Press "Enter" to skip to content

DA: The mouse that roared

Some years ago, former president Thabo Mbeki scornfully dismissed the DA as a “Mickey Mouse party”. Even party leader Tony Leon’s caustic rejoinder that Mbeki was heading up a “Goofy government” could not altogether remove the sting from that taunt. Things are looking quite a bit different now. Even Thabo would concede that the DA has become an altogether different kind of rodent.

South Africa’s post-1994 elections, even though the overall winner has always been a foregone conclusion, have provided much interest for compulsive election watchers. The primary issue at stake has been whether the ANC succeeds in becoming an unchallenged and unchallengeable African super-party or whether a tradition of effective political opposition is allowed to develop. It is always a bad sign when the ruling party receives (apparently) almost unanimous support. At its height, Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF was capturing well over 90% of the vote; only when the country’s economy was in free fall did a credible opposition belatedly emerge, and by then it was much too late.

With the ignominious disintegration of the New National Party and progressive decline of the Inkatha Freedom Party, it looked at one time very much like the former scenario was developing in South Africa. In 2004, the ANC gained 70% of the vote, to the 12.5% of its closest challenger, the DA. This was nearly 8% up from its performance in the inaugural non-racial elections a decade previously. Moreover, there was a possibility that the DA had peaked. It was still very much perceived as being the “white” party, and now that about 90% of white voters were supporting it, its growth potential at best seemed limited to the even smaller coloured and Indian minorities. Since then, things have changed rather dramatically. In 2009, support for the ANC slipped back to 66%, mainly because of the Congress of the People breakaway, while the DA grew to just under 17%. In the latest poll, these trends continued. Despite the many votes it picked up at the expense of the apparently moribund IFP and the wretchedly disappointing Cope, the ANC dropped a further two to three percentage points.

Over the past seventeen years, only the DA has registered consistent growth. In 1994, just one in 50 voters supported it. In the next three national elections — 1999, 2004 and 2009 — it progressively improved this share to one in ten, one in eight and one in six. Now, according to the latest results, one in four South Africans supports it. Should it succeed in building on the modest inroads it has made into the black electorate, who knows what the future may bring? Once no more than feisty lightweights, the party has broken into the big leagues, and for the first time can be regarded as serious long-term challengers.

As I’ve enjoyed holding forth on in a previous post, the DA is the only political party in South Africa that can trace its origins all the way back to unification in 1910. I’ll resist the temptation to go into the how and why a second time, but will observe here that the DA’s survival and latter-day growth is surely one of political liberalism’s most remarkable triumphs. Time and again, the party’s opponents have scornfully written its epitaph, but it has hung in there while its once all-powerful rivals have successively bitten the dust.

Nothing is inevitable in politics, of course. In breaking into the big league, the DA has also made itself more vulnerable to predatory career politicians looking to advance themselves as well as increased internal dissent now that the stakes are so much higher. It remains to be seen whether Zille and her team can negotiate these inevitable pitfalls. For the time being, though, one can say that South Africa has taken an important stride away from the looming one-party-state scenario that seemed to be emerging more or less inexorably a few short years ago.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.


  1. Kwame Kwame 24 May 2011

    DA has reached its peak, and is likely to reverse its gains primarily because there is no substance in the DA other than ‘fear politics’ and racial divide. They have been very crafty in playing on baseless fears of minorities, hence the ‘coloured vote’ gave them a swing. But all baseless platforms eventually perish!

    Under the circumstances, the ANC has done very well. You can rest assured the Lion has been awoken, and the real ROAR is inevitable in 2014!

  2. frosty frosty 24 May 2011

    Kwame sounds to me like you and your beloved ANC must take your head out the ground and have a look around. The DA has grown because it delivers and governs properly. The western cape is a shining example of what could be done in this country with good governance. the only party to divide is the ANC as malema and cronies have shown who the true racists are in SA. The people are slowly waking up to the fact that teh ANC does nothing good for anyone in this country besides the ones in power.

