The Democratic Alliance and its uncertain future

One of the few positive recent developments for the Democratic Alliance is the fact that Mbali Ntuli will be contesting for leadership of the party at their elective conference in May this year.

I say this because, as a current ex-supporter of the party, I’ve long been trying to persuade friends that there are still liberals of the “right” sort in the party, but that they are mostly younger leaders who have not yet (for the most part) occupied the top positions in the party.

Some (e.g. Lindiwe Mazibuko) have walked away – whether under pressure to do so or because of disillusionment depends on who you believe. Others, like Mmusi Maimane, were charming but unfit for purpose (the death penalty referendum, the creationism, the homophobic church, and the damning report, of course).

I’ve only met Ntuli a handful of times, but that limited personal experience, along with what we’ve seen her say and do over the past decade, reassures me that the party might not yet be heading to irrelevance, and that it might have a more ambitious near-future than merely reclaiming the white voters that it haemorrhaged in the last election.

You can watch an interview with her below, in which she explains why she’s contesting the party leadership position, but one of the observations she makes there is key: that while the public impression of the DA might disproportionately be shaped by the insensitivity and belligerence of Zille and Steenhuisen’s Twitter accounts, that isn’t an accurate reflection of numerous DA representatives, the views they hold, and the work they do.

(An aside: if you’re a fan of podcasts, Greg Andrews and my Square Brackets podcast last week focussed on Zille and her alt-right-lite supporters.)

She intends to try to motivate voters who have given up on the party that they should rejoin, or consider joining it. She also speaks of making policy discussions more inclusive – a commitment that was made at about the same time (and I mean, within an hour!) as the party launched a portal for the public to offer suggestions and feedback on their recently-released “Values and Principles” policy draft, to be debated at the party’s policy conference in April.

If you do click through to the feedback portal, note that while the header says “Sign in with your DA account”, it will accept any ID and cellphone number, whether or not you are a member (but DA: you should fix that header). Also note that signing in and having your cellphone number captured will almost certainly result in SMS spam from the party, because they’ve never stopped being very good at that part of the job.

Also, I don’t mean to encourage any conspiratorial speculation about who or what influenced the timing of the launch, given that the DA’s policy head, Gwen Ngwenya, had been speaking about its launch since the day after the policy document was released.

Gwen Ngwenya is, of course, another of the younger members of the party who have significant influence, and there are others – I don’t mean to imply anything (whether positive or negative) in not discussing them here.

The leadership race will be interesting to watch, and it will likely not always be amicable, especially for Ntuli, given that she and Helen Zille, Federal Council Chairperson, haven’t always gotten along that well, and because Zille and Steenhuisen seem to have skipped most of the diplomacy lessons offered in politics school.

<sarcasm> But there’s no harm in robust contestation, right, even if it’s between someone who is running on a platform of inclusivity, race-sensitivity, compassion and the like, versus a pugnacious white person who rejects the idea that race is a proxy for disadvantage? </sarcasm>

As for John Moodey, the last of the three people who have declared their candidacy to date, I don’t know much about him, besides that his 2009 election as Gauteng leader was annulled by the party after he was found to have sent misleading SMSes to voters, and that DA support in Gauteng dropped in the last election (where he now does serve as party leader).

From a partially-informed perspective, it seems to me to be a contest between Ntuli and Steenhuisen, and I suppose Ntuli would be considered the underdog. But the people who vote at the elective conference consist mostly of people we don’t see picking fights on Twitter, so it’s difficult to predict how they might vote.

But if I were to have a vote, it would be for Ntuli.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.