Today President Jacob Zuma will, again, formally unveil his latest party trick: the presidential “hotline”. Our president, we know by now, has the magician’s knack of drawing the eye away from the trick. Should a fraction of his talent for getting himself out of trouble be deployed in some wider national purpose, South Africa would probably have conquered the universe by now. But a more historical — and less noticed — political landmark, I believe, took place last Thursday. For the first time, Cope and the Democratic Alliance, representing 25% of the electorate between them, held their first joint-press conference. The tinder dry subject of labour-brokering, while not immediately apparent, cuts to the fundamental dividing line of South African politics: the role of the state in a capitalist society.
Despite the inevitable disclaimers from both parties, the significance of this event will be if this press conference presages closer co-operation up till and beyond the 2011 local government elections. If the DA repeated their 2000 performance (22% of the vote) and Cope edge up to 8% (I think it will do much better) in 2011, the ANC will be in serious trouble. Key municipalities and metros like Port Elizabeth and even Johannesburg could fall like ripe apples into the opposition’s hands. A thirty percent plus alliance victory could also herald a sea change in South African politics. The term “sea change” in politics, political students will know, became popular in 1979.
In an election which truly was a turning-point in British political history, “Sunny” Jim Callaghan was succeeded by Margaret Thatcher. An astute reader of the political weather, Callaghan had sensed he was heading for defeat. As his car drove him round Parliament Square during the 1979 campaign, he observed to his senior official, Bernard Donoughue: “You know, there are times, perhaps every 30 years, that there is a sea change in politics. I suspect that there is now such a sea change — and it is for Mrs Thatcher.” At the moment, there is not a sea change for Helen Zille or any opposition leader for the prosaic reason, excuse my bluntness, that they have not yet captured the national mood like Mrs Thatcher did in Britain thirty years ago.
But the ANC is being dragged along by a riptide, and the opposition will benefit. And this is where the DA’s co-operation with Cope is crucial. I believe the “law of diminishing returns” is setting in for the DA: it is getting less and less extra votes for the additional doses of resources and expertise it is adding. This not to say that the DA is not doing well. The party is the Maserati of South African politics. Shiny, well-resourced, streamlined, quick response, sturdy and classy without being too sexy, the DA is the “bee’s knees” or, better still, the “cat’s whiskers” of political organisations. Attracting Oxbridge and Harvard graduates to its public representatives and professional staff, the party glides panther-like through the thicket of the political jungle (please don’t write witty comments asking if the panther is black or white).
Most worryingly for the DA, though it has consolidated its core constituencies and is growing, significant growth is constrained — unfairly in my subjective view — by its lack of appeal among black voters. The debate surrounding why this is so is well-known and I will not reproduce it here. Partnership with Cope could bridge the racial chasm. “Cope reaches the parts other parties cannot reach” to borrow Heineken’s famous catchphrase. The party, in April’s election, achieved more rapid growth in vote terms than any other opposition party had managed since 1994. After four months of being registered, Cope garnered 1.3 million votes, went from zero to 7.42% of the vote, and overtook the IFP as the third largest party. Not only does Cope have a national presence, it appears to have — and this is crucial — a multi-class and non-racial demographic base. In parliament, Cope has a nice feel to it. Fresh, enthusiastic without being too slick, it looks and sounds representative and, most importantly, its leaders have deep roots in the ANC. Parties calving parties — like the slow moving glaciers of Patagonia — is a normal political process in a democracy. In Britain the Whigs gave birth to the Liberals and they gave birth to Labour. The difference here is the breakneck speed with which the process took place.
Zuma’s government — as opposed to the ANC’s social democracy which reaches deep into the nation’s DNA — is done for. This administration’s political runes are more disparate and jarring than Joseph’s Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. From a hipster’s “shoot-to-kill” policy to presidential “hotlines” to Shaiky intelligence to shady foreign policy and make-it-up-as-you-go-along economics, the government drifts anchorless on the Sea of Zumatranquillity. Yet, in their heart-of-hearts, while the party seeks to promote internal diversity, the DA knows it can only compete for national power when the politics of race-based voting is expunged as a “choice” from the voters’ menu: yes, race, the San Andreas fault-line of SA politics.
If there is any party that can stick two fingers up to the ANC and say that race is not a determinant of content character and merit, it is Cope for the simple reason that their leaders are hewn from the same part of the struggle woods as the ANC. The DA, I was heartened to hear, are approaching their Cope counterparts as equal partners. This is savvy politics. “Who dares wins” is the famous SAS motto. It will be fascinating to see if Zille, and whoever emerges as Cope’s leader after the elective conference, will have the courage to tell their supporters to vote tactically in the 2011 elections.
Could Zille bring herself to say to DA supporters, for example, in swing wards in the Eastern Cape “if you think they can win here, vote Cope”? This brand of leadership takes courage and risks and Zille, for one, possesses both. It is also too early to say if Cope’s recent unexpected by-election coup in Tembisa was a breakthrough or an “outrider”. In most other by-elections Cope has contested, I should add for reflective balance, it has suffered crushing defeats and critics of this blog might argue that I am underestimating the schisms within Cope.
In the 1997 election, for the first time, the British electorate voted sophisticatedly and tacitly to get the entrenched Conservatives out. Up to then, it had been the Conservative century because the centre-left always split the vote. A few egos here, I fear, will have to be swallowed to similarly shift the ANC. At tops, a DA-Cope led alliance could deprive the ANC of an outright majority in 2014. And bearing in mind South Africa is a young country with a conspicuous dearth of young leaders, if the new alliance could identify a young and inspirational leader — a Barack Obama aged 47 or a David Cameron aged 41 — South Africa should brace itself for a sea change in 2019. The most exciting outcome of all, for me, would be a born again ANC or, should I say, a return to the old ANC: the prodigal son who comes home to their fathers’ vision of non-racialism and egalitarianism.