Hellen Zille’s decision to throw her hat in the ring for the chair of the DA federal executive has placed the confusion in opposition politics squarely on the socio-political agenda.
It’s also, without putting too fine a point on it, set the proverbial cat among the pigeons in DA circles.
Rather than accepting her fate and spending her declining years “having tea” with various political luminaries on her YouTube channel, or writing scholarly – and often controversial – pieces in her guise as an Institute of Race Relations (IRR) fellow, the indomitable Helen seeks a position that will allow her to exert a great deal of influence over the DA’s future policy trajectory.
Coming at a time when the DA is in something of an existential crisis over race, her decision has, quite naturally, attracted a great deal of criticism, most of which drags out of the political ditch the furores that erupted over her somewhat intemperate tweets about, among others, economic refugees from the Eastern Cape, the benefits of colonialism, and black privilege.
On each occasion, her utterances have ripped open the festering sore that is the DA’s confusion about race, and until the party deals definitively with this confusion, it will continue to pay a heavy price at the polls.
As each conflagration unfolded, commentary suggested that Helen had become a right-wing neo-apartheid dinosaur, in contrast with her political views back in the 70s, when, as a journalist, she played a major role in exposing the truth behind the death in detention of Black Consciousness and anti-apartheid activist, Bantu Steven Biko.
That she pursued the investigation into, and exposure of the truth about his murder, at great personal risk, seems to elude her present-day critics, which begs the question: has she become more conservative over the years, or have the expectations of what is considered acceptable politics in South Africa undergone a seismic shift?
Listening to Helen in a prime-time national television interview last Friday, during which the news anchor toiled mightily, but failed miserably, to corner her, she put to bed once and for all the notion that she has changed her political views.
She made no bones about the fact that she stands today, just like she did all those years ago, for a non-racial, equal opportunity democracy, which, coincidentally is pretty much what the DA also purports to stand for.
Unless, as is often the case, it is accused of wanting to ignore race in a society which is mired in an increasingly vituperative racial polemic, and particularly when a row erupts involving some or other DA luminary in a race-tinted row.
In such circumstances, and depending upon who in the DA is commenting, utterances range from reiterating the party’s non-racial, equal opportunity democracy perspective, to flirting with policy revisionism on the issues of affirmative action and black economic empowerment.
Where the DA sits on the political spectrum is a matter of conjecture, coloured by the tint of the spectacles of the viewer.
Those of a conservative bent would be inclined to see the party as being left of centre, while those at the other extreme would see the party as being right of centre.
In reality, the DA has a policy mix which places it uncomfortably at the political centre, which manifests in the ongoing factional conflicts within the party as it struggles to resolve its identity crisis.
The extent to which this race confusion bedevils the DA is manifested in such occurrences as suspension and subsequent reinstatement of Dianne Kohler Barnard following her intemperate liking of a Facebook post eulogising the late PW Botha, the resignation in January of DA policy wonk, Gwen Ngwenya, because of policy uncertainty in the DA, and the recent spat between Helen and then DA national spokesperson, Phumzile van Damme, after the latter was allegedly racially abused by a white family at the V&A Waterfront.
In seeking its policy sweet spot, the DA is confronted with only two alternatives, neither of which is entirely palatable.
Continuing to straddle the political centre, means defending its perceived policy deficiencies in the eyes of those it seeks to attract from either side of the political spectrum.
Granted, it has attracted support from both the left and the right over the years, but its most recent electoral performance suggests that it has reached something of a plateau, and unless something changes before the next poll – 2021 local government elections – it stands to at best, maintain the status quo.
Paraphrasing “The Criminologist” in The Time Warp in The Rocky Horror Show, “just a jump to the left” would put the DA in uncomfortable territory, where the more conservative elements of the electorate already accuse it of being, an “ANC lite”, a perception cleverly tapped into by the Vryheidsfront Plus in the last election, which contributed to its gains, largely at the DA’s expense.
The observation that the loss of the conservative element of DA support to the Vreyheidsfront Plus is “good riddance”, rings hollow, when one considers that the DA returned to the National Assembly with five seats fewer than it won in 2014, which led to a great deal of soul-searching and finger-pointing in the DA’s post-election performance analysis.
If it moves even further left – advocating a more interventionist state, pursuing a more socialist and less free market economic policy stance, committing formally to overtly race-based affirmative action and black economic empowerment policies – in order to attract disillusioned black middle class voters who have traditionally supported the ANC, what impact would that have on its electoral performance?
The further left it moves, the more like the ANC it will appear to the electorate, and although it might well gain more black voter support, it will inevitably lose more of its traditional support base. Question is, will it experience a net gain or a net loss?