Early signs the DA, back under Helen Zille, could flourish – Donwald Pressly

Helen Zille has a thick skin second to none. Despite much criticism of her comments about various issues, and an outcry about her return to a key position in the Democratic Alliance, an important opposition party in South Africa’s political arena, Zille is pressing on with her vision for the party and South Africa. Many analysts have speculated that Zille’s return to power within the DA is bad for the party. But, political journalist Donwald Pressly presents an alternative view, namely that the party could become stronger. This is not Pressly sharing his wishes out loud; he presents compelling reasons, with evidence, why the DA could become a more significant force in government. His article is published here on BizNews, with kind permission. – Jackie Cameron

Zille, the Mummy 2, returns

Politics is not for sissies. Helen Zille is back in our body politic with a vengeance. But she has needed a backbone of iron – one commentator said “steel balls”, but that is not appropriate, is it? – to survive what she went through. Donwald Pressly chaired a meeting of the Cape Town Press Club with Zille at which she declared she was ready to help underpin the politics of the long haul, an idea she adopted from the late Colin Eglin. Unlike Eglin – who saw the Progressive Federal Party, the forerunner party of the DA, drop calamitously when he returned to the leadership, Pressly predicts that the DA, with Zille’s hand on the tiller, could now flourish. Pressly tracks the results of recent municipal by-elections – before and after Zille’s return to the DA leadership.

By Donwald Pressly*

Donwald Pressly

So much has been written about the “implosion” of the DA since Helen Zille bounced back from retirement last month to win the federal council chairpersonship of the official opposition. Gone, yes, are the national leader Mmusi Maimane, federal chairperson Athol Trollip and her predecessor as fedex chair James Selfe. The Mayor of Johannesburg Herman Mashaba is about to go too. It is pretty radical stuff and it has dominated the local political news.

But as two by-elections which happened on the day of Maimane’s resignation have shown, the Zille tsunami – and the likely election of John Steenhuisen to replace Maimane – may actually kick the official opposition in the opposite direction: An electoral bounce. In Gauteng’s Ekurhuleni ward 92 the DA’s share of the vote rose to 83.12% from 78.82% in the 2016 municipal poll. On the same day, October 23, in Komani (Queenstown), Enoch Mgijima municipality, in the Eastern Cape – the heartland of the ANC where Athol Trollip had been provincial DA leader – the DA lost by 78 votes, gaining a very respectable 814 votes (or 47.2 percent of the vote). The ANC won with just 892 (or 51.7%). Voters actually went to the polls in these areas on the day that Maimane resigned. They must have known that Zillenator was back when they cast their votes.

Since the October “troubles” in the official opposition, the party has gone on to retain a seat at Msunduzi municipality – right in the centre of Pietermaritzburg, the KwaZulu-Natal capital. The DA candidate won a very respectable 1073 votes (or 46.96%) compared to 942 votes (40.8%) for the ANC.

Read also: Zille and Kriel – a quirky retrospective

The EFF trailed with 33 votes. The DA’s vote rose quite sharply from 44.43% in this ward (in 2016) or 2101 votes compared ANC with 41.13%. The EFF came behind the Inkatha Freedom Party with just 189 votes then (or 3.87%). The ward 33 by-election was held on November 6, two weeks after Maimane left. In the Eastern Cape on the same day, November 6, the DA won 53.45% of the vote at Ward 2 in the Blue Crane Route (Somerset East area) municipality, Eastern Cape. The DA was dented, it was down from 59.2% in 2016.

The Maimane-led DA had been bleeding – rather badly actually – in municipal by-elections since the national election when the DA dropped to 20.77% from 22.23% in the 2014 national election. The most significant reversal was at Stilfontein, a seat won by the Freedom Front Plus with 56% of the vote on July 10. This seat in the Matlosana municipality in North West, had been won by the DA in 2016 with 64.49% of the vote with the Freedom Front coming in second with 22.98%.  It was a staggering reversal of fortunes.

