The Honourable Mmusi Maimane should resign as leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA).
The DA is still reeling from its worst political performance in the 2019 elections. Electorally, this was of course not the worst performance of the DA in terms of numbers. The party actually won its second highest percentage of the vote in most provinces, and nationally. Electorally, it was a disappointing result for the party but not a disastrous one. Politically, however, it was a disaster. The party has now lost what I would argue is one of its two strongest narrative assets: the idea that it is on an unstoppable growth trajectory that will inevitably see it rise to become a party of national governance – the unstoppable government-in-waiting, deliberately marching to Pretoria. But the march has faltered. Even worse than that, the party is in all probability in the early but dramatic stages of a steep decline.
There can be no two ways about it: the leader of the party is ultimately responsible for political failure. It might be cruel to place the blame squarely on Maimane, but that is the nature of political leadership. Political success has many parents, political failure has only one. The DA’s political failure in the 2019 elections has set off a chain reaction of crisis as evidenced by the party’s being forced to cut jobs due to donors abandoning the party, and by-election losses and disappointments stacking up. In the by-elections since the general election, as Gareth van Onselen points out, the party has lost 9 wards and held on to 20. This gives the party a loss ratio of 33%. The DA is losing people, money and voters.
More recently, a second narrative asset for the party has started crumbling: that of the DA’s being, despite any significant failings it might have, the only major party that has consistently been unscathed by the regular storms of corruption that almost permanently soak our politics. The truth about the precise nature of Maimane’s residence and the circumstances of his using a car gifted by Markus Jooste of Steinhoff infamy, is yet to come out. But what is now clear is that Maimane’s reputation and position is weakening perceptibly almost by the day. Any damage suffered by Maimane were he to lose his corruption-free status would in all probability cost him his position, but it will also cost the DA its reputation as a party uninvolved in the political game of corrupt and undue gain.
But, despite the intense turmoil inside and surrounding the party, I don’t think all hope for the DA is lost. The things that have gone wrong can be fixed by a brave change of leadership – a change that cannot come soon enough.
IRR opinion polls continue to show the incredible degree to which politicians of almost all parties get the South African electorate wrong. The DA is, however, the greatest victim of this. From both its losses and its wins, it has learnt the wrong lesson – that South African politics is primarily driven by racial considerations and identity politics.
When the Democratic Party became the official opposition in Parliament after the 1999 elections, it was largely due to the white middle class abandoning the ANC and the NNP – the two parties this group had voted for in 1994. The danger was then, and is now, to think that this shift was racial. It is as though the great first success of the party laid the foundation for its more recent failures. By implicitly judging the large swing towards it to be based on race, the DA miscalculated on two grounds: firstly, that the white voters became DP/DA voters because they were white, and secondly, that black voters didn’t vote for the DP/DA because they were black. Resulting from this, a complacency and a wrong-headed determination flowed: a complacency that white voters would vote for the DA irrespective of its ideology, and that black voters could only be won over by the party’s blatantly pursuing them by focusing on racial identity politics.
This fundamental misjudgement of the motivations of the South African electorate is the original sin of the DA. By playing the racial game, a non-racial party can only lose. Granting the ANC and NP premise that South Africans can only be understood politically through the prism of race, the DA has created its own schizophrenia in attempting to be both a party of non-racialism and a party seeking to win black votes through blatantly racial ideology and policy.
The latest edition of the IRR’s Reason for Hope Report, published in April 2019, makes for fascinating reading. Were South Africans to be primarily motivated by racial politics, one wouldn’t expect 84% to say it ‘doesn’t matter’ what the race of their child’s teacher is, ‘as long as the teacher is good’. Were racial politics the defining consideration for South Africans, one wouldn’t expect 83% to reject the notion of sport quotas in favour of merit-based selection, one wouldn’t expect 64% to agree with the sentiment that ‘talk of racism/colonialism is from politicians seeking excuses for own failures’, and one wouldn’t expect 76% to agree with the statement that ‘with better education and more jobs, inequality between races will disappear’. I can go on. The numbers present a very clear case: South Africans are not the race-obsessed trolls of the Twittersphere.
The time has come for the DA to realise this and act aggressively, unashamedly on it and trust in the good sense of the people of South Africa. There is of course an enormous risk for the DA in this judgement being wrong, in polling data being wrong, in pursuing such a bold course of thinking. But the stark reality is that the risks of the alternative are even greater. Make no mistake, without a fundamental change in self-definition and thinking, the DA will continue down its current trajectory of failure, falling between the cracks of non-racialism and racial politics – destined for irrelevance.
The leadership vacuum at the top of the DA and the racial confusion that has seen its once bright prospects tarnish, can be addressed in one brave, respectable swoop: by electing Alan Winde as the next leader of the party as soon as possible. By considering the political landscape and the real attitudes of the vast majority of ordinary South Africans and directly challenging the idea that racialism will define our politics, the case for Winde to become DA leader is intriguingly strong.
When David Mabuza labels someone a ‘very good man’, this might very well be cause for concern. Yet, Alan Winde seems to one of the few politicians who could reputationally survive such a brutal onslaught as the moral endorsement of the Republic’s Deputy President.
