DA imploding – Only a workers movement can provide a real alternative

By Mametlwe Sebei

A series of resignations from South Africa’s official opposition, Democratic Alliance, starting with Herman Mashaba, a reactionary right-wing populist mayor of Johannesburg, who had styled himself a Donald Trump of South African politics, and culminating into resignations of the national leaders of the party itself, including the party leader Mmusi Maimane and Federal Chair Athol Trollip has plunged the DA in the unprecedented crisis. Since its formation in 2000, out of the merger of the predominantly white, neo-liberal conservative parties, the Democratic Party, Federal alliance and the architects and ruling party of the apartheid regime (the National Party). The Democratic Alliance has been the most successful and, until explosive emergence of the EFF, the fastest growing party in the country. All this crumbled in the 2019 national elections, when the party, for the first time since the first democratic elections in 1994, when its main predecessor DP started its triumphant march to becoming an official opposition, lost votes and seats in parliaments. 2019 elections outcomes precipitated a terminal party crisis unfolding currently.

The rapidity with which the party plunged into this deep crisis is only matched by its meteoric rise from a small, fifth biggest opposition party of 1, 73 % in the 1994 elections to the official opposition party in 1999 elections, where it registered a phenomenal increase in electoral support and seats in the national assembly from 7 to 38 seats. This meteoric rise culminated in the take-over of three additional metro councils of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay during 2016 local government elections which put the party in charge of the four of the biggest six cities in the country including its legislative, administrative and industrial capital cities.

On the basis of this breakthrough, not only the party appeared unstoppable but with skyrocketing polls of 31-35 % in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 elections, many in the DA and outside of it, thought DA was poised for a take-over of power nationally, through coalitions with bourgeois black parties, in spite of its unshakeable image as a party of white minority. Based on this perspectives, DA developed its strategy of coalitions and adjustments of its policy positions to reach out to even broader sections of the black middle class and accommodate its alliance partners.

These perspectives and strategy crumbled in the last elections when it was clearly rejected by DA’s traditional white minority base, many of whom defected to an openly white racist and right-wing Freedom Front, leading to the electoral slump and unravelling of the current crisis.

The damning prognosis of this in the report of the review panel led by the former leader of the party, Tony Leon that called for resignation of the party leader, Mmusi Maimane and chairperson of the party’s federal executive, James Selfie set in motion trail of disastrous events that culminated into a unfolding calamity for the party.

Illusions of stability and cohesion shattered

Following the report of the review panel appointed by Mmusi Maimane to investigate the causes of the loss in the electoral support in the 2019 elections and on its recommendations, James Selfie’s resignations as the chairperson of the party’s federal executive, elections for the replacement threw wide open the factional squabbling which DA had hitherto downplayed. The concerted attempt to cover-up the cracks had allowed the party to present an illusion of the most stable political party in the country. To be sure there were occasional leaks of internal fights and squabbles, which even led resignations of key figures like former party chief whip Lindiwe Mazibuko, but these were isolated instances and the party downplayed with a measure of success.

This appearance of stability and political cohesion, along with a false impression of zero-tolerance for corruption and ‘moral’ purity were major factors amongst others in a sustained growth of the party, especially in the whole period when all major parties were in open turmoil and tainted by scandals of corruption, and internal strife that invariably led to paralysis and splits in the ANC, COPE, and IFP.

All these illusions of internal party stability were crushed by this crisis. Along with the shattering blows to its highly cloistered image of moral purity it suffered from scandalous revelations of corruptions in its administrations in the metros of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Tshwane, this crisis marks a qualitative turning points in the fortunes of the DA and spell the disastrous end of its glorious days. In the best scenario it can retreat into an insignificant party of privileged white minority, and prolonged death agony.

Zille’s ascension to power- turning back the tides of change.

The report of the review panel, which was headed by the former white party leader Tony Leon and ascension to the powerful position of Federal Executive chair of an increasingly controversial former white party leader, Helen Zille has been widely viewed and correctly so, as a clawing back of power by the party’s old ‘white establishment’ and right-wing counter-reform project to return the party to its traditional white conservative base.

The damning statements of Mashaba, Maimane and exodus of black members in Kwazulu-Natal province to ANC, coming barely months following a significant shedding of its long standing black base amongst ‘coloured voters’ to the newly formed GOOD party led by its expelled former mayor of Cape Town, Patricia De Lille, marks a crushing blow to the painstaking, decades long efforts to shake-off the image of DA as a racist anti-black white party.

Zille has been causing serious embarrassment to the DA through her racist tweets speaking favourably of the legacy of apartheid regime and colonialism in South Africa and openly defied Maimane’s attempts to reign on her. She has also been using her widely followed twitter account to campaign against Maimane’s ‘One South Africa for all’’ project which had tried to take DA much further into the black communities through support for BEE policies and highlighting racial injustices against black majority in a way that clearly made the ‘Old DA establishment’ uncomfortable.

