The Democratic Alliance’s Demise Puts South Africa’s Multiparty Democracy at Risk

The implosion of the country’s leading opposition party is bad news for competitive politics and democratic institutions—and its impact will be felt across Africa.

Mmusi Maimane (R), then the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) party, and the party's former leader, Helen Zille (L) give a press conference on June 13, 2017 in Johannesburg.
Mmusi Maimane (R), then the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) party, and the party's former leader, Helen Zille (L) give a press conference on June 13, 2017 in Johannesburg. MUJAHID SAFODIEN/AFP/Getty Images

South Africa is facing a political crisis following a string of top leadership resignations from the country’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). This is bad news for the country. It is also bad news for the region: Africa and the international community have been desperate for a postcolonial story that bucks the historical trend of wobbly democratization projects. Absent a vibrant multiparty democracy in South Africa, the potential geopolitical and economic implications are worrying. South Africa, governed since 1994 by a ruling African National Congress (ANC) party with an absolute majority, can ill afford an implosion of its political opposition, which has been the most prominent check on the ANC’s power. 

Indeed, the DA has waged patient, skilled warfare in the courts to compel the national prosecuting authority to reinstate corruption charges against former President Jacob Zuma, and DA lawmakers have used Parliament itself to hold the ANC-led government constitutionally and politically accountable through brilliant oversight work within various parliamentary committees.

Last week, the DA’s national leader, Mmusi Maimane, shocked South Africa by resigning as leader. He subsequently announced his resignation as a member of the party and therefore as one of the party’s members in the national Parliament. The rhetorical highlight of Maimane’s career was a pitch-perfect speech he delivered in February 2015 in which he memorably described then-President Zuma as “a broken man presiding over a broken society.” But it is the DA that is broken now.

Maimane was motivated to step down after the return a few days earlier of his predecessor, Helen Zille, to a powerful elected leadership position: chairperson of the party’s Federal Council. Zille is a deeply divisive figure because, in the latter years of a long and otherwise admirable political career, she courted controversy with tweets that suggested that not everything about colonialism was bad, refused to retract these statements when there was a backlash from black voters and many commentators, and generally became recalcitrant in her public statements about the dangers of racially based redress policies. 

Colorblindness, in a society that only recently emerged from centuries of race-based oppression, is not a winning formula in South African politics. In the South African context, colorblindness is viewed as a brute refusal to recognize how powerfully race, as a concept, still animates life in this fractured society, by pretending that class analysis alone can wholly account for contemporary structural injustices.

Zille’s controversial remarks cost the party some support, because many voters were disappointed the DA had not adequately censured her. When Maimane became the first black person to lead the DA, that allowed the official opposition to counter criticism that it is averse to black talent at the top. The return of the tone-deaf, colorblind Zille to a position of prominence reverses the marginal gains that the aesthetic of Maimane’s election had represented.

The return of Zille to one of the party’s top three leadership posts was essentially a confirmation that Maimane’s own colleagues within the Federal Council, which is the party’s highest decision-making body between its elective conferences, had lost faith in his leadership, after the party garnered only 20.8 percent of the vote in this year’s elections, down from 22.2 percent in 2014—despite being gifted by the ANC a campaign narrative focusing on a decade of gross misrule under Zuma’s atrocious leadership. Against such an opponent, the DA ought to have comfortably won over 25 percent of the vote in this context of ANC governance failure.

Maimane was not alone in exiting the DA. Other senior leaders and politicians, including the energetic mayor of Johannesburg, the black businessman Herman Mashaba, also announced their resignations, leaving the party rudderless as it scrambles to fill high-profile vacancies with temporary appointments while planning an early elective conference. 

To appreciate the blow of Mashaba’s exit, one should remember that the DA had been keen to demonstrate to South Africa that it is capable of governing outside of the Western Cape, where it has long had a stronghold. In the 2016 municipal elections, the DA pushed the ANC to below 50 percent in Johannesburg, which is the country’s largest city and economic powerhouse. This surprisingly strong showing enabled the DA to govern the municipality in an effective opposition coalition with the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). It was a crucial electoral upset because governance success in Johannesburg would have enabled the party to argue in the 2024 election campaign that it had the capability to be trusted with big budgets—and maybe even national government itself.

That opportunity is probably now ruined. Add to that the horrible optics of two senior and prominent black leaders’ demise—a reminder to many voters of an unfortunate 1999 slogan chosen by the DA back then, “Fight Back,” which sounded ominously like “Fight Black” to many among the country’s black majority. It is hard to see how the party can now avoid recurring perceptions that it remains addicted to preserving a status quo in which the power of whites is central to both the party and the economy. 

The DA’s decline must be closely watched by international observers, too. A democratic system has the best odds of enduring in a society if a culture of competitive politics has securely taken root. This, in turn, requires citizens to have a range of political parties to choose from—not just nominally, but as genuinely viable alternatives. The governing ANC has effectively become a monopoly player in South Africa’s democracy despite near-destructive levels of corruption, rolling blackouts as the state-owned electricity company continues to be mismanaged, levels of unemployment that keep social discontent stubbornly high, and unprecedented levels of poverty and inequality that show no signs of abating. 

