South Africa After the ANC: Part II

South Africa After the ANC: Part II
Democratic Alliance party leader Helen Zille during a visit to Mpumulanga, South Africa, January 2011 (Democratic Alliance photo, licensed under the CC BY-SA 2.0 license).
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on the implications of the African National Congress’ decline for South Africa’s political landscape. Part I examined the factors contributing to the ANC’s decline. Part II examines the prospects for the opposition Democratic Alliance to become an alternative governing party. The African National Congress (ANC) is trapped in a systemic crisis from which it cannot extricate itself. Consequently, the wellbeing of South African democracy requires a shift from the current one-party dominant system to a more competitive multiparty system. One route to this outcome is through the fragmentation of the ANC, whose current fractious and unstable condition virtually guarantees dysfunctional government. However, progress to a more pluralist order may also be accelerated by a simultaneous development, namely the ability of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the official opposition, to position itself as a credible alternative governing party. The DA’s challenge is daunting given the historical backdrop. Since 1912, the ANC has been embedded in the political consciousness of black South Africa, whereas the DA’s origins lie in the elite and largely white world of South African liberalism. This historical baggage is a liability for the DA and, when added to the electoral arithmetic, the party’s task assumes herculean proportions. The ANC secured 65.9 percent of the vote in the 2009 general election and 63 percent in the 2011 municipal elections, sobering statistics for any opposition challenger. That said, the DA has made some impressive electoral advances over the past decade, particularly in the past three years, albeit from a low base. Nationally its share of the vote has grown from 1.7 percent in 1994 to 16.7 percent in 2009, making it the fastest-growing party in the country. This national advance has been complemented by gains at the provincial level, with the party growing in all nine provinces in the 2009 election, including a rout of the ANC in the Western Cape. Further evidence of electoral progress came in the 2011 local government elections, when the DA secured 24 percent of the vote, up from 16 percent in 2006, its most impressive performance to date. The prospect of the DA supplanting the ANC as the party of government was once considered too absurd to merit serious discussion. However, under Helen Zille’s leadership, the party has now established a bridgehead from which it can move beyond mere harassment of the ANC to mounting a serious challenge to it. Helen Zille’s stated ambition is to secure 30 percent of the vote in the 2014 general election. If achieved, that would bring the ANC’s share of the vote down toward the mid-50 percent level. The ANC would then look less like an omnipotent force and more like one that is in historical decline. That, in turn, would make Zille’s ambition for the 2019 poll more attainable: to see the DA in government, either as part of a broader anti-ANC coalition or alongside an ANC that, with its vote below 50 percent, might be compelled to make a deal. The strategy to achieve this is essentially the same approach that has taken the DA to its current position as the pre-eminent opposition force. Its most salient features are: - Advertising its track record of honest and efficient administration provincially and locally. The DA-controlled Western Cape provincial government and the various DA-controlled municipalities will be lauded as islands of stability and progress in a sea of inept and frequently corrupt ANC rule at all three tiers of government. - Robustly defending the constitution and liberal values in contrast to what the DA sees as the ANC’s authoritarian instincts in areas such as judicial independence, press freedom and the separation of party and state. - Contrasting the unity and order of the DA with an ANC so riven with factionalism that effective government becomes impossible. - Highlighting the arrogance of the ANC, which sees governing South Africa as a right conferred by the liberation struggle rather than by its record in government. This astutely positions the DA as a forward-looking, performance-based party, while shifting the political focus away from its weakest terrain: struggle politics. However, if it is to establish itself as a threat to ANC rule, the DA must surmount a formidable set of obstacles. Thus far the party has proved adept at mobilizing minority communities, undermining, in the process, the ANC’s claim to be a party with appeal across all of South Africa’s racial groups. Yet while that is sufficient to secure control of political enclaves around the country, it cannot offer a route to national government in a country where black Africans comprise 80 percent of the electorate. To mobilize these voters, the DA must overcome a legacy of distrust in the black community, specifically the perception that it represents the interests of privileged whites and other minorities and is incapable of identifying with the concerns of black South Africans. This may be a caricature, but it is a powerful one that is currently restricting the DA’s growth potential among black South African voters. The DA must overhaul this image and begin to look and sound more like the country it aspires to govern. It must convince the majority community that it will address poverty, unemployment and inequality while maintaining an economic policy rooted in what its critics describe as market fundamentalism or neoliberalism. And it must avoid succumbing to a provincial insularity with its positions being driven by the interests of its Western Cape stronghold. Finally, in pursuing its own brand of “big tent” politics, the DA must be careful that broadening its appeal does not alienate its existing support base, dilute its values or trigger the debilitating internecine strife the ANC is now experiencing. These complex challenges may prove too great for the DA to overcome. If so, this may hasten a process of political realignment that Zille has referred to on a number of occasions. In this alternative scenario, the DA would collapse into a new centrist movement joined by forces, ideally from the ANC itself, capable of reaching those parts of the electorate the DA, in its current form, simply cannot reach. Such a development might finally usher in the postliberation political landscape South Africa so urgently requires. James Hamill has been a lecturer in the Department of Politics & International Relations, University of Leicester, U.K., since 1991. He has a long-standing research interest in South African politics, particularly in the country’s post-apartheid development, and is a frequent visitor to the country. He has published articles on South Africa in International Relations, Diplomacy & Statecraft, the World Today, Politikon: The South African Journal of Political Studies, and the Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.

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