These positioned her as a voice of the conservative counter-reformist grouping, supported by Institute for Race Relations, which Herman Mashaba has labelled right-wing.  Her ascension to power, regardless of her declarations to ‘stay on her lane’, could therefore not be understood otherwise than a triumph of this faction over the Maimane faction and resounding defeat of the black caucus that has been driving for more orientation to the black middle class and support for BEE policies that pitted them against the white DA establishment and supporters.   

Corruption scandals

The scandals of corruption implicating major DA leaders including Maimane himself have also tainted the DA publicly and undermined Maimane leadership severely. The recent revelations of the car donated by Steinhof and the-below-market rental for the luxury house in Cape Town for Maimane and his family, illegal or not, have seriously damaged his name and along with him, DA image.

Torrents of revelations of corruption scandals in DA local government administrations have also tainted the party. Reveleations of corruption and bribery in R12 billion GladAfrica and R1 billion fuel supply tender irregularities in Tshwane Metro, R1 billion Fleet contract tender in Johannesburg metro, which also involve EFF, and  misappropriation of funds in Cape Town to mention only few have exposed the party posturings on corruption as a lie.

Growing social polarisation at the root of DA crisis.

Many commentators have correctly pointed to the factional struggle between the reform project centred around the black caucus of the DA and its ‘old white establishment’ as the underlying cause of the crisis.  The fall-out between Zille and Maimane over the provocative racist tweets of the Zille and ‘black and white conflict’ in the DA offers, however, no explanation for the depth and timing of the crisis in the DA.

The conflict between the ‘race-blind’ white ‘liberals’ and racist conservatives in Helen Zille camp and pro-BEE and populists of Maimane-Mashaba faction are real and were inevitably bound to lead to the crisis.

This factional conflict and splintering however has far deeper sociological causes than the superficial analyses of bourgeois commentators suggests. Neither the Zille bashing conspiracy theories nor the white washing of Maimane-Mashaba cabal sheds light on the material basis of the DA split in the social polarisation taking place in society and deepening crisis of capitalism.

Workers and Socialist Party and its predecessor, Democratic Socialist Movement, has consistently argued that DA will never grow significantly beyond the high point it reached in the 2014/2016 elections. This prognosis was based on the historical limitations of the DA as a traditionally white party with a history stretching back to colonial and apartheid regimes and brutal anti-working class programme, which could appeal to sections of black middle class appalled by rampant corruption of the ANC and its black elite but can never appeal to the vast majority of the black working class.

DA’s growing black base was based on historical factors which have turned into opposite effects today, the ANC and the economic situation in the country. In a thinly veiled swart-gevaar (Afrikaans for black danger) Fight Back campaign that won over the support base of the right-wing parties like Freedom Front and National Party, the DA secured its position as the only viable party of white minority opposed to the ANC policies in government since 1994. Recognising the electoral limitations of this support base to the political ambitions of the DA, the leadership has been at pain to broaden its electoral base by reaching out to black middle class voters.

Based on the disillusionment of the black middle classes with the ANC government over corruption in particular and media-sponsored image of DA as corrupt free party, this strategy was successful enough to allow the party to sustain its growth beyond limits initially imaginable. Nonetheless, this was mostly aided also by the growing disillusionment and electoral drop-out of the black working class votes for the ANC, which allowed DA to increase its parliamentary representations disproportionately higher than the increase in its electoral support. 

The victory of Cyril Ramaphosa in the ANC and to the helm of the country brought to an end of a period that was a paradise for the opposition, especially for the DA which increasingly found itself increasingly running short of Zuma-era scandals to capitalise on. Most importantly however, these co-incided with a period of deepening economic crisis of capitalism which undermined the social foundations for the political coalescing of black and middle classes on which DA successes rested.

Beginning with the recovery from the shockwaves of Asian financial crisis in late 1999 and accelerating in 2003, South Africa experienced an exceptional period of sustained and fastest economic growth surpassing previous records, with economic growth reaching over 5 % over a period of four years leading to 2007. Although the growth was mainly in the financial sectors of the economy and had no significant impacts in the conditions of the working class, it did allow for advances of the black middle classes in the corporate and public sectors of the economy.

Growth in public fiscus and private sectors of the economy, along with restructuring and outsourcing of public services, created conditions for the advances of black professional middle classes and small businesses to occupy positions left by old white officials leaving for private sectors and securing business opportunities in outsourced service like cleaning, security and technical consultancies, etc.     

These stalled with the Great Recession of 2008 and since then worsened with the deepening crisis, massive retrenchments, rising interest rates and tariffs which are also ruining the middle classes. Plummeting levels of consumption, rising levels of debts and defaults on credits, housing and car repossessions and retrenchments in the banking sectors are just but few indicators of these deepening crisis of the middle classes.

