Who runs the DA? And how will it form coalitions?

ANTHONY BUTLER: Does a rational centre exist anywhere in SA?

The empirical evidence has not been very promising, so far

First published in BusinessLive

5 MARCH 2021

It has been a confusing week for observers of the DA. The party has been in the doldrums since 2019, when the managed leadership transition from federal leader Mmusi Maimane to John Steenhuisen generated unexpected fallout.

The membership’s recent endorsement of core liberal principles and internal organisational reforms to enhance campaign effectiveness, suggested the party was on the road to partial recovery.

However, last weekend the Sunday Times published a controversial interview with Steenhuisen, which suggested the new leader would support President Cyril Ramaphosa in any vote of no confidence in the National Assembly, and that Steenhuisen would be open to a coalition with a Ramaphosa-led ANC in 2024 should national elections result in a hung parliament. The DA would not, however, join forces with deputy president David Mabuza or ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule.

Steenhuisen based his analysis on familiar DA narratives about an impending “realignment around the political centre”. These are not in themselves controversial or new. In 2016, for example, former leader Maimane stated that ANC reformers would soon jump ship to the DA.

Why, then, did an agitated Steenhuisen accuse the Sunday Times of misrepresenting his position, and issue a lengthy “clarification” on Wednesday? Unlike Sunday’s Steenhuisen, Wednesday’s version was adamant that there is no “good ANC”. He was, moreover, no longer soft on Ramaphosa, who “talks reform but walks socialism, either because he truly is a socialist at heart, or because it is the only way to keep the ANC united”.

In a video podcast called Inside Track, released later that day, Steenhuisen was joined by DA federal council chair Helen Zille to impart an “official version” to apparently concerned activists. 

The optics were not ideal from the ostensible party leader’s point of view. Steenhuisen delivered a few short remarks before Zille stood up, produced a whiteboard and marker pens, and delivered a lecture on party realignment. This seemed to be addressed to Steenhuisen as much as to the viewers.

The two leaders of the DA were at least in agreement about one thing: that there is a “rational centre” in SA politics, to which the DA can appeal, located not just in the parliamentary caucuses of the main political parties but also in the wider electorate. This phrase originated from ANC policy guru Joel Netshitenzhe, who used it to explain the resilience of the liberation movement in the face of its own self-destructive tendencies.

Whether such a rational centre actually exists — within the ANC, the DA, parliament, or the wider society — remains a matter for conjecture. The empirical evidence is not promising, so far, in any of these settings. More usefully, the DA has recognised the importance of “principles” in the building of coalitions. The two leaders insisted the party will be “the core” of an impending party realignment, and the “anchor tenant” in any coalitions it builds.

Principle, not expediency, will be their guide. Every coalition agreement will set out core objectives and “red lines”, including noninterference in appointments and tenders. All of which leaves a couple of big questions hanging for the 2021 and 2024 elections. How will the DA respond this year if plausible local government coalition partners refuse to commit to the written agreements it proposes, or sign them in evident bad faith?

Perhaps more importantly, Steenhuisen has rejected national deal-making with Magashule or Mabuza in 2024. But these are yesterday’s men, who are never going to become ANC president. Journalists and activists may soon ask the party’s leaders whether the DA is willing to work with more credible Ramaphosa successors, notably Paul Mashatile and Zweli Mkhize. And who exactly in the DA leadership will decide, Zille or Steenhuisen?

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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