South Africa: Racial Animosity Puts South Africa's Main Opposition in a Tailspin

John Steenhuisen in 2011.
29 October 2019

The white likely successor to the first black leader of the opposition in South Africa wants his party's 'hara-kiri' to stop. But what about its colourblind playbook that some see as a smokescreen for racism?

John Steenhuisen, the parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), told the Cape Town Press Club on Monday that he will stand for the position of party leader. "I want to chart a new way forward for the Democratic Alliance," he said. "At the moment, I think our priority is to stop this political hara-kiri that's going on in the DA - tearing each other apart in full public glare and pulling out the entrails to show everybody."

The historically white centrist party went into a tailspin when its leader, Mmusi Maimane, resigned unexpectedly on October 23. At a sombre media briefing at DA headquarters in Johannesburg, the young politician outlined efforts he had made since 2015 to transform the party that black South Africans did not relate to and struggled to trust.

"However, over the past months, it has become quite clear to me that there exists a grouping within the DA who do not see eye to eye with me, and do not share this vision for the party and the direction it was taking," Maimane said. "There has been for several months a consistent and coordinated attempt to undermine my leadership and ensure that either this project failed, or I failed."

A victim of tokenism?

Within days of Maimane's resignation, the public reaction in circles outside of the DA support base went from scorn, with some black South Africans laughing him off as a mere victim of the party's racial tokenism, to sympathy. Maimane's predecessor and newly-elected DA federal council chairperson, Helen Zille, stood behind him when he bowed out. Athol Trollip, the party's federal chairman and former mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay, announced he was quitting too.

Zille, on behalf of the DA, expressed shock that the two were leaving the party. The DA executive had wanted first to implement the recommendations of the panel that reviewed its May 2019 election performance, she said. The findings of that panel, convened by Maimane and headed by Tony Leon, the first DA leader from 2000 to 2007, did not favour its most recent leader. It recommended that Maimane step down and deemed him indecisive. The election saw the support for the DA drop to the lowest level of 20.7%.

Zille's comeback to the party leadership on October 20 had triggered the resignation of senior black party official and Johannesburg mayor, Herman Mashaba. The DA stalwart, former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, has for years been one of the most divisive figures in South African politics. Zille's propensity for tweets that are seen by some to border on racism have rubbed even her party allies the wrong way.

'Lacklustre leadership'

The words Mashaba, a prominent businessman turned politician, chose for the DA when he made his exit were much harsher than those of Maimane. "I cannot reconcile myself with a group of people who believe that race is irrelevant in the discussion of inequality and poverty in 2019," he said. "I cannot reconcile myself with people who cannot see that South Africa is more unequal today than it was in 1994."

Several other DA officials have walked out in solidarity with the two since. An initial public reaction of I-told-you-so took hold when Maimane's fate was made public. But the resignation also put the biggest opposition party the nation has known post-apartheid in the spotlight.

Some political analysts and members of the general public are suggesting that the return of the DA old guard to its highest leadership could mean that the country's opposition party now essentially serves a white minority agenda.

"I think it's far too simplistic to make that particular connection," says Daniel Silke, a Cape Town based political analyst. "What has happened in the DA of course has been a major schism in the party."

Those who see Zille's return as an indication of a racist or sectional DA agenda fail to understand the broader problems that the DA faces, says Silke.

"The party faces problems over its lacklustre leadership, indecision over policy making over some time. It faces problems trying to grapple with the changeover from the Jacob Zuma to the Cyril Ramaphosa era." The party's survival is dependent on a more cohesive, strategic vision, Silke told DW.

Stigma of serving whites

The rise of the more vocal oppostion far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has also taken a toll on the DA. "I do think that the DA suffers from a whole number of problems and the end of the Maimane era will force the DA to apply its mind as to where it is failing both internally in terms of its existing support base and in terms of attracting new supporters. I think the DA is more than aware that it cannot work in only the minority groups within South Africa," Silke said.

English-speaking white liberals were instrumental in the establishment of the DA in the years after the collapse of apartheid that saw blacks being given the right to vote. The party later absorbed Afrikaner voters and appealed to voters classed as Indian and Coloured since the apartheid era. Although the party appealed to few in the broader electorate in the country where race and politics are deeply entwined, it still did pretty well at the polls.

But its failure "to grow organically and naturally" ultimately fueled the tensions within the DA that are now spilling out into the open, according to Somadoda Fikeni, a leading political commentator says. "It has microwaved young leaders before they were even ready for positions. Once they start to believe they really are in control, it becomes a political abattoir, where they are fattened, lined up and slaughtered," he told broadcaster eNCA. "The most ironic thing about the DA is that it denies issues of identity," Fikeni added.

That criticism has haunted the DA for years, along with the stigma of serving only white interests. The DA's attempts to shun discussion about race and its resistence to identity politics placed it in a really dangerous position, says Tasneem Essop, a researcher at the Society, Work and Politics Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand.

"Given our history, it's ridiculous to expect that race wouldn't play a major role in our politics and our daily lives. They [the DA] espouse a kind of colorblind politics. I really find that wanting in terms of discussion about how race sheds so much on the daily reality of this country. Race is absolutely still important and it is necessary to talk about it today," Essop told DW.

Insensitivity to race and exclusivity

Whether the DA has ever served a broader agenda is debatable, says Essop. "I think there's a real argument to be made about the the DA's politics protecting and really boosting the status quo in South Africa, which means that it could inherently not serve the majority who are black people, the poor and working class."

Essop says the return of the likes of Zille to the central party leadership seems to point to issues of transformation within the party that it is not taking seriously. "Using race as a mark of privilege, which has been a major debate in the DA. The majority of the poor are still black people. So I think that showed the fault lines in terms of the party's political position," she told DW.

"So the DA is doing this kind of colourblind politics, mixed with tokenism of putting up black leaders in particular positions but it hasn't had a more sustained engagement in the party around race, black leadership, racism in the party and what agenda and vision it wants to bring to South African society," says Essop.

"There's a lot to go on in this debate, but certainly theres a critique to be made of the white minority agenda of the DA over a longer period of time and the engagement with race politics over that period." On the re-entry of Zille to the DA central leadership, the reasearcher notes: "She's a very polarising figure, particularly when it comes to identity politics and race discussions."

"Despite my criticism of them and of their politics, the DA has been a major oppostion party for a long period. They've played a role in holding the ANC to account on a number of key issues and have shaped political discussions," says Essop.

White leader, black voters

Silke agrees that the DA has a crucial role on the national political landscape. "Reports of the death of the DA are premature. But, there's a long way ahead for the DA to really sharpen its appeal, both to its core voters and to new voters within the country. I think that we will see a relatively unsteady South African political terrain over the next year or so."

There has been mixed reaction on social media to John Steenhuisen's announcement that he believes he is the perfect candidate to lead the DA. The seasoned parliamentary whip is a respected politician. For a few days at least, public debate will inevitably swirl intensely around whether or not a white male at the head of South Africa's oppostion is a wise move or not.

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