By Joel Bregman

The DA continues to be a party that struggles with issues of race and identity. If the party wants to ever be able to truly contest for power and lead national government, it will need to do some deep introspection and rethink how it can appeal to a wider part of the electorate.

In the run-up to the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) Federal Congress this weekend, Gwen Ngwenya resigned. Ngwenya who was the party’s head of policy follows a long list of black, often young, senior leaders who have resigned from the party in recent years.

In 2022 it was Mbali Ntuli (member of KZN legislature) and Bongani Baloyi (former Midvaal mayor); in 2021, it was Phumzile van Damme (MP); in 2020 it was John Moodey (Gauteng provincial leader); in 2019 it was Herman Mashaba (Johannesburg mayor) and Mmusi Maimane (federal leader); in 2018 it was Patricia de Lille (Cape Town mayor), and back in 2014 it was Lindiwe Mazibuko (parliamentary leader). This is by no means an exhaustive list. In most of these cases, there are allegations that leaders were pushed out rather than resigned of their own volition.

Resignations from political parties are not uncommon events, and it would be presumptive to attach deeper meaning without further interrogation or trying to identify the reasons for people leaving their political home. In the case of Ngwenya, there are no allegations that she did not leave of her own accord. But the DA has had to push the narrative that it is a party for all, despite the consistent departures of black leaders, claims of infighting and cliques, and criticism that some of its policies on race are blind to the South African reality, anti-black and anti-poor.

The party has never managed to appeal to the whole of society and remains, largely, a party that is seen to represent the interests of the middle class. Maimane resigned after the DA’s poor showing in the 2019 elections, dropping from 22.23% and over 4 million votes in 2014 to 20.77% and 3.6 million votes. When current federal leader, John Steenhuisen, replaced Maimane at a similar time that Zille regained power in the party, a recent M&G editorial succinctly captured this moment as the DA choosing to, ‘preserve its position as a party for the minority rather than pursue growth’.

In contrast to the ANC

The DA is rather effective at contrasting itself with the ANC. It does everything it can to position itself as the antithesis to the governing party. It paints itself as the party of law and order, of principle, of upholding democracy and seeking a better life for all people in South Africa. And while the DA has its share of scandal, the ANC often makes it far too easy for the DA to justify its claims.

The official opposition, on paper, is a party that respects and promotes internal democracy. Its constitution and internal policies provide for regular elections and contestation of power, for members to have a voice, for discipline to be dealt with fairly. The rules of engagement for its upcoming Federal Congress, where it will elect its top leadership, are well-considered and contain processes that other parties can learn from. But there is often a disconnect between formal rules and the way that a party operates and the culture within. And for the DA, this is, at times, where the tension lies.

Tension in the party

There remain persistent allegations that the party uses black leaders to secure votes at the poll and to raise the party’s profile, only to push them out or make it uncomfortable for them until they leave if they challenge the status quo. If you do not toe the party line, as is the case in many parties, you are effectively forced out. This is not how any party that is interested in democracy should operate.

Almost a decade ago, Lindiwe Mazibuko left the party after a falling out with then-leader Zille. When Maimaine resigned as leader of the party in 2019 he said that, ‘It is no secret that for decades the DA has been seen as a party for minorities only. The majority of South Africans, mainly black South Africans, did not relate to the DA and by extension struggle to trust the DA.’ In 2020, John Moodey left the party, accusing Zille of racist language. When Bongani Baloyi resigned in 2022, he claimed that the environment in the party had become ‘extremely toxic’ since Zille’s return to Federal Council Chairperson.

In a 2021 interview, former party leader Tony Leon described the election and leadership of Maimaine as, ‘an experiment gone wrong’. Such language was rightly denounced by many in the party, but offered us a glimpse into the thinking that the older, more conservative wing of the party may very well share.

Where to next

The party has said that it does not believe in quotas or term limits, arguing that it is a meritocracy and if someone will best serve the party, they should be in power. But the problem with this approach is that it can lead to the same faces occupying key leadership positions over and again and policies and ideas that are stale. The DA has said it is pleased with the diversity of candidates for positions at its upcoming conference. We await to see the outcome of its elections, but John Steenhuisen, current federal leader, is expected to defeat challenger Mpho Phalatse (former mayor of Johannesburg) for the top position. Zille will once again be elected as Chairperson of the Federal Council, as no one is contesting against her.

The DA continues to be a party that struggles with issues of race and identity. If the party wants to ever be able to truly contest for power and lead national government (something that many would say is wishful thinking), it will need to do some deep introspection and rethink how it can appeal to a wider part of the electorate. To ignore the exit of so many leaders over an extended period of time, many of whom have spoken out about the reasons they left and cited deep issues within the party related to race, would be foolish.

Originally published on News24.