The DA’s election post-mortem will be long and painful, and the ultimate result could have a significant bearing on South Africa’s future political landscape. Mmusi Maimane received a vote of confidence from the DA’s Federal Executive earlier this week, yet behind the scenes disquiet is brewing. The party now faces a juncture akin to the 1990s, with those on one side pushing for it to abandon its ‘ANC-lite’ approach and revert to its core, liberal outlook; or accept a new more progressive or social democratic direction. Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN
The DA’s election post-mortem will be long and painful, and the ultimate result could have a significant bearing on South Africa’s future political landscape. Mmusi Maimane received a vote of confidence from the DA’s Federal Executive earlier this week, yet behind the scenes disquiet is brewing. The party now faces a juncture akin to the 1990s, with those on one side pushing for it to abandon its ‘ANC-lite’ approach and revert to its core, liberal outlook; or accept a new more progressive or social democratic direction. Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN

The DA’s election postmortem will be long and painful, and the ultimate result could have a significant bearing on SA’s future political landscape. The party and its predecessors have been through existential crises before and survived, yet never has so much been on the line.

Of the party’s four key targets — grow nationally, bring the ANC below 50% in Gauteng and Northern Cape, and retain its majority in the Western Cape — it succeeded with just one. Adding insult to injury, it has lost its position as the official opposition in two provinces to the EFF.

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Almost two years of bruising internal divisions and muddled messaging took their toll. Chief among these was the Patricia de Lille debacle, black economic empowerment-related policy debates and lingering identity problems.

Embattled leader Mmusi Maimane received a vote of confidence from the DA’s federal executive last week, yet behind the scenes disquiet is brewing, and understandably so. Despite the poll battering, officially Maimane is set to remain in place until a federal congress in 2021. However, much like the ANC, there is a dearth of compelling alternatives.

Ousting Maimane would also inevitably prompt calls that the DA is dumping a black leader they were never sure of in the first place, reaffirming widespread perceptions of a white leadership cabal operating behind the scenes.

DA officials have put on a brave face, arguing that the loss of so-called racial nationalists was predictable as the party repositioned itself towards the black majority, yet the numbers simply don’t stack up and they surely know it.

Disregarding President Cyril Ramaphosa’s popularity, the loss of more than 470,000 votes following “nine wasted years” of the Zuma presidency is a major indictment, especially after the apparent inroads the DA made at the 2016 local election.

The DA’s predicament is not wholly new: its predecessor, the Democratic Party (DP), faced similar existential crises in the 1990s. From its inception the DP was riven by divisions and faction-fighting between its component parts. Regular defections to the better-resourced National Party (NP) and ANC prompted fears of party collapse. Eventually, the more traditional and economically liberal faction won out.

Approaching the founding 1994 elections, the party had ambitious hopes of near 6% of the vote and positioning itself as the apparent protector between a heartless NP and a communist-dominated ANC. Led by the well-meaning but ineffectual Zach de Beer, the DP ran a similarly muddled and negative election campaign to the DA’s latest one — and suffered a similarly bruising result, emerging with a paltry 1.7% of the vote and seven MPs.

Amid calls for its disbandment, new leader Tony Leon and key party strategists, notably James Selfe, began a careful process to determine if the DP had any future, turning to its members, business leaders and like-minded think-tanks for guidance.

In an internal strategy document, Growing For Growth (likely written by Selfe), the party was warned that a “bloody depressing” future lay ahead if the DP continued on its current course, “locked predominantly into the white, English-speaking, middle class”.

Attention turned to potential alliances and strategic partnerships and creating a compelling party appeal. Figures such as Prof Bill Johnson cautioned Leon that a coalition with the IFP and its unpopular leader, Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi, would represent an “unholy alliance”, threatening to push the party into a “right-wing ghetto”.

A cynical yet calculated strategy ultimately emerged: capture the white, Afrikaans-speaking vote via the destruction of the NP Only then, the leadership believed, could it begin to set about making inroads with black voters. The controversial, but successful, 1999 “Fight Back” campaign was the epitome of this approach. This deferral could only last so long, however, and under Helen Zille the party capitalised on an increased minority base and moved beyond Leon’s more piecemeal transformation efforts.

Figures such as Maimane and Lindiwe Mazibuko were gradually promoted, and nationally recognisable leaders like De Lille were brought on board for an increasingly multiracial political project. However, the ill-fated ascent of Mamphela Ramphele as would-be presidential candidate in 2014 was a telling reminder that there were limits to the party’s appeal with the black electorate. Similarly, Mazibuko’s travails and ultimate departure reaffirmed perceptions that black party leaders would have limited leeway.

The liberal brand has always occupied a precarious and brittle place in SA politics. Like its predecessors, the DA has struggled to balance political expedience while articulating its longstanding, though contested, principles within its own “broad church”. After its 1994 drubbing the DP leadership determined that it had to make “liberalism real to the poor” and “make economic expertise our recognition factor”.

With Zuma-era state capture tainting the ANC, the DA largely grew without necessarily achieving these earlier goals, relying instead primarily on its mantle of “good governance” as it swept to power in key metros. Ramaphosa’s ascent, coupled with the lingering De Lille debacle and other damaging party controversies, meant such ambiguity was roundly punished this time round.

The DA now faces a juncture akin to the 1990s, with those on one side pushing for it to abandon its “ANC-lite” approach and revert to its core, liberal outlook, and the other side convinced it must accept a new more progressive or social democratic direction. Both options present significant risks, but it’s clear Maimane and the DA leadership’s balancing act has hit a brick wall, and that something must give.

The DA has announced a badly needed internal review of its structures; BEE and identity debates will undoubtedly crop up. Careful, difficult decisions will have to be made if it is to re-attract black middle-class voters. The recent elections showed that the electorate is more fluid than ever, yet also more disillusioned: spoiling ballots, abstaining or not registering in the first place.

Ramaphosa and the ANC’s mandate is distinctly brittle. The EFF grew, but not the doubling or more of its vote that pollsters expected; it too faces key strategic decisions in the months ahead. Those revelling in the DA’s current divisions overlook the still precarious political climate ahead for all parties: Ramaphosa’s ostensible reform agenda will take time, and in the meantime the ANC remains largely unreformed and pressured by an emboldened EFF eager to placate its own voters. Meanwhile, popular disenchantment is growing.

• Dr Robinson is an SA analyst at Oxford Analytica. His doctoral research looked at the role of small political parties during SA’s democratic transition, including the Democratic Party. He writes in his personal capacity.