In any other democracy, a corrupt and incompetent government would present a golden opportunity to the opposition. Somehow, this is not happening in SA. Instead, analysts are saying that the DA will lose ground in the October local government elections, in spite of having shown that it can be capable and efficient when given a chance to run things


Source: Business Live

Political power in a democracy is essentially a numbers game. And it’s one that may come to haunt SA’s official opposition. In the aftermath of the DA’s dismal national electoral performance in 2019 — where the party’s support dropped from a high of 27% in the 2016 local government election to 20.7% — it chose a surprising path: to abandon its growth strategy in favour of winning back the minority groups it feared it had lost.

Politically, it made no sense, not least because those groups, numerically, could make no difference to its electoral performance, at least not in the by-elections that have taken place since then.

If it seems like an opportunity squandered, that’s because it came at a time when the DA was handed a rare gift in the form of the governing ANC all but melting down.

After the short-lived euphoria following the ousting of Jacob Zuma from the presidency and his replacement by President Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC-led government is foundering.

Municipalities, cities and towns are buckling, having run out of cash thanks to the ANC’s chronic mismanagement or unrestrained corruption.

Faced with a government that has abdicated responsibility, fed-up citizens and the private sector have stepped in to deliver services and repair infrastructure.

At a national level, it’s no better. One scandal follows the next, and corruption and the poor management of the economy continue to be the hallmarks of the ANC-led government. Just think of the Digital Vibes scandal, which led to health minister Zweli Mkhize being placed on special leave this week, after it emerged his close associates scored a R150m contract.

And that’s before you even mention the R14.3bn in Covid procurement under investigation for suspected corruption.

The electorate, in other words, is ripe for the political picking. Yet the DA has been unable to comprehensively capitalise on this.

The October 27 local government elections will provide the test for whether its strategy is working — but early indications are that the decline that took hold in 2019 is not about to be reversed any time soon.

Lost voter support

Nonetheless, DA leader John Steenhuisen, in an interview with the FM, says he is confident ahead of the election.

He says the DA has, contrary to what some may say, performed well and will surpass expectations.

But an analysis of recent by-elections paints a very different picture – and suggests potentially dismal prospects for the party.

Election analyst Dawie Scholtz, who has drilled into the numbers, argues that the DA’s support is down in at least three of five voter categories (in a fourth, the sample size was too small to conclusively suggest a trend).

Among white Afrikaans voters, the by-elections show a loss of support of 20%-30%. Here, the DA’s loss appears to have been the Freedom Front Plus’s gain. That party benefited from the DA’s weakness in 2019 — a trend that has largely continued.

Scholtz cites ward 44 in Tshwane as an example: the DA won that ward in by-elections last month, but it did so with a substantially reduced majority against its performance in the 2016 local government election. Back then, the party obtained 88.8% of the vote; in May, it dropped to 65.4%. In stark contrast, the FF-Plus’s support there soared to 31.9% from just 3.9% in 2016.

As Scholtz puts it, the DA performed worse in the by-election in this particular ward than it did under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane in 2019 – which was a performance so dismal nationally that Maimane resigned.John Steenhuisen: The DA has performed well and will surpass expectations. Picture: Sunday Times/Esa Alexander

Among white English voters, the DA’s support has remained largely stable. But here the question is: what happens when former Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba’s Action SA joins the ballot for the October 27 poll?

A number of DA activists and councillors have defected to join Action SA, including popular former Gauteng leader John Moodey, who left after he was hit with disciplinary charges for alleged bribery. The DA claimed the charges were serious, but Moodey dismissed them as an attempt to silence him and purge him from the party.

What of the DA’s support among black voters? Scholtz says it is difficult to get a handle on the DA’s support in this demographic, as the party steered clear of wards in black areas in the recent by-elections. Instead, these wards were largely contested by both the ANC and the EFF, whose numbers have remained pretty much stable.

