Quest for united opposition & lost ANC souls

It may be difficult to believe but the Democratic Alliance also has an elective conference this year. While the ANC's Mangaung jamboree is top of the news agenda, preparations the DA's national conference are quietly underway - without any public crossfire between the party's leaders. It's almost as if the DA is using the ANC as a "how not to guide", and is moulding itself as a modern political party gearing for the big national election showdown in 2014.

DA leader Helen Zille announced her candidacy for re-election last week without any fuss or fanfare. She also said she will work to unite opposition parties to take on the ANC mammoth and attempt to reduce its dominance in government.

"In South Africa, where our political affiliation tends to be ingrained in our psyche, it is especially difficult to take the leap required. It is like asking people to give up part of their identity. It is easier to remain on the burning platform. The political parties of the past (and present) are powerful brands, but today they serve to keep apart millions of people who really belong together," Zille said.

She said the battle lines for the soul of the country were now between the "constitutionalists" and the "populists".

"We are seeing the beginnings of a political awakening. People of goodwill, from across the spectrum, are starting to converge around a vision and a plan for our country. The next step is to build a governing majority that can make the plan's efficient implementation its highest priority," Zille said.

The DA strategists are obviously rubbing their hands in glee at the chaos in the ANC and leadership weaknesses which have caused a litany of disasters in the country, particularly this year. It is any opposition's fantasy to have the ruling party convulsing and exposing its failings without any effort on its part.

From the Limpopo textbook crisis to the policy uncertainty, from the Marikana massacre to the downgrades by ratings agencies, not to mention the numerous exposés of wanton spending by government, the DA has not had to exert itself too much to look like the good guys compared to the ANC.

Tied up in factional warfare, its centenary celebrations, fighting Julius Malema, keeping a lid on succession battles and preparing for Mangaung, the ANC has been awful at crisis management and fire fighting, and therefore unable to recover from a series of damaging recent incidents. When it came to the biggest disaster in post-Apartheid South Africa, the Marikana massacre, the ANC was wholly absent, unable to provide leadership or assistance in the wake of the tragedy.

Zille has now laid out her game plan and is ready to maximise on all the commotion and uncertainty in the ANC in the run up to Mangaung and beyond.

But it's not just ordinary South Africans who have had enough of ANC's weak leadership that the DA is targeting. It is quite apparent that many ANC members and supporters, particularly in the middle class, are disillusioned and disappointed with their party. They fear that the ANC National Conference in December will not lead to a Damascene conversion, irrespective of whether Jacob Zuma or Kgalema Motlanthe is elected president.

National spokesman Mmusi Maimane said the DA's target, therefore, is not only other opposition parties.

"The ANC has broken the promise of 1994. There are many people inside the ANC who know this. They hang on desperately as they watch the party that once made South Africa proud being torn apart by rival factions and personal interests. They see the country heading in the wrong direction, and they, like so many South Africans, are worried about the future. Helen was speaking directly to them too!" Maimane said in Mpumalanga last week.

"The ANC cannot fix these problems; because they are part of the problem. Their plan to grow our economy, create better education and more jobs, is just more of the same approach that hasn't worked for 18 years. We need a new plan. We need to build a modern country, with a modern economy that creates opportunities for all," he said.

Maimane said South Africa has the potential "to provide everyone with a good life and with decent opportunities to achieve their full potential.

"The ANC cannot get us there; we must look for something new. The fact of the matter is that there are many, many good people in the ANC. But they cannot deliver because they are constrained by the fighting in their own party. We must bring together the good people from all political parties, including those from the ANC, to form a new movement for a better future," he said.

This is a discernible change of approach from the "Stop Zuma" campaign in 2009 and other confrontational tactics in previous elections. The DA now wants to position itself as an all-embracing voice of reason and defender of the Constitution that wants to heal the country's wounds and lead us all to the Promised Land.

Of course this does not mean the DA will stop capitalising on the ANC's blundering and the exposés of corruption and abuse of office. They are just doing it in a cleverer way. Instead of going on the attack against the ANC, the DA is now appealing to people's consciences, asking right-minded South Africans to see the light - and eventually give them their vote.

Addressing students in Cape Town on Monday, DA Parliamentary Leader Lindiwe Mazibuko was almost woeful over large amounts of taxpayers' money being spent on Nkandla, Zuma's rural home, both on a neighbouring development project and to revamp his homestead.

"Billions of rand are to be spent building a new town a few kilometres from President Zuma's homestead in Nkandla in rural KwaZulu-Natal. The building of 'Zumaville' will cost South African taxpayers R1-billion. The DA has learned that thousands of people living on the outskirts of Nkandla, in villages like Babanango, Kataza and Ebizimali, are still without the most basic services. Yet R2-billion will be spent on a multi-purpose centre a few kilometres away from President Zuma's homestead," Mazibuko said.

She also called for Zuma to apologise and cancel the renovations to his homestead, which, according to Public Works documents revealed by City Press, will cost the state R203-million.

"This is a serious abuse of taxpayers' money by a department which is failing in almost every other key responsibility. This is despite President Zuma's assurance that he would be paying for most of the expense for this upgrade. It is now clear that he will only foot 5% of the bill.

"How can a leader ask the country to make sacrifices, and tighten belts in hard times, when he leads such publicly-funded extravagance? This impoverished region of the country needs clinics, hospitals and decent classrooms. He has decided to build them literally in his own backyard. President Zuma's behaviour upends the very concept of social justice which is written into our Constitution," Mazibuko said.

The only problem with the DA's plan is that the front it wants to build can turn out to be a veritable mardi gras of people and ideas, which will mongrelise politics in South Africa. Trying to get all the opposition parties under one roof will be a difficult feat on its own, considering the personalities and cross-section of constituencies they represent. Adding disillusioned ANC people to the mix, who, like Cope, would try to create a mini-ANC outside the ANC would create a political free-for-all.

As long as the ANC keeps lurching from crisis to crisis and continues its leadership and policy uncertainty, the DA plan presents the only alternative. Whether it would be viable in the long term is another matter altogether.

_This column appeared in _ The Daily Maverick.