JOHN STEENHUISEN’s office in the South African Parliament is the refuge of a political animal. The leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the country’s largest opposition party, has election memorabilia from around the world and two large photographs of John F. Kennedy. Smaller snapshots show the 45-year-old next to British politicians, including David Cameron. There is a book by the former Prime Minister on Mr Steenhuisen’s desk.
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In the UK, Mr Cameron’s works may be found more often in charity shops than in political offices. But Mr Steenhuisen looks ahead if the African National Congress (ANC) falls below 50% in a general election. Although the next one will not take place until 2024, the local elections on November 1st can serve as a guiding star. Polls suggest that this is the first time the ANC gets less than half the vote in a national election. That would suggest that others may soon be needed to govern at the national level under the South African proportional representation system. Hence the wisdom of the man who led a coalition government in Great Britain.
Mr. Steenhuisen (pictured) wants to work with pragmatic ANC politicians. “South Africa is in such a deep crisis that it will need the rational center,” he says. The former chief whip says there were “feelers from the ANC side”. But many in the ruling party would rather join the second largest opposition party, the radical left-wing and quick-witted Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). Should this happen, says Steenhuisen, “South Africa will be put on the fast track to Venezuela or Zimbabwe”.
Coalition talks show how far the DA has come. From 1961 to 1974, Helen Suzman of the Progressive Party, one of the forerunners of the DA, was the only anti-apartheid vote in the all-white parliament. In the first elections after apartheid in 1994, the then Democratic Party won 2%. Two decades later, the DA won 22%. Its growth was mainly based on attracting majorities from minorities: whites, “colored” (ie, multiracial) South Africans, and those of Indian descent, who together make up about a fifth of the population.
However, the DA does less well with the majority. It had a black leader, Mmusi Maimane, who was unceremoniously expelled in 2019 after disappointing election results. There was also hesitation about whether to support race-based policies.
Newer recruits are generally more sympathetic to the ANC’s laws on affirmative actions than classical liberals, who oppose a policy that treats people primarily as members of a group rather than as individuals. “Prosecutors say they want to be color-blind, but that means wanting to maintain the status quo,” argues Maimane, who has since left the party. Another former black politician in the DA says: “I reject the idea that liberalism is about the fetishization of the individual. This is very practical for whites and for men. “
This mess has damaged the party’s brand. It lost hundreds of thousands of African voters in 2019 without adding many blacks. “The public prosecutor’s office has a big trust problem,” says Dawie Scholtz, a psycheologist. He notes that focus group voters often say they like certain guidelines, but change their minds when they learn that the DA has suggestions. “The mistrust is racist: it is based on distrust of whether the party actually wants to deliver for blacks.”
Many in the DA feel that they have been treated unfairly. Tony Leon, a former leader, points out that he has the most racially diverse parliamentary group in the country. In South Africa, he adds, voters make their decisions based on their identity, making it difficult for the DA to find a party that it believes is trying to target the nation as a whole, rather than a specific race or ethnic group.
Others in the party point out that their divisions are small compared to those of the ANC, whose factional struggles sparked mass riots in July. They feel that their position on inequality is simple. Rather than a race-based policy that has enriched a black elite, it is better to target aid based on need. “You don’t need a proxy for poverty,” argues Mr. Steenhuisen.
Furthermore, given the decline of the ANC, the DA only needs to hold on to its support to gain relevance. But would his constituents tolerate a coalition with the ANC? Mr Steenhuisen says he would avoid the mistake of the Liberal Democrats in the 2010-15 British coalition when that party lost votes by breaking its main pledge to abolish tuition fees. The DA would adhere to its “core principles” such as market economy, respect for the rule of law and politics that do not target a specific race. However, Steenhuisen adds that the state of the country calls for prudence: “If the house is on fire, it doesn’t matter whether you are a Marxist or a classical liberal. Your life is getting worse. ” ■
This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the heading “When the ANC Wilts”