Where the DA did contest in black wards, in Phokwane in the Northern Cape, for instance, Scholtz says it lost about half of its black voters, declining from highs of 7%-8% in 2016 to 2%-3%.

Paul Berkowitz, director of the Third Republic, a nonprofit organisation supporting small parties and independent candidates, reveals that of 354 by-elections held between November 2016 and February 2020, the ANC contested 351 and the EFF contested 353. The DA contested 222.

“It will be interesting to see what happens in the local election when the DA actually contests in these wards, particularly in Tshwane,” Scholtz says. “Where does the vote from Hammanskraal go, for instance? Does the DA keep it?”

The Indian vote was too small to assess in the recent by-elections. But the coloured vote appears to be the DA’s biggest headache, as it could affect its base in the only province it governs, the Western Cape.

Recent by-election data shows that support for the DA is weakening among coloured voters. This implies potential losses in the Western Cape, which could lead to hung municipalities, particularly in the rural parts of the province.

In the November 2020 by-elections, DA support fell in every ward it contested in Gauteng, the Western Cape and the Northern Cape. In George, it lost as much as 30% of the coloured vote. Patricia de Lille’s Good party, the Patriotic Alliance and Al Jama-ah won wards from the DA in the Cape and in Joburg. In the Joburg wards of Riverlea (formerly a coloured area) and Lenasia (formerly Indian), the DA lost three of the four wards it contested.

Nonetheless, it seems likely to retain the City of Cape Town.

While the FM understands that the DA’s internal polls suggest its support in the city has dropped to about 52%, Scholtz doesn’t believe the party will lose the city.

He adds that despite by-election results suggesting a continued decline for the DA, potentially into the 2021 local government elections, the party is unlikely to lose its status as official opposition — not yet, at least.

Other analysts are more critical.John Moodey: The popular former Gauteng DA leader left the party after he was hit with disciplinary charges. Picture: Sunday Times/Simphiwe Nkwali

Berkowitz suggests that the DA has simply checked out: of the three big parties in the country, it has contested the fewest wards in Gauteng.

He believes the writing was on the wall for the DA before the 2019 national polls, with by-elections in 2017 and 2018 indicating a decline in support. But the big losses accelerated after 2019.

All told, between the local government elections in 2016 and the last round of by-elections, the DA has lost a total of 36 wards, according to Berkowitz — 26 of them going to the ANC, four to the FF-Plus, three to the Patriotic Alliance, one to the United Front of Civics, one to Al Jama-ah and one to Good.

While the DA did pick up five wards from the ANC along the way, the 36 wards shed by the governing party largely went to independent candidates and to the IFP.

‘We’re recovering’

So what do the 2021 elections hold for the DA, an official opposition party that seems oddly incapable of extracting voters from the stranglehold of a corrupt governing party?

Steenhuisen rejects the suggestion that the DA is in any kind of terminal decline. In particular, he takes issue with the fact that analysts are comparing the party’s performance to that of the 2016 local government election, instead of the 2019 national poll.

He admits that the DA has had a tough time: after its 2019 performance, the party conducted an organisational review, and it spent most of 2020 implementing the findings of that review.

“We have certainly started to recover and stabilise and in some areas we are seeing growth,” he says. He dismisses as a “fundamental lie” any analysis suggesting the DA is withdrawing from traditionally black wards.

Steenhuisen says the Afrikaans vote has pretty much stabilised for the DA, but there is still “some work” needed in that area.

“Where we have seen a problem is among the coloured community,” he concedes. This, he says, has been limited to areas of Gauteng, and is the result of land grabs in traditionally coloured areas, including Eldorado Park and Riverlea.

In Steenhuisen’s view, the City of Joburg under Mashaba largely ignored the land issues these communities faced, since the DA had a co-operation agreement in place with the EFF at the time.

“There is a clear local dynamic — people are angry that a blind eye was turned towards the land invasions,” he says. But, he adds, you can’t extrapolate this to suggest the losses in these wards are symptomatic of a national fall in support among coloured communities.

