The DA is in great danger – Politicsweb, 18 November 2015

Nov 18, 2015
Paul Pereira says the party's efforts to mirror the ANC are potential ruinous for itself and SA.

By Paul Pereira 

Remarks by IRR Policy Fellow Paul Pereira to the Democratic Alliance Johannesburg City Councillor workshop, Hunter’s Rest, Rustenburg, 15 November 2015,
“Back yourself to try freedom”

Mr Chairman;

Ladies and gentlemen.

Thank you for inviting me address this gathering.

I will share what I trust are helpful thoughts on some very broad realities of our country; followed by a few pointers about today’s ANC; and then I will pay greater attention to the roads being travelled, and less travelled, by the Democratic Alliance.

Our 21-year coming of age as a full democracy is a time of many contradictions in how we see ourselves in South Africa. That’s how it should be in a free country.

Mostly gone in the intelligentsia or “chattering classes” - the term used for mainly the all-important middle classes who shape the national debate - are ideas of a can-do rainbowism of non-racial togetherness and progress.

This is largely replaced with deep anxiety and much anger about what is sometimes rightly, but often with unfair simplicity, and sometimes just plain wrongly, seen as national decline on every front.

Your work is that of “Official Opposition”, not “Official Cooperation”, but even opposition in a place as fractured in its long history as ours is needs to be a thing of nuance and alternatives based on a true rendering of the complexities of how our humanity is progressing.

I shan’t bore you this evening with tales of state delivery breakdowns, nor corruption, nor flagrant snouts in troughs. You know all about that.

But I would like to start by cautioning that we don’t end up by looking around us and missing the woods for trees; talking ourselves into a premature national defeat that isn’t necessarily on the cards.  We need the balance of truth that comes through intellectual rigour and basic curiosity and, sometimes, we should remind ourselves to give greater credence to our hopes than to our fears, as the 1987 Prog slogan had it.

Because there is much to base that on, given how free people can and do act in their own best self-interest, and thus to the betterment of society as a whole.

The single most important fact of where we’re headed economically comes in the GDP-to-population growth ratio.

When GDP growth outstrips population growth, we become richer as a whole and thus also per capita. This has been happening consistently through these 21 years, and with it comes the expansion of horizons of opportunity for people to manage their own lives and of their choices – including the freedom to make good or bad ones.

The state is not going bankrupt. As Nedbank political economist JP Landman noted this past week:

“There is only one authoritative opinion on SA’s fiscal credibility and that is the bond market. What various individuals say about SA’s debt credibility is entirely irrelevant. The 800kg gorilla on this issue is the bond market.

The bond market is the government’s ATM; that is where it goes to borrow money to finance its budget deficit. When the bond market is not prepared to advance more cash to government, it is ‘game over’.

That is where countries like Greece and Argentina found themselves. At the moment there is simply no indication that the bond market is demanding higher premiums for SA's borrowing or even denying it. This may of course change. But so far it has not changed and that is while we are in the midst of a lot of bad news – an economy growing at only 1-and-a-bit per cent, expected rises in US interest rates and so on. The SA government can still borrow huge amounts at about 8.5% in spite of the depreciation of the Rand, the drought, student unrest and the defeat of the Springboks at the World Cup”.

That’s partly because our GDP-to-public debt ratio of 49% is manageable (nothing like the UK’s 108%, Japan’s 200%, or the EU’s recommendation of pulling back to 60%). Ours hasn’t been at its current level, though, since the government of FW De Klerk, so we must be careful.

That SA’s public accounts are rated 3rd most reliable of the 103 countries that rely on the bond markets, that spending projections are close-as-dammit to reality, and that annual audits show strong improvements across national, provincial, local and state-operated entity levels for almost every year of the past 15, helps too.

And, yes, there have been remarkable improvements in the lot of ordinary folk, with huge falls in the numbers found in the lowest quintile of earnings; the almost elimination of the lowest Living Standards Measures that look at what people posses; in the close-to eradication of malnutrition; in the provision of clinics within 5km of more than 95% of people; and so forth.

