There has been a good deal of talk on the significance of Lindiwe Mazibuko’s election to the top job in parliamentary opposition. Much of the celebration concerns what the event signals for the future; the potential for the Democratic Alliance (DA) to attract young black voters. In fact, in the minds of many, it is only an indication, but an important one, of a watershed moment to come. If we are to consider the moment an achievement not contingent on the prospects of the future, then Mazibuko’s election must be significant because of what it tells us about South Africa today, not for what it heralds for the country tomorrow. Mazibuko’s election is indeed a crossing of the Rubicon because of what it says about the DA and its electoral base today.
Any political party that hopes to become, or to remain, a party of governance is precious about its consolidated electoral base. Its policies, activities and leaders often point to the nature and interests of the people that the party is beholden to. Opposition parties consciously and often subconsciously decide to remain in opposition politics by reaching out only to their traditional base and driving the wedge between their supporters and those of the ruling party. An opposition party that thirsts for governing power must engage in a dance to shift fence-sitters, genuinely attract those on the other side and hold the confidence of longstanding supporters. The candidacy and election of a black South African to the DA’s second top job speaks of either an electoral base that increasingly does not identify their interests as linked to racial identity or a party that is unconstrained by the need to placate its traditional electoral base.
It has been posited that the DA owes its support to having preyed on the fears and suspicions of white South Africans — some having lost a political home in the National Party, some wary of the nationalist tendencies of the African National Congress and some not convinced that a liberation movement could successfully become a party of governance. Whatever the note of the piper’s flute that has led the majority of white South Africans to vote for the DA, it has become commonplace to refer to the DA as a white party. But the tenor of the criticism seems not only to be that it is led by white men and women but at times there are hints toward a genuine belief, some might say conspiracy theory, that there is also an agenda. The agenda in summary being the preservation of white affluence and power, driven by racist notions. Thus with this agenda the DA would continue to appoint white men and women to influential positions. Mazibuko’s election flies in the face of such fears.
Because of South Africa’s history there is much still to be said of the impact that the internalisation of racial identity has on voting patterns. There are many South Africans for who the DA is increasingly a viable alternative but who are also desperate for a face they can recognise as their “own”. Today preparation met with opportunity for the DA. A competent individual was available at a time when the imaginations of young South Africans so desperately need to be recaptured. The politics of self-esteem and competence have never had more appealing a face than it does in Mazibuko. She has shown herself to be a world-class political communicator with the right mix of sharp wit and affability.
Mazibuko’s election is significant because it provides new possibilities for analysing the historical agenda and the current status of the DA. The first idea of significance is that the appeal of the DA for white South Africans does not lie in it being a white party. Top leaders threw their weight behind her candidacy with no fear that it would alienate the DA’s traditional electorate. It displayed faith in having an electorate committed to a unified vision for South Africa.
The other possibility is that party leaders and the parliamentary campaign in fact paid little attention to its traditional electoral base. This would suggest a party that does not feel beholden to any one constituency. If this is the case there is reason to take seriously the assertion that the DA is growing a new base, one inclusive of all South Africans.
The DA’s future as the national governing party depends on the election of Mazibuko as being a confluence of both phenomena; the DA as a party serious about being a party for all and a traditional electoral base that embraces this vision. Reason suggests that it is.