THE national congress of the Democratic Alliance (DA) this weekend, just a year before local government elections, is an event of national importance. Wilmot James is a wise and distinguished man, but I believe Mmusi Maimane, the DA’s dynamic young parliamentary leader, will emerge comfortably from the congress as the DA’s new leader. I believe, too, that he is the right person to seize the opportunities those elections are likely to present to change our sterile politics.

There is a tendency to downplay the importance of local government elections, but local issues are what affect people’s lives most intimately. More important, our Constitution has established nine big metropolitan councils, where our main industries are located and which account for about 75% of our gross national income.

They are the engines of our economy and they will be up for grabs at a time when our economy is in crisis. Whoever controls them will have a huge influence on SA’s future.

The government can do little to check our decline because the ideological factions pulling in different directions in the African National Congress (ANC) are preventing it from following any clear policy direction. We are stagnating, and people are becoming frustrated, disillusioned and angry.

The ANC’s legacy as a liberation movement is all that is keeping it in power, but that is a diminishing asset.

The ANC’s support is flaking away to the left and to the right, which is why next year’s elections could be the most important yet held in the new SA.

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) are growing apace on the left as many of the disillusioned, especially unemployed black youth, respond to Julius Malema’s radical populism. At the same time, the DA is eating into the ANC’s more rational support base. This could transform the municipal elections into a game-changing event.

Indications are that the ANC could well lose the Nelson Mandela Bay metro council, comprising Port Elizabeth and surrounding industrial towns, with the DA gaining a clear majority. The ANC is in a mess throughout the Eastern Cape, as seen in the fact that the DA Student Organisation has just won control of Fort Hare University’s student representative council — Fort Hare being the iconic nursery of all the ANC’s great leaders in the past.

There is also a possibility that the ANC could fall short of an outright majority in three other metro councils: Greater Johannesburg, Tshwane and Ekurhuleni. Falling short in those, or even just one of them, would place the ANC in the awkward situation of having to find a coalition partner to govern. If it tried to rule from a minority position, the opposition parties would team up to pass a vote of no confidence in the council and topple it. In that event, the ANC would have to choose between the DA and the EFF to have a partner that could get it across the majority line.

It is hard to imagine the ANC being eager to clutch the viperous Malema to its bosom once more. Moreover, the EFF’s reckless policies would be hard to incorporate into any administration. Indeed, one of the more intriguing features of the local government elections is that the EFF is likely to win control of some municipalities — and then have to run them. The results will be interesting to watch.

This is where the value of a black DA leader like Maimane becomes evident. Former DA leader Tony Leon, in his new role as a columnist, notes that there is little evidence to show that a black leader is a ticket to success in our elections. He points out that the likes of Mosiuoa Lekota, Bantu Holomisa, Mamphela Ramphele and a string of Pan Africanist Congress leaders have been singularly unsuccessful, while two whites, he and departing DA leader Helen Zille, have grown the DA’s vote from 350,000 to more than 4-million in 20 years. Zille, much the more successful of the two, has managed to break through the DA’s white ceiling. The 4-million votes the DA attracted in last year’s national election were nearly one-and-a-half times the total white population of voting age. With a 73.48% voter turnout, that means more than 1-million black people must have voted for the DA — a tremendous achievement.

But I submit that negotiating coalition politics is different. The ANC, having derided the DA for years as "a white party" led by whites and dedicated to maintaining white privileges, would fear a backlash if it cut a partnership deal with a white party leader with an image as strong as Zille’s.

Maimane would make it easier for the ANC to contemplate such a deal, especially as he was once a member of the ANC and has lived most of his life in Soweto.

This is not a matter of leadership skills, strategic judgment or personal charisma. It is a psychological factor within the ANC itself. With whom can it more easily do deals without feeling that it is spoiling its image as the party that liberated its own downtrodden people? President Jacob Zuma’s ANC has become much more race conscious than the black population in general. I also think that Maimane, as a fresh arrival to the leadership, would find it easier to shift the DA somewhat to the left to accommodate a coalition deal. This is something Zille couldn’t do, having placed such a firm classical liberal stamp on the DA for so long.

Liberalism is in any case such a flexible word, meaning different things in different contexts. My understanding of it has always been that it defines an outlook of individual freedom and support for the underdogs. But it also has an economic connotation of being strongly capitalist, the modern version, neo-liberalism, having become a pejorative term implying free-market fundamentalism.

It is all a matter of image. I believe the DA would be well advised, under a new leadership pitching more strongly to the black community, to rebrand itself as a social democratic party, modelled on the highly successful Nordic countries, which encourage the growth of a strong, unfettered private sector that can generate the tax revenue to sustain a broad-based social welfare system that can support the poor and help the disadvantaged.

Those countries encourage businesses to prosper, cutting red tape and forming public-private partnerships, while also taxing the rich more heavily than liberal democracies do, to fund their welfare programmes and support some of the finest education systems in the world. The result is a high standard of living, along with the smallest wealth gaps to be found anywhere. They are also harsh on corruption.

Zuma will surely be going quite soon, if not directly after an ANC setback in the municipal elections, then surely at the next ANC national conference in 2017. The DA must therefore prepare itself to become a more easily acceptable coalition partner with a new ANC leader, hopefully one capable of recognising the depth of SA’s crisis and the need to form a government of national unity, including talent from civil society, to pull us out of the mire.

• Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail.

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