With the right to life obviously at the apex of human needs, the reversal in this past decade of the decline in our longevity tells perhaps the most poignant story of all.

But things are always a muddle through and often it is the direction of play that matters most, rather than immediate scores. We see that again in the recently-released annual national development indicators of the Presidency that openly show that of the 86 indicators, 27 are worse than previously, six are unchanged and 53 are better.

It can be a weird, though, how often we just see what we want to see. Although government’s own reviews of societal socio-economic progress show massive sea changes for the better, overall, for both black and white, President Zuma only refers to those things he’d like to pin on state provision of this or that support or service. He ignores ordinary people’s success ground-up, even thought that this our real story as a free country.

Opponents are very often the Tweedledee of this Tweedledum – viewing everything through a monocle of “politics is everything and everything is politics”, ignoring progress for fear of any credit attaching to their political competitors, even when the evidence of a much bigger, and mostly better, truth is impossible to ignore – being all around us almost all the time.

This is a thing of being “lekker sad”, the schadenfreude and myopia of wishful unthinking.

And the people most ignored are ordinary citizens who have grabbed liberation’s promise. They are the silent revolution changing South Africa. And it’s relentless.

It sees the more than doubling of private motor vehicle ownership, the racial transformation in sometimes just five years of formerly white suburbs, the ascent of black South Africans to being the highest number of people with private-paid off mortgages, the reliance and often flourishing of the former Model C schools, the 83% growth in the real-term size of the economy these two decades, the dichotomy of both increasing numbers of jobs and of joblessness, and all the rest. Confusing to the Left is the rise we saw until 2005 of inequality in incomes as measured by the Gini coefficient – blinded as they are to this being the signal of a black middle class rising and detaching itself from poverty. Oh dear.

When I recently assisted the Free Market Foundation’s Leon Louw to point to some of these stunning and epoch-defining victories of the South Africa people, the fury we attracted was quite astounding, and I’ve experienced it elsewhere too. One organisation, which told a radio station that it’s hunting to expose “neo-liberals who oppose transformation” has since been on a silly chase for wild geese, desperate to deny that black people are capable of stunning successes without the tutelage of dirigisme and collective control.

And make no mistake, the victories of ordinary people are taking place in a climate less and less accommodating of freedom, a term we hardly hear about anymore (even the “freedom struggle” has been abbreviated to lose the word “freedom”). In his opening State of the Nation address, President Nelson Mandela spoke hopefully of ever “increasing the frontiers of freedom” as the way ahead.

But there were other ideas abroad too. First they came for the NGO’s but were batted away. Then they obliterated the privacy of private sporting associations; then re-introduced race-based employment law; then racial ownership criteria; then nationalised water rights; then took into state custody without compensation the mineral assets of mining companies; then delegitimized the views of some people,  and on, all the way, to today’s assault on university autonomy being carried out under various disguises – from “Rhodes must fall” to “Open Stellenbosch” to “fees must fall”.

This happened and happens often with the egging-on of shallow analysis by a self-satisfied commentariat; “useful idiots” often. It has been underlined from the get-go by too ready an acceptance that post-1994 South Africa can afford a deification of figures from one part of our political past and present, and de-legitimisation of others. 

Of course, there is much more on the go, but I sometimes wonder if the Democratic Alliance sees what is really going on. For in many ways its approach to the national debate, played out daily on social media, in your various chambers across the land, and on every conceivable platform, seems dominated by running an electoral-campaign-without-end : ignoring or downplaying societal change in favour of imagining that absolutely everything is about getting votes for the next poll by painting all about us as decrepit.

But it isn’t, and measuring your success only every few years through elections is a little too easy and far apart for what you ought to be holding yourselves to. 

I’ll get to that now now, but let me first say a few words about some of your competitors.

The EFF seems to me not to be simply the ANC in drag, as some say, but something quite apart from much of the ANC’s broad church in its mainstream. It’s roots are more strongly African nationalistic than that, although of course it has much in common with parts of the broader ANC and with its doctrine of the Sixties onward. And the EFF’s street smarts are unsurpassed in our politics today.

