The DA’s leader, Mmusi Maimane, has nominated himself to be the party’s candidate for premier of the Western Cape. There is nothing odd about this at first glance. Helen Zille, the incumbent, served as national party leader and as premier. Why shouldn’t Maimane?
But this simplistic view fails to acknowledge the complex dynamics that have played out in the DA over the past five years.
Having secured the Western Cape beachhead, the party set its sights on national expansion. It had been able to secure a majority in the Western Cape by expanding its traditional white support base to include coloured voters, who were suspicious of the ANC and pronouncements by some of its leaders that suggested they were not "black enough".
This largely middle-class constituency was sufficient to achieve critical mass and build a solid DA base in that province.
But in order to achieve success on the national stage, it had to send a signal that it was a party of more than just coloured and white South Africans.
It had to seriously court black voters.
Electing Maimane and "transforming" the party’s parliamentary lists and leadership to more accurately reflect the national demographic became important strategic moves.
GREATER DOMINANCE BY THE ANC WOULD NOT BE GOOD FOR DEMOCRACY.
In the 2016 local government election, the party appeared to have made major headway, winning coalition victories in the traditional ANC heartland of Nelson Mandela Bay as well as in the metros of Johannesburg and Tshwane.
It seemed that the party was finally poised to win over black middle-class voters disillusioned with the ANC’s leftward drift, the rising cost of security, health and education, e-tolls and corruption, which limited entrepreneurial opportunities.
They did not have to look far to find the cause of their disillusionment: the then president Jacob Zuma.
He had been booed in December 2013 at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Soweto, and in 2016 those same people were protesting at the ballot box.
Late in 2017, pundits were beginning to talk about the 2019 national election resulting in a hung parliament, which could result in the DA and the EFF — jointly or severally — holding the balance of power.
Then, in December 2017, Zuma’s reign came to an end when his chosen successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was defeated at the ANC elective conference by Cyril Ramaphosa.
In February, Ramaphosa took office as president of the country and promised a "new dawn". Soon there were opinion polls showing the DA was losing ground to the ANC as voters returned to the governing party fold.
In this context, Maimane’s move to stand for the premiership of the Western Cape — a far surer thing than bidding for a part in a possible coalition government at national level — is very significant. It signals that the party is opting to strengthen its core Western Cape base at the expense of national expansion.
Unsurprisingly, the party’s provincial leader, Bonginkosi Madikizela, has his nose out of joint. But he does raise a valid point: has the DA given up on winning Gauteng, where a Maimane candidature for premier might have been a powerful campaigning tool?
"Strategically as the party … the next target is Gauteng and the Northern Cape … I find it strange that the federal leader would abandon the national project," Madikizela told the Sunday Times.
Maimane’s move may become a self-fulfilling prophecy if voters in Gauteng read this as a signal that the DA is a losing cause.
A decline in DA support and greater dominance by the ANC would not be good for democracy, which requires political competition to keep politicians on their toes.
It was, after all, the fall in ANC electoral support that finally got the governing party to rid itself of Zuma in favour of a more electable candidate.