South Africa, therefore, remains a deeply unjust society, economically and socially, especially for its poor black majority. This means that alternatives to the ANC are critical, because citizens deserve at least the possibility of a new government that may yet deliver the ANC’s own post-apartheid promise: “A Better Life for All.” Black-led opposition parties, including both the DA and the next-largest opposition party, the EFF, gave the ANC pause and forced them to rethink their electoral strategy. The ANC can, for now, continue being sluggish with few political consequences in the short term. 

In this context, the implosion of the DA’s leadership is a serious blow to South Africa’s democracy. Until this year, the DA had been the only party that had always increased its share of the national vote in successive elections, albeit off a low voter base. That trend reversed for the first time in this May’s election. Part of the problem is that the party has struggled to find genuine and lasting traction among black voters who perceive it to be chiefly concerned with entrenching the power and privileges of colonialism and apartheid’s biggest beneficiaries: white people and big business.

Before Zille, another white person, Tony Leon, led the DA. He advocated center-right policies that had no regard for dismantling the structural injustices of the past. Zille did better to put distance between herself and Leon’s market fundamentalism, but hers was a story of two Zilles: one who initially grew the base of her party, then became less committed to an explicit social democratic message anchored unambiguously in the lived experiences of the poor black majority. 

It is not clear that Maimane or Mashaba had a better ideological grip on what South Africa needs politically right now, but there is no doubt that in a country in which race still matters, the mere fact of their election, as black leaders, assisted the DA brand in countering some of the historical criticism of being a whites-only party. 

While the party has had, until now, many black leaders at various levels of leadership, and images at party rallies showing that it cannot hastily be reduced to being a party that explicitly excludes black people, it is battling a kind of electoral glass ceiling. Its ideas and policy prescriptions tend to eliminate or downplay race in its analysis of the drivers of injustice in contemporary South Africa, with a penchant for free-market economic policies and only a very small role for the state to play in redressing past injustices. That kind of positioning will never endear any party to millions of South Africans who have, in their blood, deep experiential knowledge of racial injustice.

This enduring brand challenge has not been helped by the latest resignations. Indeed, Zille’s return and Maimane’s exit appear to confirm what many have long suspected: that the party does not give a damn about the centrality of race and racial redress in South African society and political discourse. 

Zille, and many of the other white senior leaders within the DA, tend to dismiss race as a marker of unearned privileges (if you are white) and deny the continued presence of anti-black racism within South Africa’s economic institutions. Their ahistorical and colorblind cover has been blown in the last few days. It is hard to see how the DA will now avoid a quicker decline in electoral support—returning it to under 20 percent of the share of the national vote if it is not careful, as was the case for the first 20 years of democracy.

The shrinking of the DA’s support base will harm the opposition’s role as a force for accountability. The strength of government’s internal watchdog will be decimated because a lackluster ANC government—no longer facing any real opposition threat—has the luxury of relaxing, despite its gigantic political and economic sins. 

Many ANC leaders and supporters are excited about this turn of events within the opposition ranks. They shouldn’t be. A ruling party in a vibrant democracy should not sell itself as the only viable party that can govern effectively, and it must recognize, as genuinely committed democrats, that being kept on one’s toes with good opposition parties breathing down your neck is important. 

It is foolish for any politician to ignore the damage done to the entire body politic by the collapse in the leadership of a major political party. In the short term, the DA’s competitors may celebrate. One other black opposition leader, former Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, who left the DA a year ago to form her own party, even released a mocking video in which she sang derisively for Maimane, essentially an a “I told you so” message, implying she had warned him that a cabal of right-wing white men within the DA would not give space to a freethinking black leader to exert genuine influence over the party. 

But everyone, not just the DA, has lost. If the ANC has no competition, it will never be the best possible governing party that it could become. If voters do not have viable alternatives, then service delivery—including water, electricity, health care, and social welfare payments—will continue to be incomplete and substandard.

The South African opposition’s leadership crisis is also a blow to the region and the international community, because South Africa has become a model for so many other nations. Nascent democracies have often struggled within the first three decades of postcolonial freedom to demonstrate an effective capacity for self-rule that does not reproduce colonial-era forms of anti-democratic governance.

Other African countries have often looked to South Africa as a beacon of democratic hope. In turn, South Africa’s economic and democratic success has given it geopolitical clout within regional bodies such as the African Union. And on the international stage, South Africa’s exemplary and progressive liberal democratic constitutional model enabled it to be taken more seriously by the global north than most African democracies. But all of these gains are dependent on a functioning multiparty democracy. Even investors who worry about political risk take some comfort in the accountability mechanisms in place in South Africa, which include not only the entrenchment of the rule of law and a vigorous civil society but also a competitive democratic political sphere. 

Indeed,  The DA has done the country and the region a disservice with poor management of internal political differences among politicians who put their personal ambition ahead of a commitment to safeguarding the country’s democracy. South African multiparty democracy was a good idea. It is now in serious trouble.

Eusebius McKaiser is a political analyst and author based in Johannesburg. He is the author of Run Racist Run: Journeys Into the Heart of Racism and the former host of a political radio show at South Africa's Radio 702. Twitter: @Eusebius

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