The coronation of Aloysias Maimane as Duce of the Democratic Alliance in Port Elizabeth went as smoothly as might be expected of a ritual developed and conducted by a public-relations agency. It was engineered with care and facilitated by ensuring that a white person, Athol Trollip, was standing right behind Maimane, working the wires attached to his limbs and the teleprompter in front of his eyes.
The idea behind this is that race is the only thing which matters in South African politics. By installing a black man as the party’s front-person, the Democratic Alliance has ensured that it will continue to grow at its current rate. It is not necessary for that black man to have any understanding of politics, any visible talents, or any worthwhile policies. All that matters is his skin colour. That will fool black people, who understand nothing about politics, talents or policies, into voting for the DA. Problem solved!
Actually the problems are just beginning.
The position of Leader of the Party is a fascist concept, fully in keeping with the DA’s status as an ersatz fascist party. (A real fascist party would have some guts and better graphics design skills.) The DA’s goal is to do whatever big business tells it to do in order to crush the working class and improve corporate profits. A true fascist party would, however, mobilise the majority against minorities. The DA can’t do this because it is the party of whites and coloureds, who are resentful minorities and who are scared of mobilisation against minorities for fear it might end up as mobilisation against them (the whole anti-xenophobic campaign, though couched in the usual fake moralistic terms, is a product of white paranoia out of the same stable as the panic about farm killings). Therefore they must mobilise the majority by fooling them, by putting a model on the catwalk and urging them to admire him, in the same way that “celebrities” of whom nobody has every heard and about whom nobody cares fill the pages of the newspapers in the hope that someone will make money out of the process.
The question which nobody is allowed to ask is what this is all about.
This is because the original motive for the reformulation of the Democratic Alliance, after the defeat of the National Party in 1994, was resentment against the ANC’s victory. The Democratic Alliance positioned itself, under the able and loathesome leadership of Tony Leon, as the party most able to attack the ANC. The attacks on the ANC did not have to contain any substance, or even truth, because the DA’s audience was racially bigoted and politically biassed against blacks and leftists and therefore warmed to anyone who was noisily denouncing black leftists.
Instead of trying to challenge racist and reactionary ideas, the DA encouraged them and merged them with its real political agenda, which was neoliberalism. Essentially, it sold neoliberalism to its supporters through making it attractive by linking it with the prejudices which they adored. It has been very successful in this project, which is what makes it dangerous. On the other hand, it has also abolished all political and economic debate wherever it holds sway — which is part of the party’s problems, since it makes the party completely inflexible.
The problem with this political agenda is that neoliberalism has turned out to be as disastrous for the country as racism was, and yet the DA does not challenge either because both serve the interests of the tiny ruling elite which the DA serves. The working class knows this; only the middle class, ideologically embedded in the distorted values of the ruling class, cannot see it. Therefore, the middle class supports the DA, but the working class does not — and the black middle class, which has gone over to the DA, is not numerous enough to make an electoral difference. The DA is trapped in the status of a second-rank party.
What can be done about this? The obvious answer is to pretend to challenge racism and neoliberalism. Under the Zille administration of the DA, the attempt was made to challenge racism. That is, the party made a serious effort to promote coloureds and afrikaners into responsible positions and to put an african in the shop window by appointing Zille’s handmaiden Lindiwe Mazibuko as parliamentary leader. (This was not a conspicuously absurd appointment like installing Joe Seremane in the chairmanship of the party, because the DA’s MPs are a thick-headed bunch of poor speakers and hence Mazibuko seemed competent by contrast.)
This was modestly successful at best, but it did not address the real issue. The DA’s line is that appointment should be on “merit”, but “merit”, on analysis, turns out to mean belonging to the DA after having gone to a good school and being respectful to the Leader and the friends of the Leader. It does not mean competence. Moreover, whites and indians automatically have “merit”, coloureds may acquire “merit” through proximity to merit-possessing whites, and africans may have “merit” bestowed upon them by those whites, provided that they earn it through extraordinary subservience and through cultivating a properly white South African accent (a pseudo-American accent will do in a pinch). All this means that the DA has not conquered racism, it has rather subsumed racism into the cultural practices of Johannesburg’s Northern Suburbs and Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs. This is how the DA is able to persuade itself that parachuting a politically inexperienced black man with no track record into the leadership of the party is a brilliant step forward.