I say broader ANC with a reason, as that party no longer ever meets in isolation, but only as “the Alliance”, whatever former President Kgaleme Motlanthe avers. When the ANC meets, this includes full status to attending SACP and Cosatu delegates, but that’s not a courtesy that the latter two return. When they meet, it is as themselves only. The ANC as a distinct entity is gone.

Quite what the ANC really is isn’t always obvious, but clearly it isn’t the party of Albert Luthuli or his predecessors, even if the brand is wisely unchanged.

In some places, and this is sometimes hard to verify, but it may be that more than half the cabinet, parliamentary caucus, deployed directors-general, etc, are more properly seen as SACP – a coup-by-stealth if ever there was one; hopefully a transient one.

But the Alliance is of course much more than that too, with wheels within wheels – a Gauteng ANC that sometimes marches to its own drum, branches that are sometimes vibrantly trying to direct policy development, a union federation now more public sector than private, provincial, economic and ethnic competition, and much more besides.

I’m not sure that such in an political polyglot the repository of the loyalties, hopes and fears of most voters is a thing endlessly bendable to overarching big ideas, whether National Democratic Plan or National Democratic Revolution, but I am sure that all its bits and bobs adhere to its struggle history mythologies as basic brand credibility and purpose. That, and racial exclusivity, animosity and mobilisation, if need be.

There is more than enough solid truth in that struggle mythology for it to provide the balm needed for the wounds of a long history of conquest by smaller numbers of “others”, eons of being announced as unworthy of decision-making in our history, the implied and explicit assaults on self-esteem and dignity that segregation and economic and cultural impositions carry to deadly effect. And racism is a daily experience still in too many instances, often subliminally inflicted, and sometimes all the more wounding for that.

A simplified and reassuring view that ANC supporters have of the past is virtually unquestioned anywhere really, and increasingly so in even the ranks of its opponents – but this must cost South Africans dearly now and in times still to come.

Be sure: taking on your opponent’s propaganda as a holy writ will bring you no closer to truth, much less respect and support. It will bring the Republic no alternative. But it most certainly will sap your intellect, trivialise your underpinning philosophies and traditions, reduce your options and offerings, crumble and then crash your support.

Mirror image politics isn’t just ruinous of duty to country and electorate, it must surely become so damaging as to vaporise your legitimacy.

Frankly, if you end up being the majority party’s B-team in ideas and in how you act, then why should anyone support the also-rans when the originals are anyway on offer?

Or, as dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson had it in another place and time: “Faithful are the words of a friend, but the kisses of an enemy are deadly”.

Yes, I’m afraid that the DA is in great danger – and it’s entirely self-inflicted and reversible. But getting yourselves out of a ditch that you seem keen to die in will need an all-too-unlikely set of heroics from members, branch formations, and other parts of the party lower in exaltation than the party centre.

There, a culture has entrenched itself of imagining this a corporate entity to be managed with strict KPI’s, employment-type contracts for elected officials, controlled public discussion, and suchlike.

But you are not that thing. You are at heart a voluntary association of ordinary members who want to get to “expanding the frontiers of freedom”. This association, or party, is simply made flesh to the public by publicly-elected officials, paid for by taxpayers. It is not a thing owned by employees and not beholden to a modern-day “fȕhrer-prinzip”. And so, in this sense, you need to “take back the night”.

Allow me to take you through some issues where I suggest that the party has strayed so far from balancing beliefs, duty, locus of power, behaviour and outcomes, that it risks demise even while it imagines that it is just four years away from entering the Unions Buildings.

These are things you may wish to consider, lest you follow the example of the wretched United Party which saw its early Seventies revival and best electoral performance since 1948 carry through to dissolution just five years later, as its internal contradictions tore it to shreds.

Building a party is hard work, as you know, but destroying it? Not so much. It just needs men and women of goodwill be to sit back and watch. 

The latest of these issues is, as all in this room surely know, to mix useful metaphors, the ongoing, bleeding communications nightmare of a wound, and complete dog’s breakfast, of how the DA leadership and head office is managing the Dianne Kohler Barnard saga.

