03 Sep 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
Malema actually stands for something, writes Tony Leon, who is not sure if the official opposition greatly supports any causes
YOU would need to be a very old South African — about 80 years old — to remember the last time the official opposition in Parliament won an election and went directly from the opposition side of the aisle to the seat of government.
Leaving aside the issue of the racial, restrictive franchise that pertained here until 1994, the last occasion when the largest opposition party in Parliament made this transition was 66 years ago, on May 26 1948. This was when DF Malan was elevated from leader of the official opposition to prime minister.
|DA national spokesman Mmusi Maimane outside the Western Cape High Court on Tuesday|
Of course, there was a change in both national and party power when Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress won the 1994 election and swept Malan’s successor movement, the National Party (NP), from its 46-year occupation of the government. But that required the entire previous system to be scrapped, via the so-called "negotiated revolution", before it could happen. This underlines the glacial nature of in-system electoral change here.
After the end of the first session of South Africa’s democratic parliament in December 1994, I led a small delegation of Democratic Party (DP) MPs to a lunch meeting with then president Nelson Mandela in Pretoria. On the agenda was our concern with various start-up problems affecting the workings of the National Assembly. Since Mandela famously had both an open door policy towards some of his democratic opponents and a lively regard for Parliament and its workings, he seemed the right person to address these concerns. No one at that meeting could have imagined the pit into which parliamentary proceedings would descend 20 years later.
But what I had not quite appreciated that day when the DP lunched with the president was what a close study Mandela had made of South Africa’s parliamentary history. As we listed ailments then affecting Parliament, trivial from the vantage point of today, Mandela brought the lunch to a stop. He disarmingly reminded us that the ANC had transitioned from struggle to power without the benefit of any preparation. As he put it that day: "The ANC went straight from the bush into power." By contrast, he recalled: "The NP served a long period in opposition in Parliament before assuming power."
How does this history lesson sit with the present leader of the opposition and the 15th holder of the post since Malan, Mmusi Maimane of the Democratic Alliance (DA)? He has some advantages and, perhaps, more disadvantages. While he had no parliamentary experience before his appointment, the party he leads has long experience in opposition and parliamentary tactics. He leads a team of 88 MPs in the National Assembly, slightly more than FW de Klerk’s National Party had in 1994.
But the NP in opposition, and two of its three predecessors as official opposition — the Conservative Party of Andries Treurnicht and the United Party of De Villiers Graaff — provided a salutary counterpoint to the illusory comfort the strength-in-opposition numbers seemingly provided. For different reasons, those parties disappeared entirely from the political scene when their political relevance became the dominant narrative. What lessons might Maimane and his lieutenants draw from their demise?
The first was offered to me by then NP secretary-general Roelf Meyer shortly after the lunch with Mandela. He confidently asserted that the NP supporters secured by his party in 1994 — just more than 20% of the electorate — would stick with the party "because they have nowhere else to go".
The DP had other ideas and, despite being 10 times smaller than the NP, would within five years eclipse it, take it over and effectively remove it from the political scene entirely. This was not due just to the more muscular approach to opposition politics that the DP adopted compared with the supine ambivalence of the NP of the time. It was essentially because, shorn of power and bereft of ideology, it had little to offer. Its central role in the system of apartheid also weighed it down.
Maimane and the DA’s dilemma — of having the largest number of opposition seats but being knocked off the front pages and social media spaces by the antics of the enfant terrible of the new politics, Julius Malema — is a question of asymmetry. Size does not always count in either life or politics. This was relayed to me the other day by a former colleague, herself a veteran of decades on the opposition benches and now retired.
She told me how she was listening on the radio to this "most articulate man … who perfectly captured my own thinking around (President) Jacob Zuma, Nkandla and the public protector". Then, she said, "to my horror the interviewer thanked Julius Malema for the interview".
So even those who would never dream of voting for him, bedrock DA supporters, find in Malema’s advocacy, and even perhaps some of his shocking tactics, points of agreement, even admiration. Malema will not poach from the DA’s voting pool, but if the party’s supporters perceive it to be ineffectual, some may simply drift away from political participation. But Malema’s advocacy will have a direct and negative effect on the DA’s ability to reach beyond its present base and tap into the growing pool of disaffected ANC supporters, precisely the group needed to ensure that the DA is not marooned forever, like Graaff and all his successors in title, on the opposition benches.
In Vladimir Lenin’s famous phrase, "What’s to be done?" the DA needs to reinvigorate Parliament. Its MPs need to "own issues". This is not about issuing press statements, but waking up every morning and determining how to find a credible issue, become the expert on it and spend time with other experts. They need to have the passion, the knowledge and the commitment to be the lead voice on the matters that matter.
The other asymmetrical problem Maimane faces is peculiar to his party set-up. He leads the opposition in Parliament but he does not lead his party outside of it. Whatever the merits of this arrangement originally, it is now way past its sell-by date.
Finally, there is the matter of ideology. What inspires the average DA MP? Is it job security for the next four years? A yearning to change things? A dislike of the ANC or the president? Perhaps all these things. But what great causes today does the DA stand for?
Malema, his theatrics aside, actually stands for something. It’s radical, impractical and ultimately ruinous. But it does resonate with many in the ranks of the dispossessed and the left-behind in South Africa.
The DA certainly is in opposition to the ANC but seems to have embraced large chunks of its philosophy, from transformation to the black economic empowerment scorecard. Though it wants the terms of trade changed, it is not confident enough to provide an entirely different world view. If you are in a 51-49 political outcome, such fudging of ideological barriers makes tactical sense. But given the 40 points separating the DA from the ANC, it does not.
There are many examples of this, but one will suffice — the crucial question of jobs. The ANC offers 5-million "job opportunities", while the DA promises the same number of "real jobs". This is a semantic distinction few understand. Better, as Clem Sunter suggested, to be the voice to create "1-million businesses" or become the champion of the market (not just business) to offer real economic liberation. That provides both a distinction and a difference.
A real alternative, to borrow a phrase, needs to offer a choice, not an echo.
• Leon is the author of Opposite Mandela (Jonathan Ball) Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA