DA set to entrench perception of privilege?

The below article discusses the current state of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in South Africa and its future prospects. Michael Shackleton argues that if the DA wants to win elections, it needs to attract South Africans from all walks of life and showcase its governance in as many places as possible. Shackleton also mentions that the DA’s highest share of support was under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane, a black South African, and that the party is losing support as prominent faces, mostly black, are leaving the party. Shackleton claims that the DA is comfortable being in opposition and mentions a new candidate, Mpho Phalatse, who is female, black, and a medical doctor, but argues that she is unlikely to win the election and that the DA’s future is in question.

Mpho Phalatse right candidate to lead DA, but party won’t elect her

By Michael Shackleton*

If the DA truly wanted to win elections in South Africa, it would set out to attract South Africans from all walks of life. It would also seek to govern in as many places as possible and showcase what their PR spin machine terms “the DA difference.”

At the Party’s most recent Federal Congress, they had the opportunity to seize this opportunity profoundly and solidly by electing Mbali Ntuli, who amongst other achievements, holds a Bachelor of Social Sciences degree from Rhodes University. The majority of South Africa consists of three core components. It is:

– Black;

– Female; and 

– Young.

Mbali Ntuli literally represents all of these characteristics in a single human being. The DA said no, this is not what they wanted – Steenhuisen won by an enormous margin – and we are now flung to the present day. Since then, more and more prominent faces in the DA have left because they do not resonate with it and feel, rightly so, that the party has strayed and cannot connect with South Africans from all walks of life. The list of these is predominantly black, includes others like myself, Herman Mashaba, Athol Trollip and it grows; continuously.

Two further realisations are obvious: the DA won its highest share of support ever in 2016 under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane (who is a black South African) and it will never, ever, go back to those highs again. It is not because there are people in the DA who don’t want it to, but the power dynamics are such in the DA that governing outside of the Western Cape is now an irritation and not a goal.

Take for example, the recent shenanigans in Johannesburg – where the DA’s own negotiators in Gauteng had said yes to continue governing in Johannesburg. This was then taken to the DA’s national leadership structure (the Federal Executive) for approval, where it was shot down, under the excuse, that in essence, the DA did not want to work with the Patriotic Alliance (PA).

There are a few items to dissect here. Firstly, that most people who have to date voted for the DA have done so literally to keep the ANC out. What the DA has done in this case is to allow the ANC back into Johannesburg simply to show the PA the metaphorical middle finger. The DA and the PA in the Western Cape don’t like each other and Johannesburg residents have now been punished for this. I sincerely hope that voters punish the DA at the polls accordingly.

Secondly, the DA likes to call itself a “federal” party. This means that decisions are taken as close to the people that affect them. For example, the DA in the Western Cape will tell you that no one (specifically national government), must interfere in their work because federalism is what is paramount.

That all sounds very nice on paper but it is only used in instances where it benefits the DA. What happened in Johannesburg is that the national leadership structure decided for the party in Gauteng and in Johannesburg – from an outsider’s perspective – that the DA should not govern Johannesburg. No matter which way the DA spins it, it was a binary option. The options were:

1) Do we govern Johannesburg?; or

2) Do we not govern Johannesburg

They chose the latter.

This obvious fact reveals the sad truth that the DA is comfortable being in opposition, especially outside of the Western Cape.

The DA is at an internal crossroads. Despite the departure of so much talent, diversity and a core of people who simply want to take South Africa forward, a candidate has emerged who is the antithesis of what the DA’s leadership looks like currently. Mpho Phalatse is female, she is black and she is a medical doctor.

I do not believe that she has any chance of winning. John Steenhuisen will win by a landslide and a core of people who want the DA to resonate with all South Africans and who want to make the party capable of governing across all of South Africa will be the ones who vote for Dr Mpho Phalatse. 

Sadly for the DA, Steenhuisen’s victory will entrench the public perception that the DA is the party of privilege, that it cannot elect leaders based on their ability to resonate with society or their qualifications. It will not be the death of DA but it will be noted in the history books as a huge step on their way there. 

*Michael Shackleton is In-House Legal Counsel for ActionSA and writes in his personal capacity. He has served as a City Councillor, Member of Parliament and Member of the Gauteng Legislature under the Democratic Alliance. 

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