Mmusi Maimane, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, right, greets an attendee at the IEC national results center in Pretoria, South Africa, on Thursday, May 9, 2019. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS / BLOOMBERG
Mmusi Maimane, leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, right, greets an attendee at the IEC national results center in Pretoria, South Africa, on Thursday, May 9, 2019. Picture: WALDO SWIEGERS / BLOOMBERG

The DA is at a critical crossroad after losing support in the general election.

The official opposition party will again be the second-largest party when the sixth parliament opens later in May and the ANC majority elects Cyril Ramaphosa as president. The party will, however, be five seats down from 89 five years ago.

Given its punishment at the polls, it would be tempting to sharpen knives and launch a political coup from the inside as some in the DA may be baying for blood.

This is, however, where those in the DA wanting to punish party leader Mmusi Maimane for the losses must think twice. The sobering losses in the election followed more than a year of turmoil in the party.

The DA was involved in an ugly and protracted battle with former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, eventually ending in a settlement agreement that saw her resign. In another battle, senior party members and leaders openly took one another to task on the DA’s stance on black economic empowerment. 

Its former head of policy, Gwen Ngwenya, resigned with a letter in which she basically told the party bosses that the DA was not serious about policy.

It was only in the few weeks preceding the election that the DA held its members in line and the party’s professional election structures, its polling machinery and its slick ad campaigns kicked into high gear. It was, however, too little too late.

On top of that, the campaign was mostly listless and negative, with the more positive call on a vote for hope happening in the closing rally when Maimane called on voters to be brave.

One can arguably say the SA electorate was indeed brave. They saw through the smoke-and-mirror propaganda pushed by political parties and made extraordinary strategic decisions on who to vote for by, for example, splitting their votes.

The DA should stay far away from blaming voters for exercising their democratic right, as this could result in alienating even more supporters ahead of the 2021 local government election in which it surely cannot afford to follow the trajectory it is on.

Just as the 2016 local government election was a wake-up call for the ANC, which received a bloodied nose that saw it lose the crucial metros of Johannesburg and Tshwane to DA-led minority administrations, last week’s election should do the same for the DA. 

It has to analyse why some 470,000 voters marked their X for other parties, and not merely chalk it up to racist nationalists being unhappy about the party becoming one for all South Africans.

Now is the time for sober discussion and rational decisions. It is not the time for the DA to spiral deeper into a pit of confusion, one in which the leader and decision-makers will be hung out to dry. That would be deadly for the party.

The first step in dealing with the issues that face the party was taken on Monday when its federal executive quite rightly took collective responsibility for the election results and ordered a review of the party’s organisational structures. Now the federal executive, which has rallied around Maimane, has to ensure that the rest of the party falls in line, which will be no small task. 

It is, however, clear that more of the same political drama will not cut it. Not with Ramaphosa calling on the ANC to be humble and leading the charge of renewing both party and country.

The DA is quite right when it says SA needs a strong opposition. It will be up to its leaders and decision-makers in the coming months to manage whether the DA will be that strong opposition, or whether it will relegate that position to the EFF, while it tears itself apart.