Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane. Picture: ALON SKUY​
Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane. Picture: ALON SKUY​

To say that the end of the Jacob Zuma era has removed the political ‘gift that keeps on giving’ for opposition parties, is an understatement.

Zuma’s descent into political and legal quicksand has dealt a blow – particularly to the DA – as it grapples to find new avenues of political attack and deal with the daemons of transformation within its own ranks.

South Africa is a country of special circumstances for political parties. And transformation is crucial to acclimatise to changing electoral demands. But as essential as this is, there is harsh reality well beyond transformation that threatens to disrupt the DA’s growth path.

Whilst the party has been highly effective in its mandate as Official Opposition and in the multitude of legal battles holding the ANC to account, it nonetheless seems unable to capitalise on its historic watchdog role.

The problem for the DA is that whilst Jacob Zuma was an easy target, Cyril Ramaphosa is not. When you have spent much of the last decade Zuma-bashing, you are now caught with your proverbial political pants down as the ANC shifts gear.

Ironically, for many current and future DA supporters, Ramaphosa is just simply an attractive politician with the smarts and business savvy to book.

This might be so appealing – especially to those who softened to the DA as a result of Jacob Zuma’s leadership -  that they look to Cyril rather than to their own leader, Mmusi Maimane. Not to forget Pravin Gordhan - regarded as a virtual hero by DA voters - as he battled Jacob Zuma from the back-benches for most of last year.

While race and emotion is never far away in South African politics, leadership has always been pivotal. Whilst Mr Maimane cuts a suave form in parliament and provides outstanding optics and smooth soundbite analysis, the Ramaphosa era ushers in another leader with equal aplomb, great intellect and, importantly, a much heavier dose of gravitas.

In direct contrast to Jacob Zuma, suddenly a group of both current and potential DA supporters now have some-one else speaking their same language. And, he has experience, negotiating skill, business acumen and a demeanour so attractive that it has an aphrodisiacal quality to it.

As if this was not enough, the DA finds itself facing multiple challenges that bite all at the same time. Its prize city of Cape Town is threatened by both a water and Mayoral crisis – neither of which are fully resolved and both of which reflects poorly on leadership, planning and future foresight.

The DA had always had Cape Town to boast over and whilst it continues to govern the City (and Province) well, its current controversies have opened the window to the ANC and other Opposition parties to find fault and offer a real critique.

More worryingly, it has dented confidence amongst an element of the DA heartland – a group that is the foundation of the DA as it attempts to broaden its electoral appeal.

The party’s inability to find a suitable response to its more maverick voices – like Helen Zille amongst others – has angered both its traditional support base and its carefully nurtured new adherents.

Either its leadership must unequivocally support a liberal and nuanced view on controversial topics or it must shut it down ruthlessly. To do neither just creates festering wounds and fodder for the DA’s political enemies.

Given that the DA is probably the most racially diverse political party in the country today, it has been unable to marry the interests and sensitivities of its increasingly diverse base with the complexities of social media and the broader discourse. For a party of communication experts, it is surprisingly disappointing how the messages have been so mixed and messy.

But given all of this, the DA now faces a more serious problem – that of being unable to capture and direct the national discourse. And that’s the real rub for the party.

Whilst court actions and the outstanding strategic brain of James Selfe has largely saved South Africa from complete ruin, the benefits of renewal are not accruing to the DA.

By renewing the institutional integrity of agencies like the Hawks and Asset Forfeiture Unit, the DA’s legal prowess now subsumes back into state entities doing what they should’ve been doing for the last ten years.

Even the decision by the much-maligned NPA to proceed with charges and serve a summons against former President Zuma is now seen as a state-sponsored action when it was the DA (and other Opposition and Civil Society groups) that drove this for years.

Suddenly, as if overnight, the anti-corruption discourse has slipped from the DA and is now being driven by Ramaphosa himself.

Similarly, even on economic policy, Ramaphosa’s call for a series of advisory panels reaches out into DA territory. Should Ramaphosa be serious about getting economic policy input from some of the DA’s biggest corporate supporters, this too can undermine the party in its bid for continued growth and having the historical ear of the private sector.

But for all of this, the DA is just being shut out of the national discourse. And it’s the EFF who are doing most of the bidding from the Opposition benches.

Whilst the DA’s Jack Bloom has devoted his life to uncovering the dismal conditions in Gauteng’s state hospitals (and the Life Esidimeni tragedy), it’s the EFF that gets the publicity when it organises a march to highlight the sorry state of the province’s health institutions.

Indeed, the EFF have almost single-handedly used the DA as its new target now that Jacob Zuma is off centre-stage. Regrettably, the DA’s lack of spine in taking on Julius Malema smacks more of a desire to preserve the ‘marriage-of-convenience’ mayoral positions in Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Tshwane rather than having the political courage to draw a real line of distinction between themselves and the red overalls.

And of course, on the issue of land, the EFF is everywhere. Its message is that it now controls the conversation on that issue and it has even managed to shut out the ANC – let alone the DA. Whilst the ANC is clearly still deeply divided on the land issue, the DA has a pretty coherent – and quite radical - alternative that is largely lost in current EFF-manipulated milieu.

Given these concerns, the DA should be doing a lot better as a 27% party. But it isn’t. And it’s that issue that its upcoming Federal Congress must address.

Internal representivity always needs tweaking, but is it the panacea for all of these ills, or is a complete overhaul of its policy platforms, enhanced role of its public representatives as well as a much-needed new communications message, the real measures to discuss?

The DA urgently needs to frame the national conversation and not simply react to it. It needs to lift itself to be a real player on the national agenda of renewal.  It needs to flesh out and clearly articulate its policies on core issues like Land Expropriation. It needs to develop a new ‘gravitas’ via specialised and knowledgeable spokespeople who are seen as leading the debate on their particular portfolios. And it needs to hold each and every ANC office-bearer to account in a stepped-up and more clearly articulated manner.

It also needs to begin an urgent process of shoring up its traditional suburban support base who, as a result of historically high voter turnouts at election time – have enabled the party to keep growing.

Above all, it needs to take the battle fearlessly to the EFF and show clearly how DA policy wins out against a quasi-fascist alternative. But, it’s a tough call as a predilection towards more conservative populism, like Herman Mashaba’s crusade against immigrants in Johannesburg can divide the party between its liberal core and a quest for political point-scoring.

The EFF – whilst currently a threat to the DA in terms of the discourse – is also an opportunity. If the DA can show the electorate why it is a better bet, it not only can dislodge some EFF supporters, it can convince some wavering ANC voters in the process.

The DA needs to play the EFF at its own game. Both parties are at opposite ends of the political spectrum and both can clearly differentiate themselves from each other – in an easier fashion than either can achieve with the amorphous ANC.

The EFF is using the DA as a punch bag to raise its post-Zuma profile. The DA should simply do the same.  With the gloves off in Nelson Mandela Bay, the DA needs to unshackle itself from its politically expedient agreement with the EFF to lead a new charge.

As the DA moves to perhaps its toughest Federal Congress in in recent years, a changed political landscape threatens to halt its growth. Nothing wrong with robust internal elections and the usual dose of politicking – but If all of the real threats to the DA gets lost in a protracted debate on internal transformation, we might just be witnessing the dawn of the DA’s political ceiling.