  3. Lebo Lebo 24 May 2011

    To paint it differently; DA only ammased about 4% more votes even with its enemy down with poor performance.

    What is going to happen when things turn for the better for the ANC in terms of governance? An obvious and guaranteed huge loss for the DA and the other small parties who will still be in existence. I guess I am trying to show that their current performance may not be long term.

  4. Julian frost Julian frost 24 May 2011

    @Kwame: “DA has reached its peak…reverse its gains…” blah, blah, blah. As the author points out, someone makes that prediction after each election, only to be proven wrong.
    As for your comments about racial politics, Pot, Kettle, Black. Who was it who spoke about an “oversupply of colourdes”? To which party does Julius Malema, who claimed whites stole the land, belong?

  5. Champ Champ 24 May 2011

    @ Kwame.

    Where have you been? The ANC’s whole political strategy was based on race rhetoric.

    With “whites” being labeled criminals.

    The DA preaches accountable governance and quality service delivery.

    What an untrue statement.

    Support who you wish, fine… but talk sense.

  6. M M 24 May 2011

    Kwame, you mean cronyism, nepotism, corruption, plain down bad governance, shady arrms deals etc etc will “inevitably” be eradicated by 2014. Phew ! About time !

  7. Larry Lachman Larry Lachman 24 May 2011

    @ Lebo

    If (big if) the ANC does manage to turn around and make drastic improvement on its performance and ability to govern and deliver services, while reducing its wasteful expenditure and stamping out corruption….

    Who will we have to thank for this? The mighty DA, of course, – because the DA will force the ANC to improve on all fronts, for fear of losing more votes in the future.

    Without effective opposition and democratic leverage the Zimbabwean scenario is guaranteed. So far we have managed to avoid this and future elections must strengthen this countries ability to improve. This can only be done by strengthening the DA’s influence on the wayward self-serving politics of the ANC.
    Even smart ANC supporters will come to realise that a vote for the DA will serve them much better.

  8. bheki bheki 24 May 2011

    The ANC is partly stewing in its failure to trully transform the SA society, by so doing it has left apartheid constructs to thrive at its expense. Take for an example, the issue of failling to enforce African languages in Model C schools . The African kids who go through this schooling system, are de-Africanised to say the least. When they come out of that system, tend to look down their noses on anything African, be it language, culture,political views and ultimately they will fail to recognise the importance of associating themselves with the ANC.

  9. GarethV GarethV 24 May 2011

    You said: To paint it differently; DA only ammased about 4% more votes even with its enemy down with poor performance.
    What is going to happen when things turn for the better for the ANC in terms of governance?

    Why did the ANC perform so poorly? was it perhaps that people are fed up with their ways?

    When do you foresee the ANC turning its governance around and why has it taken 17 years to do so, if it actually is capable of such a thing?

  10. Grant Grant 24 May 2011

    The DA as non-racial and the ANC playing to black voters and spurning the minorities?? Are we sure the rapture DIDN’T happen this weekend? This scenario feels otherworldly to me. I can only weep at the demise of the ANC’s ‘broad church’ ideology. It was precisely the move away from this philosophy that opened the door the DA needed to grow its share of the electorate. The DA has gained (although drawing these conclusions from lower turnout figures is dangerous when projecting to 2014), but the ANC’s campaign was shambolic, and this has the feeling more of a party that shot itself in the foot (Zuma promising to remove elected councillors post-election, Malema’s oversupply of coloureds etc)rather than a DA who has made significant gains. Still, the foothold is there, and now the ANC has to live with the mouse in the House!

  11. chris chris 25 May 2011

    eh, I meant growing the black middle class could be to the benefit of the DA…

  12. John MBlack John MBlack 25 May 2011

    White South Africans are funny. Listening to the commentary from white South Africa, you wonder whether they are trying to play propaganda or they are simply out of touch.