But this helps our discussion in how it exposes, yet again, what can easily happen when messages become blurred, when a pursuit of electoral reward trumps common sense and political principles, and the consequences of the party’s lower formations being silent when their country calls on them to speak out.

This isn’t about Dianne Kohler Barnard the person. It goes ways beyond that and it has a long build-up, most spectacularly apparent last year at the party’s public silence while witness to the most staggering own goal being attempted by party leader Helen Zille.

The fiasco of her presumptuous elevation of a rival politician, and non-party member, Mamphela Ramphele, to be DA “presidential candidate” was too easily swept from accountability by a blaming of that potentially ruinous move onto Ramphele herself. The ordinary DA kept quiet, perhaps because of the impending national election.

Be that as it may, it is, alas, just another of a type: a seemingly indulging of demands for instant political gratification. 

This PR disaster for the DA followed quickly on the heels of flip-flops over the party’s stand on race-in-law, came in defiance of its philosophical traditions, and of its own democratic processes. All these things are the results of an over-centralisation of power, a giving up of openly-encouraged public debate from within the DA, and of resultantly inept attempts to control the nature of a growing movement.

South African politics has always been characterised by two broad, competing political philosophies: race nationalism versus the inclusive “colour-blind ideal”. These have played out over two centuries and are now broadly housed in the transformation-by-colour approach of the ruling African National Congress, opposed by the DA, partly heir to

“Cape Liberalism”.

The ANC’s race-based traditions are long-toothed, and saw it organise in race-based “congresses” until it’s banning in 1960. Whites were only allowed general membership in 1968 and NEC membership in 1985, a paltry five years before its unbanning.

For its part, the DA is only partly the long result of a movement for colour-blind law and outcomes that began with 1828’s Ordinance 50 outlawing legal race discrimination in the Cape Colony. That colony’s later parliament saw a formally non-racial voter’s roll, although property qualifications effectively restricted the black franchise.

As the colony expanded eastward and absorbed more blacks, so did white politicians restrict the open franchise, although liberals were sometimes able to hold their ground. But among whites, they were ever a minority.

And so it went into a 20th century of extreme segregation, with liberals and communists eventually reduced to sitting in parliament as “native representatives” until soon after mid-century.

Since then, liberal politicians have sought mergers with others of similar mind, or for electoral gain, but worried at having the liberal democratic political character of their own parties changed from within through absorption of newcomers.

This was a worry through the years of Helen Suzman’s Progressives expansion into the Progressive Reform Party, then Progressive Federal Party, then to its merger with the Independents and the National Democratic Movement to form the Democratic Party in 1989.

It’s good to bear in mind that the new Democratic Party’s troika leadership was made up of the PFP’s Zach de Beer, but also former SA ambassador to London Dennis Worrall and former National Party Randburg MP Wynand Malan.  The story the DA gives out now about basically only having a Prog heritage is a myth of its own, and no-one is really fooled by it. The effects of this worry on your strategists is a matter for just now.

They’ll need to be “hush puppy” about Harry Schwartz, PRP and PFP MP and honorary SA Air Force colonel at the same time; or Colonel Hilda Burnett, head of the Army Women’s College at George in the Eighties and DP candidate in 1989; or General Bob Rogers, head of the SA Air Force through much of the Angolan fighting, and 1989 DP candidate; and more.

The biggest alarm for party political “classical liberals”, though, came with the DP’s merger with the New National Party in 2000, a process taking in the bulk of members and voters of apartheid’s former National Party. How to stop new members from changing the DA?

Increasingly, DA leaders (still mainly from the DP liberal rump) took to a version of the ANC’s Leninist “democratic centralism” whereby decisions would be imposed top-down on what had traditionally been a democratic process of branch-up power.

So it is that last year had local party electoral colleges no longer with their proper authority over who should be DA candidates for the general election – ending up “recommending” names to the centre.

Indeed, candidates now jump through hoops of psychometric testing and questioning set by management consultants, of all people. Others are farmed through newspaper adverts and then put through courses and teambuilding exercises. Party leaders can cull the ones they don’t like pretty much at any time.

