The DA and the fight for classical liberalism

There is absolutely nothing odd with the internal contradictions that are currently consuming the Democratic Alliance (DA). All political parties at some point experiences internal strife informed by number of factors which includes but not limited to ideological contestation, varying personalities and leadership competition. Presently, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) is tearing itself apart due internal leadership disagreements. When he stepped down as President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere did not resign from politics, instead he was re-elected as Chairperson of his party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) in 1987. Nyerere’s contestation of the chairperson of CCM was aimed at blocking ‘liberal modernists’ who wanted to reform his socialist ideology of Ujamaa. The DA is also not immune from internal factionalism and the variables of party ideology, identity politics and myriad of personalities seems to be predominant in the ongoing internal party problems. But it is the historical evolution of the DA that better explains its current challenges.

The present DA is an offshoot of preceding political parties that comprised of the Progressive Party (PP) of Helen Suzman, formed in 1959, the Progressive Reform Party (PFP) which came into being in 1977 as a result of the merger between the Progressive Party (PP) and the United Party (UP). In 1989, the PFP merged with the Independent Party (IP) and the National Democratic Movement (NDM) to form the Democratic Party (DP). By the year 2000, the Democratic Party merged with the Federal Alliance (FA) and the New National Party (NNP) to form the DA as we know it today. It is then inevitable to generalize that in the main, the DA is a party of white minority constituency who are not ideologically homogenous. It is difficult also not to reach the conclusion that the DA has remnants of white conservative racists from the National Party. It is equally plausible to argue that the DA is home to white liberals who are qualitatively and quantitatively dominant in the party. It is this dominant group of white liberals who jealously guard the DA’s brand of classical liberalism. Classical liberalism espouses principles of an open society, open opportunities for all, equality, liberty, human rights and market economy. The DA is armed with an ideology that promotes individualism, self-interest, private capital accumulation and a minimalist government intervention in the economy. The DA is a pro-capitalist organization that caters for the interest of white middle class in the main. The DA’s liberal ideology has always been cohesive without any equivocation until the arrival of African constituency in its leadership ranks. The party is diametrically opposed to anything that has to do with state ownership of the economy or any left leaning rhetoric. This stance assists the DA in two ways. Firstly it provides the DA with an ammunition to discredit the ANC’s left leaning policy of state ownership in the economy. The DA’s call for privatization of State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s) is a classical examples of its liberal ideology. The DA’s rejection of expropriation of land without compensation is another example of its liberal ideology that protects private property. Secondly, the DA’s liberal ideology assist the party to differentiate and align itself with what is arguably the most dominant political ideology (liberal democracy) in post-cold war environment. But because the key business of political parties is to contest state power, the DA after the reign of Helen Zille as the president had to change its strategies and tactics in order to realize its dream of becoming the governing party in South Africa. The party came to the harsh reality that it would not be able to unseat the ruling ANC if it fails to attract a sizeable number of African votes. It is within that context that personalities such as Lindiwe Mazibuko, Joe Seremane, Mmusi Maimane, Patricia De Lille and Dr. Mamphele Ramphele were recruited. These personalities were seen as African political actors who can easily embrace the ideology of classical liberalism. The expectation of a black face that embraces unbridled capitalism from ahistorical perspective failed spectacularly in the DA. For an example, the leadership of Mmusi Maimane in the DA has to be accompanied by policy change that speaks directly to the targeted African constituency which unfortunately is poor.
Hence Maimane embraced traditional ANC policies like Affirmative Action and Employment Equity Act. In some instances, Mmusi Maimane was incoherent and not clear on the question of land expropriation without compensation. His prevarication on the question of land was interpreted as support for it within some quarters in the DA. His open criticism of white people engaged in acts of racism was also not welcomed and the poor man was seen as having abandoned the much revered liberal principles of the DA.
What put the nail in the coffin in Mmusi Maimane’s leadership in the DA is the outcome of the 2019 national elections where the DA’s electoral support contracted by five (5) seats which mainly went to the ultra-conservative Freedom Front Plus (FF+). Personalities like Helen Zille, Tony Leon and those who support them believe that the DA under Mmusi Maimane has thrown out of the window its historical liberal ideology which saw the party growing and becoming an official opposition for many years. It is the triumvirate of ideological competition, identity politics (racialism) and personification of politics that are eating at the fabric of the Democratic Alliance.
Jerry Matebesi is based in Mahikeng and writes in his personal capacity