Just days – on October 9 – before Maimane left, the DA did shockingly badly in Mpumalanga. The ANC won a “safe” DA seat in Bethal in the Govan Mbeki municipality with 36 percent of the vote (1965 votes). The Freedom Front Plus with 36 percent (just six votes less than the ANC) pushing the DA into third place with just 26% of the vote (it had gained 48% in 2016). Some pundits said that if the EFF had improved its performance, it would have taken support away from the ANC – and allowed the FF+ to achieve a spectacular win. It was some solace for the DA to retain a seat at Lydenburg (Thaba Chweu), also in Mpumalanga, with 48% of the vote on the same day (but this represented quite a drop from 79% in 2016). The Freedom Front came a good second with 33% (up from eight percent), and the ANC 18% (up from 10%). The EFF achieved just one percent (down from two percent). The generally appalling showing of the EFF in by-elections since May is a story still to be written.

Read also: RW Johnson: DA leadership’s juvenile attacks on Zille are idiotic.

Zille is not one for predictions, but she did say at the Press Club that the party’s internal polls have “stabilised and were moving slowly up”.  Her reference to the “long haul” of Eglin – who replaced Frederik van Zyl Slabbert as leader when he bailed out in 1986 – suggests that Zille believes that the party is going to have a bit of a rough ride. In the 1987 election the PFP dropped precipitously from 27 seats in the (white) assembly to 17. The Democratic Party, established in 1998 and which incorporated the PFP, bounced the party back to 33 seats – but it did not return as official opposition in the (white) house of assembly – in 1989. But by 1993, the DA became the largest minority party in the tri-cameral parliament, with significant seats in the House of Representatives and House of Delegates. The DP was savaged in the 1994 elections and would have gone off the political map if it were for the new proportional representation system, which gave it 1.7 percent (and seven seats in the new National Assembly in the first democratic election of 1994). It was Tony Leon who led the party back to official opposition status in 1999 – and Zille, who became party leader in 2007, who grew the DA from there in the 2009 and 2014 elections.

Back to the present. One of the leading DA figures who attended Zille’s address to the press club after her stunning return – described by Zille’s former speech writer Jon Cayzer as her Thatcher-like “The Mummy Returns” event – said she had been depressed by the public image of the party while Maimane had been in office. Since the DA Mummy Return, the party devotee said, party workers had been imbued with a new fighting spirit. Greg Krumbock, the party’s chief election organiser and MP representing KwaZulu-Natal, has made his feelings known about the new spirit.

His sense is that the tide was turning. To quote Facebook:  “Loving every minute of living on the edge and driving our party forward.” The author himself was involved in PFP youth politics at the time when Van Zyl Slabbert left, ushering Eglin in. The author does not believe that the return of Zille is in any way similar to Eglin. We all inwardly knew that Eglin somehow did not have the “krag” – or the personality – to win votes for the party.

Quite frankly, Zille, who is notorious for phoning up every single MP – or councillor when she was mayor of Cape Town – when there is a crucial vote to win, will not be another Eglin. She has invested too much in the party for it to continue on a losing streak. Significantly the Institute of Race Relations CEO Frans Cronjé has hit the nail on the political jackpot, so to speak, in his “You are foolish to believe the ‘lies’ about the DA (published in BizNews on 12 November).

He strips away at the fictional writing of so many journalists – some would call them a claque of race baiters – who ‘analysed’ the DA and its implosion or, as Yonela Diko, a former ANC official, put it, ‘extinction’. Even Moneyweb ran a Bloomberg article by Antony Squazzin referred to the “DA implosion” backing up his angle with a quote from one Claude Baissac, head of Eunomix Business and Economics, a political risk advisory firm. Baissac wrote the DA off simply: “To be a kind of Anglo Saxon liberal-style party in a country that is affected by devastating unemployment and racial inequality is absurd.”

Not so, said Cronjé – who continues to be blamed by Maimane for leading his ousting. Cronjé said there was not an exodus of black leaders in recent weeks. Five had left, of whom two were black. One, of course was Maimane. The latter had left on the suggestion by the review panel formed by Maimane himself.

It had called on him to resign after the poor 2019 election result. Cronjé says it is a lie that black people will only vote for a black DA leader. “The steepest increase in black support for the DA in a national election was between 2004 and 2009 when Helen Zille led the party,” he reports. An, eina, he adds: “The rate of increase in such support slowed after Mmusi Maimane became leader.” Cronjé says it is also a lie that the DA will now lose support. “This ignores the fact that the party was losing support under its previous leadership (Maimane included).”