This means the rise of the “professional politician” in the DA along with employees moving seamlessly into elected positions, the demise of grassroots control of the party, and its paid, elected representatives being beholden to party leadership, rather than to the countrywide members.

I don’t want to overplay this, for there is some sense in all of this, in managing brand custodianship and sensibly keeping the party’s own wheels within the overall wheel. But there has to be some balance between power at the centre and members and representatives, and always so in a party that names itself by the ideal of democratic practice.

Accountability now runs from public representative to party head office far more so than it should – it should be balanced by running downward to member formations too. The results of the imbalance are a party whose reps seem to feel they should be canvassers first, His Master’s Voice second, and liberal democratic thinkers and doers of variety last, if at all. Why not back yourselves to try freedom?

Just look at your peers around the world: I can’t think of any that operate with such iron control of whip voting on almost every conceivable issue, internal communications policies that are destructive of open, public debate and difference, and top-down impositions, often by employees, on the party as a whole.

How is this a good thing?

Real democratic contestation of ideas and lively, open liberal democratic debate isn’t a thing to defer to backrooms. It should be your leitmotif, celebrated as the very engine of thoughtful ideas, self-correction, and liberty.

Suppressing it for a chimera of lock-stepped thinking can have very severe consequences.

One of them must come if public representatives, paid by taxpayers and not the party, I might add, receive political death sentences for vague thought crimes such as showing some sympathy with aspects of white minority history or even governance.

Ours is a very complicated history of layers of dispossession one on another, of “Bushmen, Bantu, Boer and Brit”, of royal chartered companies and colonies and independent kingdoms and Boer Republics and Union, dominion, republic, Bantustans, and so much more.

If the discussion is to be honest about forefathers  in ever-shriller times of race-baiting, and this is surely an historic responsibility that the DA too must shoulder as the representative – however uncomfortable some of its leaders find this – of minority groups more than anything, then you’ll fail if you define the parameters of discussion by the summary adoption of a simplistic ANC struggle narrative.

Their discourse, after all, remains utterly unaltered from the years of conflict – and still includes its own causalities of truth, as in all wars.

It is infantile to imagine otherwise, yet the DA seems satisfied with the blanket stigmatisation of a selected bit of recent history by saying officially this past month that “PW Botha was a tyrant, who oversaw torture and murder of thousands of South Africans”.

This little statement is a casual disregard for truth on many levels.

Just one of them is its contempt for the tens of thousands of South Africans who walk unnoticed among us every day, but whose spirits are stooped or broken by grief at their lost loved ones: the results of apartheid and its enforcement, regional wars, but also of the ANC-Azapo “zim zim-warara” wars, of more than 550 necklacings-to-death in the 1980s, of the kangaroo People’s Courts and street committees, of torture in police cells, of UDF-Inkatha wars, and so much more – a toll of almost 25 000 political deaths in the 10 years to 1994. It’s what we call “the peaceful transition”.

And then there are the wounded, the terrified; the people robbed on many levels by others in the name of some or other Greater Good.

To drop them all down the memory hole for a cheap piece of agitprop is an outrage far more damaging to the DA than should ever be tolerated. But right now, that’s the sum of your line on the agony of South Africa’s Via Delarosa to a negotiated settlement.

I wonder just  where this airbrushing leaves people like former National Party stalwart Eric Marais, recent appointee of DA leader Mmusi Maimane as DA deputy spokesman on the presidency?

Good thing that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose 2011 outburst had current affairs as “worse than apartheid” hadn’t been sitting in your shoes, eh?

More importantly, where does it leave the DA – the part of this named “alliance” that is made up of former National Party representatives, members, donors and voters? Are they no longer wanted?

What is being said about their dead sons who fell in Angola fighting a much broader struggle that had little to do with segregation at home, and not just a little with Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda’s appeal for South African action against what he termed “Russia and her cub”?