In Delft, for example, the DA recently won for the first time.Click to enlarge.

Rather than admitting any decline, Steenhuisen argues that the DA will “surprise” many with its performance in October. He is mum on the DA’s internal polling numbers. But its pollsters were off track ahead of the 2019 election anyway, when they forecast support of about 30% and the party managed to secure only 20.7% of the vote.

This time, Steenhuisen hopes voters will give the DA outright majorities in the major cities instead of coalitions. While the party has not shunned coalitions, he says it will be more circumspect this time around.

“We feel it is better to be an excellent opposition, rather than a bad government. We can’t be in coalitions with people who don’t share our values,” he says.

In short, while the ANC and EFF may enter coalitions, the DA is more likely to partner only with smaller parties.

But the first prize, he emphasises, “is an outright majority”.

To back his optimism, Steenhuisen points to the DA’s track record when it comes to creating jobs and running state finances.

The Stats SA “Labour Force Survey” shows that by December the Western Cape had the lowest levels of unemployment — 22.5% against 32.5% nationally, 34.1% in Gauteng, and a catastrophic 47.9% in the Eastern Cape.

DA-led municipalities also perform better in the auditor-general’s assessment each year than ANC-led councils do.

“Where we govern, we get things done,” he says. “The Western Cape is the only provincial health department in the country which received a clean audit.”

He’s correct, to an extent. The DA has proven its ability to govern in the Western Cape and in Gauteng’s Midvaal municipality, run by SA’s youngest mayor, Bongani Baloyi.

But the party has had some mishaps in the cities it has run. In Tshwane, the DA-led council appointed its third mayor last October, after Solly Msimanga resigned to focus on his campaign for the provincial premier post in 2019, and his successor, Stevens Mokgalapa, resigned amid a sex scandal.

Last week Tshwane councillors Rose Maake and Mike Mokhari resigned, saying the DA had undermined and bullied them.

The City of Joburg under Mashaba – who ran the city for the DA – also found itself mired in various scandals. Claims of an irregular fleet tender that was said to benefit the EFF have still not been laid to rest.

Is it own goals like this that have prevented the DA from parlaying its better performance into votes?Helen Zille: The DA’s electoral losses in 2019 were the result of a preoccupation with race. Picture: Sunday Times/Alon Skuy

Race and ‘wokeness’

DA federal council chair Helen Zille says the DA’s electoral losses in 2019 were the result of a preoccupation with race.

“The votes we lost in 2019, however you wish to define them, were a result of our pandering to race politics,” she tells the FM.

“Our policy conference, which re-visited and analysed our core values, made it clear once more: we do not pander to racial nationalism — despite the fact that there is a tidal wave of racial nationalism sweeping the world at the moment, that has been legitimised by ‘critical race theory’, popularly known as ‘wokeness’.”

Instead, Zille says, the DA will continue to uphold a “moderate, rational, nonracial centre of politics because we believe this is the only way that SA can succeed”.

But if it sounds neat, it’s not: the party itself has much internal angst over race and ideology. Which creates a conundrum.

Ivor Sarakinsky, a professor at the Wits School of Governance, argues the DA wants to deny race, but doing so denies the effect that race has on individual voters — and it denies the lived experience of black voters.

Party activists canvassed by the FM believe the issue is more ideological: there’s a handful of people who believe the DA should remain a 20% party and maintain its pure liberal outlook. Others, however, argue it needs to expand its influence.

Beyond just the race conundrum, Sarakinsky believes the party has been held back by a lack of vision.

“It is stuck in an echo chamber, where those in the inner circle talk among themselves, to themselves. They perceive themselves to be constantly under attack,” he says. “There is no inspirational leadership, they constantly construct barriers around themselves.”

