I write with trepidation on matters changing so fluidly. Yet one thing will stay the same:  South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) will remain the most solid and skilful opposition party in the emerging world.

In 1994, the odds may have been against growing an opposition party tasked with slowly bringing down Africa’s most respected liberation movement.

The hard slog of grassroots growth from a handful of people built the foundations.

A turning point came with victory in the City of Cape Town in 2006, albeit with a seven-party coalition. Cape Town is the only one of South Africa’s three largest cities which has preserved its old city centre.

So, how does victory come for this party which achieved 21.8% of the vote at the last election?

Local government

An insight into the DA’s victory in the City of Cape Town is that good governance is rewarded at the ballot box.

The DA-led seven-party coalition which scraped through initially would later grow to a majority. This trend is repeated countrywide.

At the last local government elections of 2021, the DA had more than 25% of the vote in 28 municipalities outside its WC stronghold and excluding its three non-WC majorities.

The DA stands well-placed to gain pluralities (largest party but not a majority) and increase its majorities going into the 2026 municipal elections. That may mean better local governance could be coming, from the sandy Northern Cape to Nelson Mandela Bay.

Certain commentators will say the ‘DA does not want to govern’ in places such as Johannesburg. That is superficial.

Institutional memory will serve the DA well in reminding it that it should only govern in a municipality if it is the largest party. Trying to turn around a failing local government in a 10-party coalition will end in chaos, reverse the party’s progress, and dent the image of coalitions and democracy.

This was a lesson from a stumbled attempt to govern the City of Johannesburg in 2021.

A second shot at turning around the City of Gold may come into view. ANC voters staying-at-home and a good DA-opposition turnout may bump up its numbers. An additional obstacle may be a newly obstructionist provincial government. Careful thought will be given to this one.

An advantage at this second attempt to run Johannesburg is that the DA can now leverage co-governance: ‘transparency’ NGOs, for example, are prepared to provide an app on reporting water quality and potholes. The party’s top talent, brains and allies will be needed here.

The DA would be rewarded en masse for a Jozi turnaround, with a material jump in numbers and momentum going into the following national elections.

National level

Another lesson from Johannesburg 2021 is that it attempted to govern with the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Party operators are aware of this fatal strategic error.

On that basis, the DA will rightly stay well clear of any arrangement at a national level that dangerous far left elements can sabotage. These include the EFF and uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) which together hold 25.4% of the vote. That may be the correct response to the ANC’s Government of National Unity (GNU). Those parties will say the same of the DA. Stalemate may ensue.

In calling a GNU, the President has kicked the can into the South Atlantic.

‘Letting everyone have a say’ puts the onus on others but also may not let other parties get enough of a foothold to have impact. The DA could also be blamed if it does not participate, and chaos prevails. Those are pitfalls here.

I wonder if this can be engineered in a way that it is an ‘ANC-DA-smaller party confidence and supply arrangement in all but name’. That will be a call to make.

And yet lurking here is a new national accord to the benefit of all.

Civil society approaches a forum of big business, unions, and ANC-DA-IFP politicians:

“This is a difficult time. We are suggesting an arrangement that works for everyone. We propose coming clean on wrongdoing in office, in return for immunity. This will save resources and get the economy moving again. Business are struggling with Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). We suggest replacing it with a generous fund for black entrepreneurs. There will be no changes to social grants.”

The issue of labour market reform may be a sticking point in the ANC’s grass-roots membership and allies, but it is not to jobless voters.

Its voter base has shown itself to be moderate. The ANC recorded its worst electoral performance, despite stunts such as taking Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC), masquerading with a national health service plan, and President Cyril Ramaphosa inserting himself into the Springbok celebrations after the team won the Rugby World Cup last year.

One wonders if the DA can stand by and watch the ANC’s final tug of war between its ‘righter’ and ‘lefter’ elements. It can wait for a few more defections, leaving the party with more pragmatic elements. That may be how things play out, if certain pro-market demands are met in the DA’s conditions for joining the GNU, to the dismay of trade unions.

This may seem naïve. Mr Ramaphosa would be in favour of it, but he will only ‘see the gap’ if outside forces offer it to him. A few determined people can break the deadlock.

We may be coming very near that tipping point of the ANC’s final split. That would give a downsized, moderate ANC a chance to go with the DA, and the centre finally gets enough numbers to get over the line.

Other avenues

The real battle for SA may be unfolding in KwaZulu-Natal, especially if anti-constitutionalists make the provincial legislature ungovernable. One strategy for the DA (and allies) may be to hold back, and let voters see what unfolds now that the dog has caught the car.

The DA’s marketing campaign should inspire hope and showcase its many good governance stories: ‘Parties have come and gone and in the middle of it all stands the DA, bringing clean water and smooth roads, growing in numbers and supported by all races.”

Free DA votes are to be found abroad if networks continue compounding, and funds can be mobilised to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to open more polling stations.

South Africa has one of the most extreme versions of Proportional Representation (PR) anywhere in the world. Victory for the DA will therefore never mean a party of 65%, but it could climb to a ceiling of around 33%. Most PR systems elsewhere show that it is frequently the two biggest parties who get together.

The DA’s attempt to steer South Africa to a workable, centrist victory is dangerous and fascinating in equal measure. But we know that nothing worth fighting for ever comes easily.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR.

If you like what you have just read, support the Daily Friend

Image by Sergio Cerrato – Italia from Pixabay


Sean McLaughlin has a degree in Arabic and International Relations from the University of St Andrews, Scotland. Between 2016 and 2020, he worked in market intelligence on Latin America and Spain. During the UK-EU Brexit negotiations, he wrote extensively on the issue of Northern Ireland for think tank VoteWatch Europe. From 2021-2024, McLaughlin worked for a data provider in the energy industry, and, since 2023, he has been contributing articles on South African politics to various outlets.