Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane. Picture: REUTERS
Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane. Picture: REUTERS

Business Day last week revealed that the DA’s popularity is in the doldrums, polling at pre-2016 levels of support. Polling at this level of support is a huge problem for the party as it prepares for its federal congress for many reasons, some well-known perennial issues, but others that are possibly less obvious.

The most obvious problem is that 2016 support levels suggest its attempts to become a credible voice among black voters are not working. At current levels, the party’s total support would be about 24% of the voting public, which would imply about 5% black support — which means it has hardly scratched the surface of the black vote, which is crucial if the party is to grow.

Among the causes of the DA’s woes is, of course, the elevation of Cyril Ramaphosa to president of the ANC and the country in a blistering wave. "Ramaphoria" has thrown the DA and, as it happens, the EFF off their moorings. Both parties invested enormous amounts of political capital in focusing their campaigns on former president Jacob Zuma, and that rug has been decisively pulled out from under them.

[The DA's] growth, and its desperate desire to become more popular among black South Africans, have increased the propensity for ideological and policy differences to emerge

But there are apparently also less well-known problems. The shrill voice of former leader Helen Zille and the controversy surrounding her equivocal support for colonialism, later retracted, reduced the proportion of black voters even prepared to think about voting DA.

One of the central planks of the DA message has been that like it or not, it is an effective, incorruptible administration. But that has been bruised by Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille’s disastrous handling of the Cape Town water crisis and the even more disastrous fumbling in the attempt to oust her.

Sometimes, it’s really hard to get a break in politics.

The bigger picture is full of ironies. The DA has been the most consistently growing political party in SA by some measure, an accolade substantially diminished by the fact that its biggest competitor, the ANC, is so big that growth is difficult to pull off. However, this growth, and its desperate desire to become more popular among black South Africans, have increased the propensity for ideological and policy differences to emerge. In short, as the DA grows, it naturally becomes more incoherent and divided.

If this remained at an ideological level, that would be one thing. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that these differences are beginning to articulate themselves into something less than factions but larger than tendencies within the party.

The modernists, led by party leader Mmusi Maimane, are willing the party forward but their reliance on the weaknesses of the ANC rather than their own strengths is obvious. As a consequence, the party is inclined to catch-phrase policy rather than substantial analysis and careful policy-making.

This weakness is most apparent when wedge issues arise, of which land expropriation without compensation is the most recent example. The DA would like to use the topic as a vote-catcher, but its ability to distinguish between the fair distribution of land on a racial basis and the potentially catastrophic diminution of property rights is rather mixed.

In a sense, the land issue forces the DA back into a place from which it would prefer to be seen as emerging rather than into which it might be seen as retreating. The party does recognise the problem and is in the process of developing more detailed and specific policy, but somewhat like the ANC, coherent policy is difficult when views within the party are so different.

It is being pulled by other tendencies too. The party’s dutiful functionaries, the most obvious example being federal executive chairman James Selfe, have a powerful influence on its approach. The DA in its modern form is also fiercely driven by polling, which helps in some cases but can also befuddle its message. It’s no wonder there is pressure on party chief whip John Steenhuisen to compete for the position of federal executive chairman against Selfe, a temptation he is resisting.

The third group is the party’s emerging mayors and regional leaders. Once again this is reflected in a contest. Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga may decide to contest the federal chairman post against Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip. They may both be mayors, but Trollip is senior in the party and a former running mate of Maimane. Even the possibility that he might be challenged suggests stresses within the party.

The election campaign is just starting and things could change fast. But as it stands at the moment, the DA’s grand hopes of winning Gauteng and increasing its popularity to about 30% of the total vote look bleak. It needs to discover its soul, which must be rooted in being champion of the middle class, rather than sliding into being simply a reactive and defensive party.