little risk to the DA’s established voter base.

We held throughout that adopting ANC policy and icons was a very bad idea to begin with. Just as it was a bad idea to welcome leaders without a firm commitment to liberal principles. After all, it was ANC policy and ideas, and the people who had driven those ideas, that were responsible for the ANC failing. But we said, and reiterated that night, that the strategy would end in disaster if the ANC found a way out of the Zuma rut and turned to reform. If that happened and the ANC in government drove a New Dawn campaign then why would voters vote for the imitation when the real-deal was back on offer? Arguably, then, even traditional DA voters might vote for the ANC if the DA had managed in the interim to convince its own supporters of the merits of ANC thinking.

Much better, it seemed, would be to offer a clear liberal alternative to the ANC. Stand firm against race-based policy and push empowerment policies that are based on actual socio-economic disadvantage.

But the bulk of my companions that evening would have none of it and rejected the prospects for ANC reform out of hand. It could not happen. It would not. The ANC was done and incapable of reform. Look at what you know is going on, at Mr Zuma. The ANC is past the point of no return and there is no way back. I was mad, at best, and a sleeper agent from the ANC at worst. Only a minority of attendees urged caution – acknowledging that if our New Dawn scenario did materialise then the implications for the DA’s strategy would indeed be profound.

Read also: Dear Mmusi, I quit! Read Gwen Ngwenya’s full resignation letter

I don’t think the New Dawn has materialised and I remain sceptical that it will. Certainly none of the reforms we included in our New Dawn argument are on the table now from the ANC. But the ANC has achieved something else that in politics is almost as good; in electing Mr Ramaphosa as its leader, it has created the impression that a “new dawn” is materialising.

The consequences we see in the results of this week’s election. The ANC is down but the ANC/EFF collective, which is the far more important unit of analysis, is as strong as it has been at any point in the past 20 years. The official opposition, however, has been hammered. It has not grown its support and has lost support in key strongholds, including the areas it governs. In the Western Cape, where it has governed well, its support is down several percentage points. In the urban centres of Gauteng its support is stagnant, and the final count may even show that it has regressed. In Midvaal, a bastion of DA strength in Gauteng, Freedom Front+ (FF+) support is up from just over 2% to almost 9%. You can go on and on, constituency by constituency. But there is no satisfaction in it.

Ahead of the 2017 NASREC conference of the ANC, the DA’s soft-ANC policy had advanced so far that it was openly endorsing Cyril Ramaphosa and his policies. At the time, we wrote that if the DA was so keen on Mr Ramaphosa then perhaps the party faithful should vote for him – which some no doubt did this past week. But even after Mr Ramaphosa’s victory, when his “new dawn” narrative was writ large – literally – the DA continued to endorse ANC leaders and many ANC policies, and they did so right up to this week. 

Keynes was often quoted as saying that “when the facts change I change my mind” – but not in the DA. 

There are many lessons in this and two stand out:

The first is to remain open to unanticipated events and never be too sure about long-term political outcomes. The whole saga for the DA is a good example of why a lot of our work involves scenarios and not single-point forecasts. Never use short-term trends as the basis of long-term strategy. Ten years after the Rubicon speech former National Party (NP) cabinet ministers were joining the ANC – and former eastern-European inspired Marxist revolutionaries were implementing inflation targeting in South Africa. Ten years after the election that first brought Mr Zuma to power a not insignificant number of DA supporters voted ANC for the first time. Keep an open mind.

The second is that South Africa needs a clear political alternative to the ANC. That should be the DA and it should be a liberal alternative because liberalism is the natural counter to racial and ethnic nationalism. In our Annual Report, drafted some months ago (but only to be published in June), I write: “Given the bankruptcy on display in the ruling party it is all the more disappointing to see the lack of courage within the DA. It risks now the epitaph of many prominent Palestinian leaders of ‘never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity’. It has jettisoned its proud liberal heritage replacing it with a poorly tailored, and ill-concealed, counterfeit of the racial nationalist politics of the ANC.”

This election shows the results. ‘Soft-ANC’ has failed and the DA should abandon it. It is time for the DA to return to its liberal roots and to offer an alternative to the vision and ideas of the ANC – and to demonstrate in doing so how liberalism continues to offer the most effective solutions to the many social and economic crises confronting South Africa. Only then will it grow.

  • Frans Cronjé is the CEO of the Institute of Race Relations. If you like what you have just read become a Friend of the IRR if you aren’t already one by SMSing your name to 32823 or clicking here. Each SMS costs R1.’ Terms & Conditions Apply.