By brushing aside racism, however, the DA cuts the cable which held the party together. Working-class whites and coloureds do not like africans. Now they must watch middle-class africans leapfrog over them in the political sphere just as they have watched them do the same in the economic sphere. It’s not likely to please them. The calculation of the DA’s leadership is that they have nowhere else to go, which is probably true — but, as with the ANC, it is going to be hard to dynamise the voters once the party’s reason to exist has been abandoned.
All which remains is neoliberalism, a doctrine which Maimane has made it quite clear that he supports. This commitment to a policy immiserating the majority of the population to an increasing degree should be harmful for the electorate, but since it is a policy which is never discussed in those terms it is not harmful to the DA. The question is whether it was helpful.
In the past, the DA could claim to be standing for the free market and liberation from big government and all the other meaningless neoliberal shibboleths which whites and middle-class coloureds loved to hear, but this is now more difficult because they need african support and although middle-class africans like those things too, they are very conscious of the fact that most africans don’t. So the DA must tone down its stridency, or export it into the “civil society” sector where media and think-tank alike devote all their time to union-bashing and denunciation of the lazy workers.
But, meanwhile, the long struggle between neoliberals and social democrats within the ANC and COSATU has been won by the neoliberals, the social democrats have been purged or sidelined, and so the ANC is pursuing policies, outlined in the National Development Plan, which fulfil all the requirements of neoliberalism. Furthermore, the ANC can do this while unblushingly embedding the neoliberal project in a cocoon of leftist rhetoric (which is what the NDP is all about). Therefore, although the white ruling class of South Africa still don’t like blacks or the ANC, they have had to take a second look at the african party. Zuma has done much for them, and Ramaphosa can be expected to do much more. The ANC is not going away any time soon. Why rock the boat? Why not shovel money into the ANC as they shovelled money into Zuma’s campaign?
So the DA finds itself in a very difficult position. Their ruling-class backers are having trouble seeing why they should support an insignificant party when they can support a ruling party which does the job they want done. The ruling class may be racist, but they aren’t that racist. Meanwhile, the DA must express spurious claims to serve the people, and ritual denunciations of inequality and unemployment, which are indistinguishable from the behaviour of the ANC and which grate on the ears of the ruling class just as much as the empty utterances of the SACP do. Also, the big fear must be that while nobody in the ANC believes in any of that stuff any more, some of the DA people may do — or at least may be afraid that if they take power anywhere and then break all of their promises they will be hoofed out at the next election.
All this requires a very clear-sighted and powerful leadership capable of analysing the problems and implementing solutions to them. Instead, the DA has a weak leader and chair; the leader is probably incapable of accomplishing anything which the Federal Council of the party (which is not federal, despite its name) does not want, while the chair, coming from a peripheral province with hardly any DA control, is banking on becoming mayor of Nelson Mandela Metro next year. If he does not get the mayorship (and it is a toss-up despite the incompetence and corruption of the ANC) then he will not have any power or influence, much like Joe Seremane, and then the DA will be run by a shadowy committee, the Federal Council, whose members hardly anyone even inside the party has heard of. This is not a recipe for triumph. (And the trouble is that the way to cut through this would be to devote all possible energy to winning Nelson Mandela next year, but in that case the chair will be empowered, and the Johannesburg clique does not wish to place power in the hands of the periphery — as with the ANC in the Western Cape, they would rather the party lost than that they should see someone else within the party gain.
All this hints that the DA may have peaked. It may go on to greater successes, but it is quite likely that it will not. In any case, it can no longer do anything original, it can do nothing that the ANC would not do. Therefore, the DA cannot offer any solutions to the problems of political disenfranchisement, ideological vacuity and economic mismanagement which characterise South Africa today. It is simply an irrelevance, and in the task ahead of the rest of us, as Hunter S Thompson observed, these waterheads will only be in the way.