Politics is a tough and merciless business. That is not some profound, original thought; it is a fact. In a political career spanning two generations, I realised early on that politicians have to be hardy individuals, able to withstand gossip, personal venom, point-scoring, lies and criticism, sometimes fully justified but often wildly unfair.
The media are our first line of defence in democracies. Often, they get it right and must be listened to. But sometimes they get it wrong. If they praise a politician, he/she should enjoy the fleeting moment. If they condemn a politician unfairly, following the immediate fashion, shrug and know that this too shall pass.
The recent election is an example. President Ramaphosa produced the worst general election result the ANC has ever had, losing 19 seats in the process. Even the already tainted Jacob Zuma in 2014 led his party to a far better tally. And yet, Ramaphosa has been hailed as a hero. How long will that euphoria last?
Mmusi Maimane, who pulled the DA campaign right in the closing stages and managed to confound many of the polls predicting an electoral nightmare for his party, has been harshly judged by the media and by his opponents and critics. Some of his “friends” have seized the opportunity to pay off old scores.
A loss of five seats in parliament has been presented as a calamity, with predictions of Maimane being removed as leader. The reaction is surely grossly overdone. But the brutal fact is that the DA has, for the first time, failed to win additional seats in an election and given the disaster that ANC rule has been over the past 10 years, failed to come near the 30% support level needed to make an imminent government change a realistic prospect.
As the DA continues with its navel-gazing and soul- searching, as indeed it must after listening to the criticism from the public and the media commentators, one hopes devoutly that this will be an internal process by its members who will resist the temptation to be disloyal.
Making stupid, unfunny, thoughtless and unguarded comments on social media really is not on. Public representatives who tweet must ask themselves whether they are advancing the cause of the DA brand, of which they are ambassadors, or damaging it by their self-indulgence. When they do so columnists and others write acres of anti DA articles, the one feeding on the other. Of course, the party can do little or nothing about former leading members who cannot bear to be out of the news and are responsible for negative publicity.
Worse still is leaking juicy bits of information, often untrue, to advance personal prospects or views. My experience of disloyal MPs and those like Ebrahim Rasool who buy positive coverage, is that they are generally held in contempt by the media. They often fall by the wayside. Politics requires a special stamina; those who lack it and are short on the basic integrity of not biting the hand that feeds them, may succeed for a time, but eventually their own members find them out, ending careers, sometimes prematurely.
Secondly, the DA was elected by the voters to be the Official Opposition. They must do that job and do it well. Just as South Africa needs a decent government that produces the goods, the country is crying out for an opposition that does its stuff superbly, as the DA has so often done over the years: opposing where necessary – exposing the corruption, the mistakes, the maladministration – but also proposing policies and real alternatives proving that they have many of the answers to good government and the ability to take over when voted in.
There is a niche for a radical left-wing opposition but the EFF had a relative failure in the election, polling far less than predicted by many forecasts. They are simply not trusted by South African voters.
Likewise, the Freedom Front Plus, which has its name up in lights by growing from 0.9% to 2.4% and now preposterously terms itself “one of the big five,” will try to compete. Its weakness is that it can never truly compete with the DA or the ANC while it ignores the constitutional imperative of being for all South Africans. White voters now number 8% of the electorate and that figure is dropping as white people age, die off, emigrate and produce fewer children than any other national grouping.
The third imperative for the DA is to recognise that it truly is a party for all. This differentiates it from every other significant party. The ANC, contrary to the Freedom Charter and its long history, no longer really even tries to represent any voters other than black people. The EFF is unashamedly a black party. The IFP tries, especially through Prince Buthelezi, but it is largely a rural Kwa-Zulu Natal party. The FF+ is a party for a fraction of Afrikaans voters, with the overwhelming majority of Afrikaners and Afrikaans-speakers being DA supporters.
This means the only way for the DA is to build on its non-racial appeal, aiming to be for all in South Africa. It cannot stand for anything other than the realisation of the ideals of the Constitution where we are all entitled to equal dignity, equal respect, equal treatment and where opportunities are created for every individual to flourish educationally, socially, economically, culturally.
Afrikaners have an absolute right to be educated in the language of their choice where this is reasonably practicable at school and at University level. So do those, for example, who choose to educate their children in English. Black people have an absolute right to a quality education, to good health care, to decent living standards, to participation in the economy and to be freed from the grinding poverty and deprivation that is such an unacceptable blot on our country. All our citizens, black and white, not just some of them, are entitled to those rights.
The DA must look at and if necessary, develop fresh policies answering these imperatives. It should avoid endless debates about labels and whether race is or is not a proxy for deprivation. Rather focus not on definitions but on the deprivation itself. How should South Africa deal with deprivation – economic, educational, cultural – whether it be in the black or the white community? What policies will best address the issues of poverty? What achievable targets should be set? Is BEE good or bad? Is AA good or bad?
Fourthly, where the DA governs, as it does in a province and in dozens of local authorities, it simply has to demonstrate its ability to govern immeasurably better than the ANC with its appalling local government record. This must be conveyed to the voters, especially by their seeing the improvements in service delivery and in the uncorrupt, efficient service the DA strives for.
If Mmusi Maimane can lead the DA to do these things, this talented young man – decent, well-educated, well-spoken, untainted by corruption and a unifier of all the people in South Africa, rather than a divider – will deliver far better election results in the 2021 local government elections.
[i] Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com