    1. The 62% ANC got is not a drop statistically. Since 1994 election the ANC has hovered from low 60s to high 60s and moves up and down that range.

    2. the 24% DA got is almost equivalent to white people in South Africa. Thats the best ever the DA can get. In fact the DA is benefiting from dying IFP and other smaller parties.

    White South Africans are so out of touch they really believe that black people will go and vote for a party whose executives are almost exclusively white in a country where 70% of the people are black. What does that tell you about white people???

  13. Larry Lachman Larry Lachman 25 May 2011

    @ Bheki

    African identity and language is the preserve of, and must be preserved by the family. Same with religion and religious observance.
    Schools must teach in a medium that serves the learner well so that they may be conversant in the predominant global language which is English. This way, jobs and opportunities are competed for equally, or do you not agree.

    Your last point – Why is it important that young black people associate with the ANC. The ANC is just a political party. There is no special aspect to the ANC besides historical emotional attachment. Young people should be taught the importance of democratic ideals so that they may choose their leaders and political parties wisely.

  14. Domino Domino 25 May 2011

    @Lebo: ” What is going to happen when things turn for the better for the ANC in terms of governance:” “Things”, my friend, do not turn better by themselves, as “things” do not turn bad by themselves. “Things” should be managed by people, and as managers of “things” (education, public transport, internal affairs, health, to name but a few) the ruling party (ANC up till now) really did not excel. If management of “things” under the ruling party gets better, they are only doing what should have been done while in power (almost two decades)and the country benefits, which is the way it should be. Ruling a country is not a spitting contest, it is governing everybody, not only those who vote for your party.

  15. Richard Becker Richard Becker 25 May 2011

    You have shot yourself in the foot. I wanted my kids to learn an African language at Edenvale high school. Guess what? There is no African language teacher there thanks to ANC incompetance. You need to go to a private school to find a Zulu teacher! ANC = A Nother Chance.

  16. MLH MLH 25 May 2011

    This might be a soccer game — keep supporting the winning team Guys; it’s a proven way to keep most people poor.

  17. mona lisa mona lisa 25 May 2011

    it is becoming a real bore reading these thought leader posts because not only are they somewhat redundant and repetitive in ideals but the reader’s comments are just as redundant and repetitive. Granted we all log on and read to enhance ourserves our thinking our knowledge but why do we all feel the need to take up cause and defend the individual parties we support at the expense of each other?. Why cant we engage on a non-attack level and just converse.its sad that everyone tears into everyone else and yet we complain when our leaders do it, not bearing in mind that they are a reflection of us, what is at ‘grassroots’ level.this is no different to the cheap bickering between malema&zille


    Viva, DA! Great to see those growth stats.

  19. David Brown David Brown 25 May 2011

    Too little to celebrate here. A social democratic voice nowhere to be seen. ANC moves to the right with its outh league wagging the dog.Scapegoat politics fraught with stereotypes. Must be some kind of way out of here said the joker to the thief there’s too much confusion I can’t get no relief.

  20. cyberdog cyberdog 26 May 2011

    @kwame, Lebo, etc… To open your eyes, would result in you seeing that the DA is already a HUGE success. If the DA takes over the government and delivers, we will all be better off. Alternatively, if the ANC start sweating, actually working, and start delivering as they fear, and feel threatened by the DA, then once again.. We would all be better off. It is a win win situation. The DA will mean better lives for us all either way … The DA is a much needed competitor. Without the competition, there is no democracy. Its like a free market with no competition, it will then no longer be a free market, it would be a monopoly.

  21. Philosopher Philosopher 26 May 2011

    Are we comparing apples with apples or apples with oranges? In my opinion we will only know how much DA has grown in 2014 national elections. Having not really followed this local elections I wonder how many people participated compared to the national one. If the number are almost identical then we need to applaud DA for their steller work. However I happen to know at least 5 people beside me and my wife who didn’t bother to vote last week which makes me wonder what about participation of black people vs. white people in local elections.

Leave a Reply