While Cronjé says he had written off the DA before the recent sea-change in the DA. “The unhappy truth is that we (the IRR) had increasingly written the DA off as a serious political contender, thought it perhaps beyond the point of no return and were telling clients that a new political party might be needed to save South Africa.” However, Cronjé said now it was not clear if it could be turned around. “I do not know. It has given itself the chance to do that, but the damage wrought over recent years is extensive.” The sustainability of the DA was something that “must still be established,” said  Cronjé.

Meanwhile, Gareth van Onselen, now a prominent political commentator who once worked or the DA as a senior researcher, reports on the review panel’s (African) black voter support for the DA. It shows that DA support dropped from 5.9 percent of black voters in 2016 to just four percent in 2019. That was in the period when Maimane led the party. This author believes that even the “sympathetic” analysts have misread the power of the Zille phenomenon, which could actually see the party growing and re-establishing itself as a truly non-racial party, one which is not seen as “ANC-lite”.

Apart from Zille’s dedication to the DA cause, a drive which is almost frantic in its execution, she has identified a key fault line in the party’s political policy programme. It is all about the electorate’s understanding of empowerment. Empowerment is a very “in” political concept. The ANC (and EFF) punt it at every turn. But Zille has identified that attaching race to empowerment – in Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment – has turned sour.

While many – including probably the bulk of DA public representatives – would originally have supported race-based redress, it has now become a dirty word. So many of the DA’s core constituency – whites, coloureds and Indians – have been detrimentally affected by BBBEE. Just think what it must be like for a white matriculant with straight A’s in Grade 12, to be refused entry to the Wits Medical School on the grounds of race. Just as irksome is the coloured kid who can’t get a job anywhere because he is not black enough.

It is significant that the party is already doing rather well in such places as Komani, Eastern Cape and Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal. And now on Wednesday 13 November, the result of the Western Cape by-elections in Cape Town and Matzikama (Vredendal) are known. While the DA votes are down in the two Cape Town wards, the party has won clear majorities. It lost a marginal seat in Matzikama to the ANC. What the results here show is that the DA is holding on to the majority of ‘coloured’ votes in the metropolitan – and that Good, former Mayor Patricia de Lille’s new party, is not performing well. In Tafelsig, Mitchell’s Plain, the DA got 64.12% (2016 83.64%), with Good trailing at 13.03% and the ANC just 3.8% (down from 3.9%). Smaller parties shared the remaining votes. In the second ward in Cape Town, the DA dropped to 49.28% (down from 66.4%) with Good polling at 20.6%). The ANC dropped to 16.16% (down from 24.30%). So the ANC win in Matzikama – a deeply rural area of the Western Cape – gives it a boost in a province where it is failing badly in the metropolitan. The ANC pipped DA winning 51% of the vote or 1 145 votes with the DA gaining 862. Good trailed with just 60 votes. In 2016 the DA won 51.26 percent of the vote with the ANC 36.6%.

What this appears to indicate is that the bigger parties, the DA and ANC, are under pressure in the Western Cape. If Good maintains its performance, it will win proportional representation seats in Cape Town in the 2021 municipal poll.

But the recent turnaround in fortunes for the DA outside of the Western Cape – and there the party is holding its own in its traditional heartland – is a clear signal that the party is slowly moving back on course. As the leadership of Zille – and the likely election of John Steenhuisen as national leader – takes effect, the policy confusion, particularly over matters of how ‘black’ empowerment should be ironed out, abates, the party should strengthen. Zille – quoted by EWN in May all but says it herself. Commenting after the national election she said the notion that she had an impact on the DA’s drop in support was not true. “What really shook us was the question of race-based politics and falling into the ANC-EFF’s race-based narrative that lost us huge numbers of votes to the right. And that was tragic because, in fact, I see the far-right wing as representing just the same of a kind of identity politics I always fought against.” Thatcher was asked whether she believed in achieving consensus. She, ever imperious, replied as long as there was “consensus behind my convictions”. For Zille, success in the SA political market place going forward, will be about getting agreement around in the party’s stance on matters of empowerment.

  • Donwald Pressly is a veteran political economy journalist.