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DA: A liberal party suddenly fearful of ideas?

“When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie” – Yevgeny Yevtushencko

Strange times these. A proposed non-electoral pact between the ANC, a party synonymous with the advent of South African democracy, and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), a party slavishly devoted to naked populism, would see them collaborating to evade electoral accountability and popular opinion respectively. Seemingly not wishing to be upstaged, the final member of South Africa’s political trinity, the Democratic Alliance (DA), a liberal party, is now running scared from public debate.

The DA, governing the Western Cape with an outright majority for their third successive term, but having to implement the national policies of the ANC to which it is vehemently opposed and which the Cape electorate have expressly rejected, was never going to be able to evade the spectre of Cape independence forever. And, so it came to pass.

In the end it wasn’t a rousing speech in the provincial assembly, nor a rogue MP breaking party ranks, nor even a flag-waving multitude that opened, once and for all time, a door long closed, but rather a seemingly innocuous opinion poll posted on social media, ironically, by Progress SA, an organisation openly sceptical about Cape secession.

Apparently spooked by a noticeable “upturn in independence chatter” which had seen interim leader John Steenhuisen drawn into unscripted and ill-considered comment on the subject, it was going to take considerable political deftness to return the secession genie to the bottle. There may very well have been some suitably skilled political Houdinis within the DA’s arsenal, but Phumzile van Damme was never going to be one of them.

So, when Progress SA posted a survey to gauge people’s views on independence, the sort of survey that would typically hardly raise an eyebrow, Van Damme retweeted it to her 130 000 Twitter followers with her customary finesse. Notwithstanding that a 2019 poll showed that 66% of DA voters in the Western Cape favoured a referendum on independence, Van Damme declared it not worthy of debate, telling secessionists that they should rather leave South Africa, the intrinsic irony of that statement seemingly lost on her.

What then happened next would have been apparent to all except Van Damme. Progress SA, who have close ties to the DA itself, and who were initially opposed to secession, leapt to defend freedom of thought and the necessity for debate, with Scott Roberts (Progress SA and DA) tweeting that the “moral panic” of Progress SA gauging public opinion on independence was “bizarre”. As is her want, Van Damme doubled down on her position and was soon in heated Twitter debate with DA voters.

DA voter Lila Nicholson tweeted:

“I live in the WC, and voted DA last election. I would really like to hear from the DA in the WC what they think the pro’s and the cons of secession would be from the point of view of the WC”

After a brief exchange Van Damme told her: “I am sorry but I will not be blackmailed into supporting secession through veiled threats to take away your vote from the DA.”

Nicholson retorted: “Blackmail???? Is that how you respond to an honest question from someone who voted for you?”

Now that Van Damme had the independence sirens wailing at full pitch, a rather selective set of DA reinforcements arrived, notably from outside the Western Cape. Cameron MacKenzie MP announced the DA did not have a policy on secession, so it was slightly awkward when a video link of his leader ad-libbing one the previous week was promptly provided to him.

It is an open secret that a large part of the Western Cape DA favour secession. Their provincial manifesto makes numerous references to transferring power from Pretoria to Cape Town. Officially this is via increased federal autonomy, but surely no one thinks that the two thirds majority required in the national assembly is tenable, least of all the DA in the Western Cape, who inevitably have noted that the 50%+1 provincial threshold for independence is completely within their 55% grasp.

Sadly, not all Western Cape DA leaders got the no-show memo, so when Cape Town-based DA deputy student leader Duwayne Esau suggested to Van Damme that: “Once we decide certain ideas should not be debated we might as well stop debating,” he endured a parental scolding and a proverbial clip behind the ear from the DA wrecking ball.

When the dust settles, where does all this leave us?

First of all, the DA is going to have to develop a formal policy on Western Cape independence and effectively communicate it to their voters. That is going to be a balancing act of note given the noticeable divide between the Western Cape and national DA.

In developing their policy, the national DA will need to grapple with the genuine democratic issues and circumstances which have led to the “upturn in independence chatter”. Western Cape voters are trapped in a system where they perennially do not get the national government they voted for; rather they have the party they rejected foisted upon them. When the national government was pursuing an “all boats will rise” policy, the democratic ramifications of this electoral anomaly were benign. In the current super-charged political climate, where President Cyril Ramaphosa has shown his true colours, and where Ace Magashule, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Julius Malema wait in the wings, who the national government is and how they conduct themselves, have taken on vastly more significance to the average Cape voter.

The DA is also going to have to be realistic about what it can actually achieve in the rest of South Africa. Platitudes about the re-alignment of politics and the future of coalition governments might pass fleeting muster as soundbites, but the ANC and EFF’s share of the national vote once the WC has been excluded is actually increasing and is now at an all-time high (73.1% in 2019) while all three of the metros the DA captured in 2016 and governed by coalition have collapsed, with two of their highest profile mayors resigning from the party.

The national DA is trying to bluff the electorate with a pair of sevens, whereas the DA in the Western Cape is holding a royal flush. It is not hard to understand why the national DA wants to aggregate those hands. It should be even easier for all to comprehend how that might not be quite so appealing to either the Western Cape DA or their electorate.

Talk of independence is here to stay.