DAVID MAIMELA: The DA, populism and the return of its poster child

OPINION

One of the pitiful things happening in South Africa today, is that racists are emboldened once more to lead the discourse on racism!

Recently, the Democratic Alliance (DA) put up fancy posters around Phoenix to declare boldly that ‘"The ANC called you racists. The DA calls you heroes." To be sure, there are multiple accounts of what happened in Phoenix during the July movement. For now, it is better to leave it to the police and other agencies to reveal the true facts to the nation. However, one article published by New Frame with the title "Past and present push Phoenix over edge" sheds some interesting insights about the complexity of life in Phoenix and the events of July 2021.

In a tragicomedy turn of events, the DA pulled down the posters after a national uproar against them. And then the next day, the same party proceeded to defend the posters. They did so through the mouths of Helen Zille, John Steenhuisen and DA "stalwart" Mike Waters, who allegedly wrote a letter to resign from the party's local government elections campaign in defense of the posters.

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In the township, such an "apology" or "withdrawal" is often described in this manner: "They say I must say I am sorry because you are offended. Kodwa oksalayo, sengishilo. Manje senijabulile?" (But what I have already said cannot be unsaid. Are you happy now?).

Last week, of course, Gareth Cliff added his piece to the puzzle of rising arrogant, racist and conservative right-wing movements that believe local government voters and South Africa as a whole should not be worried about the problem of racism. Of course, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) is the basis of knowledge on racism for these sects and its studies come in handy for racists. It is these studies or surveys that have made the IRR launch campaigns such as "Racism is not the Problem" and earlier, #SaveTheOpposition, a code for DA.

In part, the rising racism and right-wing conservative politics and discourses are informed by the latest volumes of "scientific" studies and surveys from the IRR. But it is also interesting to observe that the further South Africa moves away from the 1994 moment and the honeymoon of the rainbow nation and towards the complex evolution of the democratic state and society, the more the racists become emboldened and abandon their pretense openly and without shame. It would seem that the so-called fight back movement is back in full swing!

Part of this racist and conservative discourse is a well-orchestrated strategy to delink national issues from local ones. This is a false delinking and very much unscientific. There is a reason why the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), for example, has chosen the campaign slogan: "Land and jobs. Manje!"

So, what does the evidence and data say about national issues as determinants of voter behaviour in local government elections? And why is the DA acting so desperately?

Survey after survey proves that even during local government elections, the biggest issues that concern the voters are jobs, crime, corruption, and local government services. You can pick any elections study or survey; it will have these as high-ranking issues. It is self-evident that voters see the local and national issues as intersectional rather than separate.

Another example is Herman Mashaba of Action SA's conservative campaign. He is using the local and national, as well as the global, issue of migration to get Joburgers to vote for him. Why? Because right or wrong, he understands the intersectionality of migration politics with local experiences of the people. Despite his lofty promises, Mashaba knows he will have no authority to change migration policies as a councillor.

And so, the return of racist and populist conservative politics work for the DA and similar parties. Remember, the DA has suffered at two levels recently: firstly, the strategy of appeasing the black community through a black leadership did not work. The excuse was that this failed strategy was encouraging race-based politics, something that belongs to the ANC and not the "liberal" DA. The real reason is that the strategy had alienated some sections of the white electoral base of the party.

Secondly, the DA suffered a double defeat in the 2019 general elections by dropping 2% under Maimane and losing to the ANC, which was led by Cyril Ramaphosa (and not Jacob Zuma, who was easy to attack). In 2018, Tony Leon acknowledged this as much when he reportedly said: "Cyril Ramaphosa’s election has been a game changer for everyone, for the country, for our economic fortunes, and indeed the DA will have to up its game because Ramaphosa is a very different proposition."

The DA's 2% loss became a gain for the Vryheid Front Plus (VF+) which moved from 0.9% in 2014 to 2.38% in 2019. This means that VF+ ate from the DA's base, hence the 2% decline. Partly, this is what accounted for Maimane's dramatic departure, Steenhuisen's election of and the return of the poster child, Zille.

In 2014, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection analysed voting trends by drilling down to the voting district. The analysis produced very fascinating but generally accepted truths. The evidence showed "the continued saliency of race in South African society. The phenomenon is further demonstrated by the general voting patterns. Minorities have largely gone for the DA, while Africans have largely remained with the ANC." The analysis concluded that the death or decline of other white opposition parties meant that the white vote had steadily consolidated under the DA since 1994.

In 2016, the fortunes of the DA did not change significantly in real terms either. Rather, it is the ANC’s declining fortunes that saw the DA gain percentage advantages through a higher voter turnout, while the ANC voter stayed away. DA’s marginal gains in the black community were insignificant for the bigger picture of electoral shifts.
The truth is that the DA has reached an electoral ceiling in South Africa and its slide in 2019 meant that it must retreat to the racial laager once more. The intra-party instability, the return of its poster child and the racist rhetoric is a populist attempt to regain the support of the conservative white voter.

Well, only 1 November will tell if the DA has managed to shed its temporary blackness and get the love back from its traditional base.

One thing is for sure: there is a dangerous racist and populist right-wing resurgence in South Africa and the DA seems to be playing into that kind of gallery. It is in this context that the non-apologetic apology on the DA Phoenix posters must be understood.

In a recent debate on the local government elections that I had with Tony Leon, for example, he accepted that "identity"’, code for "race", remains one of the key determinants of electoral outcomes in South Africa. This reality will not change in the foreseeable future.

Therefore, the DA's political quagmire is far deeper than the poster. It is about a love relationship between the DA and its traditional narrow base, which was beginning to sour. The love affair was somewhat messed up by Zille who later felt she must return to fix her own mess after promoting black leadership, something the traditional base rejected in 2019. Hence the return of the poster child. And like the prodigal son, the DA has effectively chosen to drop all the pretense and takes a leaf out of the gospel of race(ism), liberalism and politics - RW Johnson's book!

It is truly unscientific and dishonest to think that race or other national issues do not have a bearing on electoral choices of the voter, simply because this is a local government election. The DA itself campaigned through attacking Zuma while he was president in 2016, even though he was never a ward candidate. Even ActionSA and the EFF are using national issues such a migration and jobs respectively to solicit votes.

May we all enjoy the final period of the spectacle of politics and live to see 2 November. In the meantime, do not allow deceptive rhetoric to mislead you into thinking that local and national issues do not intersect - they do. In fact, the unlink rhetoric is a feeble ploy to defocus the public from serious discourses about the political settlement and the unguided national drift to nowhere! Wake up. Vukani! While at it, beware of the boldness of racism!

I apologise for telling the truth. Oksalayo sengishilo! Happy voting to all!

David Maimela is a political analyst. He writes in his personal capacity.

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