The DA needs to raise its game 

R.W. JOHNSON / The news that the DA is willing to get together with other democratic parties to present a united front against a possible ANC-EFF coalition government is welcome – indeed, I have argued for this for some time. However, a number of points need to be made about this proposal.

Clumsy is as clumsy does

First, the DA proposal is in various ways clumsy. For a start the party has left it very late to begin such an initiative. Previous experience elsewhere suggests that it requires considerable time to generate a sense of unity and momentum not only among the participant parties but, above all, amongst the wider electorate.

For thirty years now South African voters have felt that there was no alternative to the ANC. To get them to believe that there is at last a united Opposition offering a credible alternative will take some time.

In the Popular Front era in the Europe of the 1930s and again in the France of the United Left in the 1970s the result was to generate considerable popular excitement and enthusiasm which proved electorally powerful, pulling out many previous abstainers to vote. This is the ideal thing to aim for, but it requires a sustained campaign over time.

Secondly, it is absurd to refer to this as ‘the Moonshot proposal’. Such a description makes it sound as if the initiative is freakish and almost a no-hoper when the whole objective is to generate a sense of there being a credible alternative at last. There should be no more ‘Moonshot’ nonsense.

Third, it was extremely clumsy to talk of the DA ‘leading’ such an initiative. This was bound to annoy the DA’s prospective partners, particularly since they have themselves already taken the lead in discussing such a pact with one another. Actually, the DA’s long delay in backing such an initiative has cost them the lead.

Finally, it appears that the DA made this move without first consulting the leaders of other Opposition parties. They are now reacting angrily to the DA’s move, pointing out that Bantu Holomisa convened all these parties together to discuss such a pact several weeks ago. This failure to consult also looks to have been extremely clumsy.

That said, the DA is bound to be by far the biggest party in this Opposition pact so it will be difficult for it to avoid a leadership role. The way things have been so mishandled means that it will start off on the back foot, having to apologise for not having treated the smaller parties with proper respect.

The DA needs to think hard about the sensitivities of the other parties to ensure that it doesn’t blunder again. There is already a fair amount of bad blood between the DA and some of the other parties. That has to be put to one side and everyone needs to be careful not to inflame old wounds.

A common programme is essential

In itself an Opposition pact makes no sense in a PR system. To give it meaning the Opposition parties need to devise a common programme so that all of them can approach voters saying ‘this is what we all propose to do’. Only in that way can they crystallise the nature of the alternative being offered to voters.

A common programme is a minimum programme. Each party will retain its own larger and more detailed programme. The common programme is merely the essential core, the key reforms they can all agree on. It is important that these reforms are clear and even dramatic, for popular attention will fasten upon them. And they all have to be things which the Opposition would actually do. That is, ringing declarations about human rights or democracy are useless: what’s needed is commitments to concrete actions.

A common programme is also a protection for all the participant parties. Many parties have questionable commitments in their manifestoes and a simple pact with no common programme means that this can do harm to the other contracting party. This happened some years ago when the DA had an alliance with the IFP – which at that time had a commitment to move the administrative capital of KwaZulu-Natal to Ulundi. Voters in Durban and Pietermaritzburg didn’t think much of this and punished both the IFP and DA. Having a more limited common programme removes this danger.

Thus far the parties in discussion are Action SA, the IFP, Freedom Front+ and the ACDP. The DA will now join that group. There would be no harm in inviting Cope and the UDM to join, tiny though they are: after all, Bantu Holomisa took the lead in exploring such a pact. How can he be left out now ? And there may also be some local residents’ associations who might be included. The DA has also spoken of including civic groups. The one that really matters is Solidarity/Afriforum, though for some that might be a controversial choice.

It should be realised that hammering out a common programme is no easy task. When the French Left did this, the negotiations lasted many months. However, the public followed them avidly and there was great celebration when an accord was finally reached. In that sense the negotiations became part of the campaign of mobilisation. The DA’s long delay in deciding to seek an Opposition pact has, however, reduced the time available. So a decision for a common programme now needs to be taken quickly.

The question of an ANC-DA coalition

Perhaps even more difficult, the various members of the pact need to work out a common position on the question of a possible coalition with the ANC. This is difficult but essential. On the one hand Herman Mashaba has declared that the ANC are responsible for wrecking and looting the country and that he cannot accept a coalition deal with them under any circumstances. That is an entirely understandable position.

On the other hand, the DA and the business community are already focused on the nightmare vision of an EFF-ANC coalition. If the DA gets the chance of preventing such a prospect by doing a coalition deal with the ANC itself, many within the party (and the party’s donors) will feel that the DA simply has to make such a deal, however poor its prospects might be. That too is an entirely understandable position.

But this question has the potential to dynamite the entire Opposition pact. If there is no agreement about this and the DA ended up making a coalition deal with the ANC, some or even all of its pact partners might accuse it of opportunism and betrayal. Given that, as I have previously argued elsewhere, an ANC-DA coalition would almost certainly end badly for the DA, this risks the worst of all worlds, with the Opposition pact imploding in acrimony and defeat.

That has to be avoided. It might well take more than one election for an Opposition pact to succeed fully, so it is vital that if a common programme and some semblance of unity can be achieved, that it is preserved for future contests.

The notion that there really is a viable alternative to an ANC government needs to be kept in front of voters for the long term. Even if the Opposition pact came to power, this would be even more true: restoring South Africa after thirty years of ANC wrecking would, after all, take more than one term of government.

So, somehow, an understanding on this difficult question needs to be reached. It’s not easy because most of the DA’s pact partners would be too small to have much chance of a coalition with the ANC themselves. The obvious solution would be for the DA to commit itself that, in the event of a possible coalition with the ANC, it would insist that all the Opposition pact members be included in such a deal. Those who wished to take no part in such a deal could stand down but at least some minimal Opposition solidarity would be preserved.

In sum, the DA has at last made a start but it has been needlessly clumsy. A great deal of complex and subtle politicking lies ahead. The party has veered about. For years it played identity politics more than any other party. The results were disastrous. Now it denounces identity politics.. It campaigned for a state of disaster to be declared but when it got one it denounced it. It made multiple municipal alliances with the EFF. Now it proclaims the EFF to be its main enemy. And so on. It has been a giddy progress. The least one can say is that the DA badly needs to raise its game.

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