It’s a view that echoes that of KwaZulu-Natal MPL Mbali Ntuli, who ran against Steenhuisen for the post of party leader at the party’s elective conference last year (she was beaten by a wide margin).

At the time, Ntuli wrote an open letter to conference delegates saying it was not race or ideology destroying the DA, but poor management and leadership style. She said it was at the mercy of cliques and personality cults, an “insider and outsider” situation.

Sarakinsky says that while the DA has a meaningful chance to make a difference to the lives of millions, it squanders this by favouring pettiness, party political adversarial point-scoring and internal battles. The echo chamber, he says, is its biggest flaw.

Critics say the DA’s recent “change” advert, put together by its marketing team, is perhaps an apt example of how the party misreads the electorate. The ad depicts Steenhuisen delivering a message on the DA’s “change” campaign, with a group of South Africans of all races mechanically waving the SA flag behind him.

It was widely criticised on social media as being out of touch. Wits School of Governance researcher Judith February noted: “We also deserve an official opposition which is in touch with SA society and can see how woefully lame this latest campaign is. One doesn’t need to be a marketing analyst to figure out that this campaign is stillborn.”

As Sarakinsky says: “They’ve got a good track record in municipalities and the province they govern. Why isn’t that the foundation of their platform? Why the silly political point scoring?

“The DA leaders are constantly caught up in a game of goal displacement.”

In contrast to Steenhuisen’s rosy view, Sarakinsky predicts that the party is in for a “bloodbath” in the October polls. But that’s largely a problem of its own making — what he calls one of the “strangest features” of SA’s maturing democracy.

“Why drop your growth target mark in favour of a minority base who can’t under any circumstances deliver the numbers required to win?” he asks. “It’s inexplicable.”

Party insiders tell the FM that this issue lies at the heart of their fears — particularly in Gauteng. The biggest problem, they say, is that many councillors fear the DA will not garner enough support to ensure they are returned to their posts.

This is a valid cause for concern, says Sarakinsky.

“Politics in SA is largely locally organised, you shoot yourself in the foot when you lose influence locally. When you lose councillors, you lose influence. Members of council are spread more thinly and you lose influence on the ground.”Mbali Ntuli: Not race or ideology destroying the DA, but poor management and leadership style. Picture: Business Day/Martin Rhodes

Stemming the bleeding

The upshot of all this is that a significant number of councillors have left the DA since 2016 to join other parties. Zille says many of these councillors followed departing leaders (like Mashaba), while others wanted to “maximise their chances” in the 2021 local elections.

“There are councillors who believe their chances of re-election in the DA are low, and choose to look elsewhere,” she says. “This happens in all parties, and it is strange that the media focuses so specifically on the DA when these inevitable shifts happen.”

Zille herself is at the centre of the DA’s decision-making, and some of the division. The combative former journalist took over from Tony Leon as party leader in 2007, and led the DA’s meteoric rise after that, before making way for Maimane in 2014.

However, her return as federal chair in 2019 took on a decidedly different flavour, in the wake of the party’s largest electoral decline since its formation.

Zille tells the FM the DA is on the up, but is decidedly less bullish than Steenhuisen.

“We are well on the road to recovery, how long it will take to reflect at the polls is a different matter,” she says.

While she says the party is polling at a much better level than that 20.7% it got in 2019, she is perhaps more coy about the DA’s prospects due to the fact that she, as federal council chair, is tasked with rebuilding the organisation.

“I have learnt that it takes a few short years to hollow out an institution or organisation, and many years, often decades, to build it up,” she says.

“Many of the steps we are taking, as momentous as they often are, are invisible to voters, but [they] add up over time to turn us into the cohesive, goal-directed organisation we once were — that can default to first principles on practical issues as they arise.”

Zille says the DA is moving back to being that kind of organisation.

“It is like taking over a municipality and then starting to work on the underground pipes and sewerage systems. No-one can see what you’re doing, but it ultimately has an enormous impact on the functionality of the system.”