It is also this situation which is at the root of the growing social polarisation which translates into racial and political polarisation within and between classes in society, especially the middle class. How can the DA contain the colonial nostalgia and the ever growing discontentment of Black liberals within the party? It is also the crisis that is tearing the DA apart. Both on the basis of Maimane’s black caucus group and counter-reform programme of Helen Zille DA is doomed. The demand for DA support for Affirmative Action and other BEE policies reflect the growing frustrations of the black middle class support mobilised by DA with the reverses of previous social gains and voluntarily collaboration of the white elite in advancements of their ambitions. DA fudging its policies on these issues no longer suffices.

On the other hand, these policies spells a disaster for the white middle classes in particular who stand to lose from shrinking job and business opportunities in public and corporate sectors. With DA increasingly unable to speak unequivocally against BEE policies to placate its black supporters and coalitions, the white supporters began to vote with their feet. Regaining this support is main object of counter-reform wing of the DA and right-wing turn of Zille and faction around her. Either way, it seems the DA isfacing an abyss as it can no longer grow and even keep its black middle class base without alienating its white supporters and vice versa.

Maimane and Mashaba don’t represent aspirations of black majority

Allegations of corruption, racism and factional splintering of the DA does not only demonstrate that DA is not an alternative to the corrupt and factionalised ANC. It shows that there cannot be any alternative on the basis of capitalism and any of its parties, particularly in the period of deepening economic crisis of capitalism, which lay bare and aggravates every tendency towards the social and political crises of the system and exposing its contradictions. It was, as Warren Buffet commented, that “only when the tides goes out do you discover who has been swimming naked”. The rising racial tensions and growing revulsion for the corruption of the political establishment reflects the widening social polarisation that is rooted in the alienation of the working and middle classes over their worsening economic conditions.

Both corruption and racism are, however, inherent to capitalism. As a system based on theft and plundering of the working class, public service and environment for profiteering of few, capitalism cannot free itself of corruption. The same with racism. As Malcolm X said “you can’t have capitalism without racism”. For the tiny part of the population to rule over the rest they have to divide them in order to conquer and keep them in subjugation. Racism has been one the most enduring form of prejudice to keep the working class in chains.

Maimane and Herman Mashaba do not represent the aspirations of the black majority, who are poor and working class. The cabal around them has also been responsible for corruption in DA administrations which has stolen the money from public services for the poor. Herman Mashaba has been at war with the poor of Johannesburg through his xenophobic rhetoric and anti-immigrant campaigns which legitimised looting, plundering and killings of many poor African and Asian migrants. Herman Mashaba using the Johannesburg Metro Police Department in an operation of “Clean sweep” that has been running since 2013, confiscating goods of street vendors and shops around around the CBD of people who are trying to make a living. This is a blatant class war from the government, these attacks are barbaric and baseless as we see unemployment rising everyday.

His Free Market Foundation has been actively campaigning with the most reactionary employer associations to dismantle centralised bargaining which has had to devastating impacts on the plastic sector workers where workers’ wages have been slashed by more than 50 percent amongst others. In this anti-working class crusade, they collaborated with the most reactionary white racist groups, Orania Movement. All these happened under Mashaba as Helen Zille pointed out in relation to the FMF conference that Mashaba hosted at Orania, a white-only town which is the bastion of this ultra-reactionary extremists where black people are not allowed to stay.

Only the working class can build a real opposition to the ANC rule.

With the EFF nose in the trough of corrupt DA administrations and battling their own damaging complicity in the VBS banking looting, close links to cigarettes mafia and discredited by overt rapprochement with the Zuma camp, the stinking rot of the whole political establishment has never been clearer. The corruption, paralysis and bankruptcy of the bourgeois opposition parties reveals the impotence of these parties to provide a viable alternative to the corrupt, incompetent and anti-working class ANC.

WASP has consistently argued and campaigned for a new mass political alternative based on the fighting organisations of the workers, youth and communities. A campaigning, mass working class party organised democratically and at this stage, on a federal basis can potentially lay a basis for a broad fighting unity of the working class and the revolutionary left parties based on a mass campaigning around trade union issues, student and community struggles, against xenophobia, climate change, gender oppression and every other injustice.

With a bold socialist programme capable of answering all the pressing problems facing humanity, a fighting workers party can become a pole of attraction for environmental justice activists in extinction rebellion against the growing ecological calamity, the whole generation of young people radicalised by #FeesMustFall, #OutsourcingMustFall and now #TotalShutdown and growing community protests taking an increasingly insurrectionary character in the localised shutdowns for service delivery and jobs.

The trade union movement has a leading role to play in building this alternative. SAFTU-initiated Working Class Summit is a step in the right-direction and need to be developed further along with campaigns for a general strike and #TotalShutDown based on mass occupations of all the major cities across the country for decent wages, jobs, service delivery and to stop climate change and gender based violence. The affairs of humanity, are better managed in the absence of profit motives, only socialism can ensure good quality education, housing, health, infrastructure, etc.