The DA is not as united as it may seem on the surface. Picture: GETTY IMAGES
The DA is not as united as it may seem on the surface. Picture: GETTY IMAGES

A vital aspect of our election, little noticed, is that the bile between the parties was relatively tempered compared to the virulence of current politics in most Western countries. Today in Brexit Britain, Donald Trump’s US and over much of Europe from Poland and Hungary to Austria and Italy, debates are increasingly venomous. Opponents are vilified as “enemies”, even damned as “traitors”.

In SA, apart from smaller parties such as the EFF or Black Land First, which thrive on stirring division and hatred, the worst excoriation seems to be reserved for internal factional politicking. The open warfare within the ANC has been widely exposed. But after a disappointing election, the fissures in the DA may prove more immediately damaging: a barrier to its building up to where it might seem like a truly viable alternative government.

A crucial difference between Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC and the current DA is perhaps a “centrist” direction against the vaguer “middle of the road”. The former implies a firm line of approach, whereas middle of the road suggests veering both to the left and right, trying to keep everyone happy. As the great British Labour parliamentarian Aneurin Bevan pointed out, “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run over.” That, as the DA regroups, is the danger still facing Mmusi Maimane.

After election posters have been taken down, all voting data crunched to dust and the party manifesto filed away, there will remain the old stumbling blocks to significant growth. The DA, dithering in the middle of the road, has had highly public spats between a social democratic grouping, with polite nods to some sort of black empowerment, and the more fundamentalist neoliberals, who believe the market will settle all. As long as some in the DA throw a fit when Maimane cites white privilege, the party will never attract sufficient black support. Worse, if that retrograde tendency eventually prevails after their electoral setback the DA could dwindle to a self-righteous cult.

In the West, liberalism is wilting before a tide of populism. This is partly due to a diversion among the young towards single-issue activism, particularly sexual identity politics. Identity crusading tends to look inward, pinpointing differences, rather than seeking alliances and broader consensus. Thus far, this style of fragmentation is not a problem for the DA as in SA identity politics is still mostly centered on race. But until the DA comes to grips with that forcefully, it will continue to veer all over the road. To the left, it will lose more progressive-minded voters to Ramaphosa’s ANC, while to the right many nostalgic supporters, often older and retired, will drift to the FF+.

Of the three major intellectual imports from Europe (Christianity, communism and liberalism), only liberalism, as I’ve argued here before, has failed to take root. While the first two emphasise an essentially communitarian ethos, classic liberalism highlights individuality; in SA this has signally failed to find sizeable traction. Historically, liberalism in SA, including the Progressive Party, inclined to pander to white fears. The DA, in its present guise, seems to be in danger of falling into the same trap.

The DA likes to point to its growing multiracial membership (though not reflected adequately in leadership positions). But the fact is — as this election has harshly demonstrated — its appeal to black voters simply isn’t working well enough. One reason, I’d suggest, is what may be called “facts on the ground”. One of the advantages of not mixing with professional politicians, or being an on-tap commentator, is that I tend to take my soundings from what I see and hear around me. Anecdotal evidence, DA spokesmen may scoff. But if they do, I’d encourage them to get out and about more, and listen to what many of their white supporters actually say when they’re not watching their Ps and Qs.

If I regularly overhear much casual illiberal bias from ordinary white suburbanites, imagine what their domestic workers pick up as they go about their work, then relay back to friends and family. Even the well-meaning can act as powerful vote repellants. Charles Dickens satirised patronising charity in Bleak House (1853), where the “mission” of Mrs Pardiggle was “pouncing upon the poor, and applying benevolence to them like a straight-waistcoat”.

To hug the middle of the road or strike out boldly: which “liberalism” will win this tussle?

• Rostron is a journalist and author.