With a political career starting in the mid-1990s, Winde has steadily ascended from local politics to become the eighth Premier of the Western Cape. He has served with some distinction in various positions in provincial government. Most significantly, he oversaw as provincial Minister of Finance the Western Cape’s creation of approximately 508 000 jobs – the number of jobs created in the province between the third quarter of 2009 and the fourth quarter of 2018. At the end of Winde’s tenure as provincial Minister of Finance, the Western Cape boasted the lowest expanded unemployment rate in the country of 23.1% compared to the then national average of 37%. Considering the fact that job creation and unemployment consistently top the priorities lists of voters, any politician able to boast of this record on employment can go toe to toe with the best of them.
Electorally, Winde’s campaign to retain the Western Cape for the DA managed to win 55.45% of the vote. This is a decline from the party’s high of 59.38% in 2014, but, seeing as internal opinion polls for the DA mere weeks out from the election showed the party nudging just above or just below the 50% mark, and also taking into account the national weaker-than-expected performance of the DA, the Western Cape DA’s better-than-expected performance shows that the provincial party did something right. To have achieved anything close to 60% in the province would always have been well-nigh impossible, but there was a real possibility of the party’s having to go into coalition to retain the Western Cape. This would have been the crowning disaster for the DA’s 2019 electoral efforts. Yet, somehow, the steadiness of Alan Winde as the party’s banner carrier saw the DA winning the province comfortably.
In terms of his record in governance and at the ballot box alone, Winde seems an obvious candidate to lead his party nationally from its current malaise to a recovery, slow as such a recovery might prove to be. But in his short time as Premier, Winde has managed to go beyond mere competence by planting something resembling the seed of a DA recovery.
The most powerful thing to come out of the DA anywhere since the election has to be the three-minute video of Winde laying out his plan for winning the fight against crime in the Western Cape. As a former DA voter and one-time inhabitant of the Western Cape, it struck me how clear the message and the policy were and how it cut through any other racial or political divide. Winde spoke simply, with an obvious command of the issue at hand. The plan laid out cannot but sound reasonable to even the fiercest DA critic. No mention of race, no mention of privilege, no mention of spouses or backgrounds, no blaming of a certain race, nor the conjuring up of the demon of division that, we are repeatedly told, still determines every action and ambition of our people. An utter rejection of the notion of identity politics. Here was a politician firmly putting his government’s money where its mouth is. “This is what the DA should look like,’ one DA MP said to me. And it is hard to argue with that. In a country with more than 20 000 murders per year, South Africans quite simply do not care about the skin colour of the politician taking the fight to the criminals. With this, it has become clear to me that he could very well be the leader the official opposition needs.
A job creator. A crime fighter. These should be enough to get a politician to lead their party. However, Winde can be, for the DA, the gamechanger they undoubtedly need. Why? Because he is a white man.
Cue shock. Cue horror. Cue gasps. Am I, a committed classical liberal, now playing identity politics? Am I hoping the DA will become the party of the white verkramptes? The electoral equivalent of the volkstaat? Am I hedging the recovery of the DA on some strategy of winning the white vote and holding onto relevance by becoming a party for whites only? Absolutely not.
I want the party, formerly my party, to do the exact opposite. I want the DA to reject the notion that the skin colour of politicians has any bearing on their ability to improve the lives of their constituents – and I want the party to do it in the clearest, most unapologetic way: by blatantly and unashamedly rejecting the premise that the race of a politician is relevant to the difference they can make in the lives of ordinary South Africans. I want the DA to dismiss the race debate for what it is, and for what ordinary South Africans know it to be: a diversion from failure and a blame game. I want the DA to be honest with the people of South Africa and to declare: we think this pale male, with his record in government, is the best person for the job of leading our country out of the doldrums, and if you care about his skin colour, you are the racist, not us. In his excellent setting out of his government’s plan to fight crime in the Western Cape, Alan Winde reminds us of how powerful non-racial politics could be. And in that is the seedling of a DA recovery.
For the DA to return to a trajectory of growth, or perhaps just stabilize the ship, it must urgently abandon the collapsing status quo and redefine itself. The DA is no longer the party of inevitable growth and its reputation as the corruption-free party might soon take a bit of a beating. Its two defining narrative assets have failed or are failing. The DA might very soon no longer be the untarnished government-in-waiting. The reality is that it needs a shocking jolt of redefinition.
The white, steady, reliable, white-haired male Premier of the Western Cape could, in these uncertain and desperate times, provide that jolt of clarity of purpose for a flailing party. Alan Winde becoming the next leader of a DA united behind a new, unashamedly non-racial purpose will reintroduce to South African politics the notion that the colour of your skin is irrelevant to whether you can serve your country. Unapologetically rejecting the evil of identity politics would realign South African politics for good.
The seed of the DA’s recovery has been planted by a white man in the Western Cape. If the party has any bottle, any mettle, any fight left at all, it will see in the leadership of Alan Winde its future as the real party for all South Africans.
Hermann Pretorius is an analyst and writer at the Institute of Race Relations.
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