DA supporters. Picture: ALON SKUY
DA supporters. Picture: ALON SKUY

The DA should have sat back and enjoyed the ride after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the ANC supported amending the constitution to allow for land expropriation without compensation.

Without the DA having to lift a finger, voter turnout at next year’s election would have been high in its traditional support bases — because the ANC had touched what even Ramaphosa’s charm could not counter: property rights. For the middle class of all races, this is crucial.

On top of this free electoral gift from the ANC, the DA seemed at last to reach a political solution to one of its biggest electoral drawbacks: the very public clash between its Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille and the top leadership structure.

De Lille and DA leader Mmusi Maimane sat side by side in Cape Town on Sunday and announced that De Lille had resigned, effective October 31, and that all internal charges against her had been dropped. They declared that the decision was "in the interests of the people of Cape Town", who had to suffer the spectacle from the sidelines, while the drought at one point threatened to leave the city without water.

As there are still months to go between the amicable split and the election, it seemed the party would have time to recover from the disastrous way the "De Lille saga" had played out.

But in politics, even a day can be a long time. On Monday morning De Lille was in fine fettle as she said on radio that she still intends to pursue civil cases against individuals who have smeared her name.

A potentially even bigger clash, however, had started brewing on Saturday, when DA leaders openly contradicted each other on whether the party had decided to scrap black economic empowerment from its economic policy.

Gwen Ngwenya, DA policy head, said in an article on BusinessLive that the DA had rejected BEE at its last federal council. James Selfe, the DA’s federal council chair, said this was untrue, adding that the DA still believes race is a proxy for disadvantage in SA, and that this is central to the issue.

After a public debate last weekend, Ngwenya and Selfe issued a joint statement in a bid to settle the storm.

The pair said the DA has rejected BEE and the ANC’s narrow, broad-based BBBEE policy, and would offer its alternative model of "real, broad-based empowerment".

"Crucially, we have always said that we aim to achieve a society in which race is not a determinant of opportunity. We have argued that empowerment policies need to become less race-focused over time, as the policies begin to do their work in redressing the legacy of apartheid."

They said the only reason the ANC government has had to focus ever-increasingly on narrow racial categories is because its empowerment policy "has failed so dismally".

Ngwenya and Selfe said the DA believes it is possible to design an empowerment framework that will deliver "equality of opportunity for all South Africans over time".

The precise policy wording will have to be seen, because the issue goes to the heart of the ideological divide in the DA. Its pure liberals hold that race is not a proxy for disadvantage, as disadvantage can be measured; the transformationists, on the other hand, argue that race just about equals advantage or its opposite.

That race is a proxy for disadvantage, as Selfe stated, was missing from the joint statement.

Denying race as a factor in one’s life-chances in SA effectively alienates the DA from a crucial constituency it had all but sewn up after the ANC’s pronouncement on land — the black middle class, particularly professionals based in Gauteng, a key electoral battleground according to party insiders in the province.

DA Gauteng premiership hopeful Makashule Gana on Tuesday emphasised that disadvantage in SA remains racially based, and that income inequality, unemployment and poverty in the main still affect black people in SA.

Gana is seen as being on the side of the party its "liberals" describe as the DA’s "nationalists".

The public argument on the issue makes it clear that supporters must sit back and hold tight, as the battle for the soul of the DA seems unlikely to be resolved soon.

The split over BEE is a continuation of a series of pivotal discussions over "the soul" of the party. Another concerns the wording of the DA’s diversity clause, which initially sparked fears that it would include race and gender quotas.

Another recent, unresolved issue was the "putsch" by provincial leaders in getting seats on the party’s MP-selection committees — described by the liberal grouping as the "patronage amendment". The DA kicked the issue into touch, asking for a legal opinion to determine if a selection panel is a committee, as provincial leaders are allowed to sit on any committee in their provinces.

This legal opinion is not yet out in the open, but could be crucial to the process of determining the party slates of parliamentary and provincial legislature candidates.

The lists have long been said to not be diverse enough. This is expected to be one of the next big fights in the DA.

Long term, the battle is bigger, with eyes on the party’s next national congress, where new leadership will be elected.

A senior DA member says that at the core of the fightback, by those who fear the DA is losing its liberal values as it grows, is an attempt to position some people as likely successors to Maimane. One such member is Ghaleb Cachalia, who is in the running to be the DA’s Gauteng candidate for premier. He staunchly believes the DA should hang on to its liberal roots. Ngwenya is also considered to be in the running.

If the DA does not grow or if it loses support in 2019, it could place a target on Maimane’s back, opening an opportunity for those who backed him to replace ex-leader Helen Zille to take him out as they did her.

The DA should be debating empowerment — particularly as ANC policies have benefited only a few among the connected political elite. Yet, to disregard race in the critical BEE debate could be counterproductive. Critics of the liberal purists say this group would be happy with a party that has a mere 15% of MPs to represent their views and outlook. Fair enough.

The DA then should halt its bid to break through the electoral glass ceiling it has created for itself — and be brave enough to represent itself as just that, a 15% party happy to be confined to the opposition benches.