Not in two decades – not in 66 years, come to think of it – has South Africa’s Official Opposition had better prospects of landing the ruling party a bruising body blow. As things stand, however, it might well botch the opportunity.
The African National Congress is, after all, in unparalleled disarray. It has squandered its liberation dividend, the emotional cachet that elsewhere in Africa kept post-colonial ruling parties in power for aeons.
Although the ANC can credibly argue, as President Jacob Zuma did in the State of the Nation Address last week, that there is a ‘good story’ to service delivery, voters just aren’t listening. The expectations of the poor have galloped way ahead of realistic delivery targets, fuelled partly by the Economic Freedom Fighters’ canny promises of state-dispensed largesse.
Then there is disaffection over corruption, crony capitalism and the governing elite’s arrogance. Most damaging has been the inability of the tripartite alliance to facilitate job creation, leaving the more than 7 million unemployed, disillusioned and increasingly angry.
Against such an enabling backdrop the opposition should be rampant. And indeed, the Democratic Alliance has assiduously exploited these pressure points and Zuma’s increasing personal unpopularity. It championed the youth wage subsidy and, like the showy but pointless drill of the nursery’s Grand Old Duke of York, DA leader Helen Zille marched her 10,000 men up to Luthuli House and then down again, supposedly in support of ‘real jobs’.
Many in a media industry that is often surprisingly gullible when it comes to political parties’ propaganda, bought the DA’s prediction of 30% of the vote in the May election. The DA, incidentally, is now disavowing that estimate, unsurprising given the public relations disasters that have befallen it recently.
The party has been hurt by a series of missteps, which are cited by the DA old guard as evidence of Zille moving the DA closer to the ANC in order to draw black votes, and in the process abandoning cherished liberal values.
The first debacle was the DA voting for the Employment Equity Amendment Bill (EEAB), which prescribes swinging penalties for private entities that don’t meet racial and gender targets. In response to the ensuing old guard outcry, Zille had to flip-flop and withdraw DA’s support for the now suddenly ‘Verwoerdian’ Bill.
The second debacle was the DA’s cringingly humiliating ‘merger’ with Mamphela Ramphele’s Agang. This collapsed in recriminations within days, when it became apparent that Agang’s furious provincial leaders had not been consulted.
Unlike with the EEAB incident – when Zille placed the entire blame for the ‘plane crash’ on the parliamentary team – she this time apologised for erroneously trusting her old friend, who had turned out to be duplicitous.
The most recent debacle is a parliamentary conference on Palestine attended by Justus De Goede, DA shadow minister for International Relations, and his deputy, Bill Eloff. Abandoning the DA’s official, scrupulously even-handed position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, they stood mute as the conference endorsed a punitively anti-Israeli action plan.
The DA’s Eloff then gave fulsome closing thanks to the delegates for ‘fostering solidarity to build a just and better world’. Only the African Christian Democratic Party voted against.
The Jewish community, which has historically provided the DA with substantial support, is outraged. The DA leadership’s response, by now a habitual reaction, has been to lie low and hope that it will all blow over.
The official line is that whatever transpired at the conference, the DA’s policy remains unchanged. In fact, De Goede had left early for a flight and is thus blameless. Eloff, at worst, ‘erred’ in supporting a position that ‘lacks a balance of views’. The ACDP must be rubbing its hands in glee.
There are other small but telling indications of DA atrophy. For decades it boasted the slickest, best-organised party machine. Now the organisational cogs are creaking. Take its public face, the website: the news section hasn’t been updated for over two years, so too its list of DA office bearers.
That might be why when I last week phoned the DA national office, the switchboard hadn’t a clue who handled the International Relations portfolio. Eventually I hacked my way to Zille’s office to speak with one of her top staffers and it got worse.
Him: ‘Who’s De Goede?’
Me: ‘Um, your shadow minister of International Relations.’
Him: ‘Oh! Yes! There’re lots of new people in new positions.’
Me: ‘Six months in the job, clearly he hasn’t made much of an impression…’
Were I either De Goede or Eloff, I’d start clearing out my desk. Were I in the DA leadership, I’d be worried. And were I Zuma, I’d keep working that metaphorical muti that so confounds his enemies.
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