What does it say of the volunteer Black fighting forces of the previous dispensation? The “homeland” civil servants who are the backbone of today’s “transformed” public sector that is more Mangope’s than Mandela’s in a manner of speaking?

And on and on and on.

Should whites, for their part, just suck this up from the party they mostly support, just as they see the freedom, fairness and opportunity of studying in their mother tongue at a premier university in an Afrikaans-speaking province fatally compromised with only a wishy-washy “ah, er, ahem” whimper from their representatives in a statement issued last night?

Should they watch their history now be splashed with blue paint but still trot out to vote for the DA?

Perhaps they will, but I wonder if you want to take them for granted at best, or treat them with crassness at worst.

After all, the DA’s electoral growth is a percentage game of national elections, and you need the momentum of growing that percentage every time.

The success you’ve had, propelled by the 1999 “fight back” against the reintroduction of race law, is a thing of getting your supporters to turn out, something the DA’s been very good at, thanks to being perceived as taking an inclusive society seriously and also, of course, thanks to that megastar DA campaigner whom you can’t have forever, President Jacob Zuma.

If you go too far down your current road then I imagine that the danger in quick time for the DA is in minorities becoming apathetic as SA’s race debate and crumbling of equal citizenship hots up, as it is doing, and them staying away from the polls, ala Namibia and Zimbabwe post-independence.

The party’s internal research suggests it’s stuck right now at about 25% of turnout voter support. But it’s pinning hopes on converting some of the 20% of Black African voters whom DA research suggests share its values (although I would have thought that the real percentage is much higher) into DA voters.

But why should anyone make the leap to a party if it starts to fade at the polls (national, not local – the latter usually kinder to opposition parties)? Look at how empty the Sharks found their stadium this year when they were losing – winning attracts; slipping away somewhat less so.

Finally, is it reasonable or even vaguely principled to tell Black voters, including that middle class on whom South Africa will rise or fall – that just as the DA hopes they’ll join it in big numbers (finally!), the occasion is being marked by introducing “thought crimes” and shutting down long-cherished habits of open debate and discussion? “Welcome, here’s a blue T-shirt; and now be quiet”. In South Africa?

So we are witness to a situation of cadre deployment that Thabo Mbeki would admire, policy proposals less worked through than those of the ANC, hidden membership figures (unlike the ANC’s much greater transparency) and chilling of debate, utterly unlike the ANC, in a cunning plan to take power by 2019? Really?

Sure, the DA runs the Western Cape well, by all accounts. But that tells us very little, given that it’s the only province outside the Gauteng city-state that doesn’t have the challenges of impoverished former Bantustans, communal trust lands, and the usual South African make-up of income and overall opportunity.

But the thing you utterly control is yourselves. And too often this sees a public face presented of petty point-scoring against competitors, lopsided attention to the pursuit of power, praying to a leadership altar, silence even at the expense of principle, and hubris.

That’s stuff of “DA first, South Africa second” and it will cost you, even terminally. Or you can fix it.

That will rely partly on ordinary DA members in branches taking back their party from a centre that could do a Van Schalkwyk on them for shallow reward, and it means public representatives acting, in defiance if necessary, in the interests of the public – all of it – and not be blindsided by a Tammany Hall from beyond the Hottentots Hollands.  (Ends)

About the speaker

Paul Pereira owns WHAM! Media, a bespoke corporate social investment (CSI) communications service, consulting to various corporate and non-profit organisations. He is a strategic consultant to the Muthobi Foundation’s Nation Builder campaign, an occasional lecturer at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, a Policy Fellow of the SA Institute of Race Relations, board member of Strate Charity Shares, newspaper columnist, and presenter of the weekly Radio Today discussion programme, “Changing Destiny”.

He was formerly an executive of Tshikululu Social Investments (CSI trust managers for Anglo American, De Beers, the FirstRand Group, Discovery, UTi, and others), communications manager of the Nedbank Foundation, national vice-chairman of AFS Interculture SA, and assistant editor of Finance Week magazine.

He was Democratic Party national youth chairperson in 1992, and held elected positions in the Progressive Federal Party from 1985. 

Read Paul Pereira's speech here

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