In the four general elections held in post-apartheid South Africa, the African National Congress obtained the lion’s share of the vote, always garnering more than 62%, and an even bigger slice of votes from black South Africans. The Democratic Alliance’s 2014 election campaign has already kicked off, with its characterisation of the ruling party a critical element of its effort to expand its support base, and particularly to eat into the ANC’s traditional support base. This characterisation has its twin brother, the re-branding of the DA, based on propagating a revisionist reading of the party’s history, and its role in the liberation of South Africa.
The first part of Zille’s strategy is to portray the ANC as an organisation that has moved towards the ‘racial nationalism’ of the Apartheid regime. The claim that the ANC is, in any fundamental manner, similar to the National Party is so ridiculous that one would ordinarily ascribe such an idea to a lunatic. But Hellen Zille is the leader of the official opposition, and her ideas receive a welcome airing in the liberal media that dominates the South African landscape. We have to ask ourselves why the DA would adopt such a strategy, which amounts to a wholesale rewriting of history.
In searching for this answer, we might find clues in the second aspect of the DA strategy: the attempt to diminish the role of the ANC in the liberation of South Africa. Zille’s claim conveniently ignores a range of historical factors, organisational dynamics and popular perception in arguing that “the ANC did not always provide the only, or even the most important, opposition to segregation and apartheid”. In the first instance it ignores the obvious fact that the ANC has never claimed for itself the role of sole participant in the struggle. Any cursory reading of statements by ANC leaders over the last fifty years will make this clear. The ANC always saw its own contribution to the liberation of South Africa as part of a broader struggle by South Africans, taking varying organisational and ideological shapes. It is for this reason that it had alliances, including with its strategic allies the Communist Party and the trade union movement. For the same reason it had relationships with the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union in the 1920s and even the Black Conscioussness movement of the 70s. While these organisations co-existed with the ANC, Zille claims that they superseded it. She also claims that the ANC was superseded by the United Democratic Front in the 1980s, conveniently ignoring the fact that then, as now, many of the UDF’s leaders were in fact members of the then-banned ANC. Did Zille see any flags apart from those of the ANC and Communist party flying at the huge UDF meetings of the 1980s, or did she see anything but ANC flags at the funerals of thousands of activists killed during the brutal 1980s? Or are we to accept that we were all living an illusion that the ANC was actually immensely popular, and in a symbiotic partnership with the various progressive organisations inside the country?
Zille neglects to mention the critical fact that, unlike the liberal parties that precedes its modern incarnation, the DA, the ANC was a banned organisation that could not operate in the country openly. Its members, where found by the Apartheid State, were captured, tortured and killed. As activists who cut our political teeth in the turbulent 1980s, we can assure the leader of the DA that the ANC lived in the civic organisations, student and youth movements, defence committees and indeed the UDF in every township across South Africa. How else does she explain the popularity of this organisation and the extent to which its strategic mission was implemented by the vast majority of popular organisations? How did the ANC gain the confidence of the overwhelming majority of South Africans that allowed it to negotiate an end to Apartheid and usher in a democratic era for the country?
We can only conclude that Zille’s patently false rewriting of history is based on the age old liberal tradition in this country that infantilises black people, viewing them as emotional and not clear headed. Like her forebears in the Apartheid parliament argued that black South Africans cannot be given unconditional franchise as they are not ‘educated enough’, Helen Zille now seeks to convince us that the historical fact of ANC leadership in the anti-apartheid struggle is a mirage that seems to afflict only black South Africans. She is, necessarily the white saviour that will peel the scales from our eyes and allow you to see a South Africa where liberals fought tooth and nail for the liberation of South Africa, and where the DA is the modern incarnation of that struggle for liberation.
The results of the last four general elections bear testimony to the fact that black South Africans are not deceived by this liberal rewriting of their struggle, a fact that has driven Zille and the DA to cast themselves as not only our future, but past saviours as well. This strategy is borne out of desperation by the DA to establish a legitimate link between itself and the lived experiences of black South Africans. It is the latest in a trajectory of action that includes attempts to form a broad anti-ANC ‘coalition of the disgruntled’ with COPE, the ID and UDM as well as the failed attempt to draw Mamphela Ramphela and her small group of black intellectuals into the DA. Try as they might, the DA should know that South Africans are used to scratching below the surface to find out what lies beneath the various narratives that have been presented to them over the years. For that reason alone this falsehood will not stand.
David Africa and Dr. Oscar van Heerden are analysts at AFRICA-Analysis, a political and security research consultancy.