Returning to the centre is the DA’s real challenge

Sara Gon | May 28, 2019
Far from moving to the centre, the Democratic Alliance (DA) has actually shifted to the left – at a cost.

Some commentators have interpreted the DA’s loss of voters to the Freedom Front Plus (FF+) as an indication that by moving to the centre the DA has lost its rightwing supporters. 

The argument continues that moving in this direction was necessary to attract more black voters and so advance above the 20% threshold.

We at the Institute of Race Relations see it differently.

First, the DA isn’t ‘moving to the centre’. This implies that the DA was right-of-centre and only held onto the ‘rightwing’ voters for that reason. In fact, the previous iterations of the DA were always at the centre: the DA lost voters to the ‘right’ because it was moving to the left, against its liberal principles. Its stance on black economic empowerment, the propensity of black DA politicians to making comments that offend and alienate white supporters, and the party’s failure to run a clear campaign uncontaminated by clichéd homilies contributed to the DA’s mess.

These point to assumptions that we believe are erroneous, such as that the only way to attract black voters is by offering Black Economic Empowerment with race as the determinant, and by indulging in anti-white rhetoric, or more commonly, not calling it out when others are racist. 

Since 2015, African National Congress (ANC) heavies from then president Jacob Zuma to many more, have upped the ante on whites. The DA has barely denounced seemingly loose and racist comments, whether by the ANC or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The DA’s lack of concern about farm murders, and even derision of such concern, comments constantly reviling whites through nothing more than the marketing concept of ‘white monopoly capitalism’ designed by Bell Pottinger; and its role in such incidents as the Schweizer-Reneke debacle are among the factors which contributed to driving away voters. And such voters were not all ideologically suited to the FF+; many have exactly the same concerns but voted for other parties.

Many, if not most, of those ‘lost’ voters had voted for the DA in a number of elections. The FF+ has been in existence and in parliament for 25 years, yet it has only picked up DA voters now. This is not the fault of the voters: it is the fault of the DA itself. It completely under-estimated the sobering effect on voters that its role in the Schweizer-Reneke debacle played.

The mess made of the Patricia de Lille controversy lost Coloured voters, not because they like De Lille but because they see only black leaders, no Coloured leaders.

The barrage of anti-white accusations and worse from the ANC, the EFF and Black First, Land First have weighed increasingly on white voters and the DA leadership has been seen to be ‘missing-in-action’. There are probably two reasons for this: a faction in the party that actually believes this ‘anti-white’ propaganda, and – tied to this belief – statements and actions by the DA leadership that show support for it. Either way, fundamental, classically liberal principles are missing. 

The DA certainly has to do much more to attract black voters and particularly those who didn’t register and, if they did, those who didn’t vote. The number in this category is greater than the sum of people who voted. (The DA wasn’t alone in failing on this score. Every party failed, even the EFF, which grew on the back of young black support, but didn’t do as much as it should have or didn’t get it right.)

The DA’s campaign sounded like the ANC’s – repetitive, lacking in focus and unimaginative.

There’s a tendency to believe that if parties don’t offer what the populace want, they won’t attract votes. This is fundamentally wrong: people form a political party based on certain shared principles and the party then offers to achieve what voters want by virtue of the practical application of those principles. If the party can sell those principles and ideas, they’ll attract votes.

When people say that the DA hasn’t done enough to attract black votes, there is an assumption that there is a gap between what their current voters want and what potential voters want. Why should there be? If the voters want what the ANC offers, they will support the ANC. Being ‘ANC-lite’ is only a more efficient, less corrupt version of the ANC, not what the DA is. The DA has to reinvent itself, and daily polls and focus groups clearly won’t do it.

Those in the DA who persist in taking on the ANC-lite mantle must leave and start a new party. The DA has to do some soul searching and move back to the centre. Otherwise its best role will remain legal challenges to the decisions of the ruling, immoderate elite. And that role will become irrelevant if it doesn’t grow.

If a classically liberal DA can’t attract more support, then it will disappear or become a small minority party. We don’t believe, however, that all black South Africans don’t want a classically liberal alternative. 


Sara Gon is the editor of the Daily Friend and a policy fellow at the IRR.


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