An historical assessment of the DA’s ‘politrics’

February 23 - DA Leader Mmusi Maimane at the DA 2019 elections manifesto launch in Johannesburg. Photo: Simphiwe Mbokazi /African News Agency(ANA)

With the announcement of the election date on 8 May 2019 by President Ramaphosa last month, political parties are in full election mode. By now voters have a taste of what to expect in respect of the party’s electoral campaign messages, tone and style in the run up to our elections.

Unfortunately, the DA over the past few months have infused a racist and negative political message into their campaign. They have reverted to the polit(r)ics of fear, racial and ethnic nationalist mobilisation. For example, during the last IEC Voter Registration Drive (VRD) in January it sent out millions of SMS’s aimed at the mainly White, Indian and Coloured constituents across the country telling them to register and vote for the DA in order to keep the ANC out of government or risk losing their land, homes and businesses.   

Furthermore, they put up hundreds of thousands of posters telling people to register to keep the ANC and EFF out of government. These posters were aimed clearly at White voters. The implicit message relates to land and housing and that should the ANC and/or the EFF come into power the White community will lose their land and homes. That, the DA is  in alliance with the EFF since 2016 seems to be conveniently forgotten!

Yet these ‘’swart gevaar / black peril’’ fear tactics are not new to the DA. Both prior to 1994 and after the dawn of our democracy the body of evidence indicates a dangerous pattern of the DA and its deceased parent parties, the Democratic Party (DP) and National Party (NP) engaging in the polit(r)ics of fear.  In every election since 1994 they engaged in both crude and nuanced swart gevaar, racial and ethnic mobilisation.

During the 1994 elections the NP distributed millions of crudely racist comic books in the historically working class Coloured and Indian townships across the country. It said that when Mandela and the ANC came to power, Coloured and Indian working-class families would lose their houses, jobs and social benefits.

In 1999, the DP again ran a slightly more nuanced yet equally racist campaign known as “Fight Back” . Ironically its  was interpreted by most Black voters as: Fight Blacks. In 2004, the DA again ran a slightly varied campaign portraying an ANC under former president Mbeki as a crude African nationalist and chauvinist that did not care about the historically Coloured, Indian and White communities and that the ANC of Mandela was no more. They pushed a narrative that all business would go to Africans only and that Black meant African only despite our laws and policies being unequivocal that Black includes Africans, Indians, and Coloureds.

Again in 2009, the DA ran a distinctly deliberate racist campaign in the historically Coloured and Indian working and middle-class areas. The message was that they would not get any jobs and/or government contracts as BEE and employment equity applied only to Africans. It furthermore pushed a subliminal narrative that black political parties were inherently corrupt and that black leadership equaled corrupt leadership.

In a 2011 bi-election in Grabouw Western Cape the DA were on the verge of losing this ward as most Coloured Farmworkers were returning to the ANC. The DA again as a last- minute desperate attempt reverted to the politics of fear with Helen Zille’s now infamous remarks that ‘’African Refugees’’ from the Eastern Cape were taking over the province and there (read Coloured) ward.  The underlying message was clear that Africans didn’t belong in the Western Cape, that the Western Cape was separate from the rest of South Africa and that Africans were taking away jobs and social benefits from the Coloured working class.

In 2014 it distributed millions of racist propaganda pamphlets that targeted the historically coloured and indian working-class communities in KZN, the Western and Northern Cape. The message  was that a million Coloureds and Indians would lose their jobs due to ANC employment equity regulation amendments. The DA deliberately disregarded the fact that the regulations were draft government regulations and that the ANC publicly opposed and removed  it.

It seems that whenever we get closer to an election the DA reverts to ‘’swart gevaar’’ and ethnic mobilisation tactics to appeal to the base fears of so-called minorities. Given the DA’s history , there latest VRD campaign and its own current crisis ridden state it seems this year’s election maybe no different. The only change is that they have added a xenophobic element. The reason for this is that since 2014 the DA acknowledged that they had reached there ceiling in attracting the White, Coloured and Indian voters. Thus, they concluded that if they wanted to grow, they needed to attract the African voter as well. However, yet again in their effort to attract African voters the DA has embarked on a strategy of fear politics. 

They have institutionalised xenophobia as a core message of their campaign by including migration and border control as one of their 5 key manifesto messages. On the face of it, this may seem innocent. However, when we interrogate the intention of this message coupled with their actions as it relates to African and Asian foreigners  we see a more dangerous picture emerging. Over the past few months the Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba has increased his populist xenophobic rhetoric and actions against African and Asian foreigners. As a result, the DA policy pronouncement seen together with Mashaba’s actions indicates that the DA has deliberately embarked on a xenophobic mobilisation campaign to attract the African vote and Mashaba it seems is the DA’s version of Trump.

The electoral trends both in South Africa and internationally indicates that ethnic, racial, xenophobic and nationalist identity mobilisation based on fear is very effective in energising and consolidating voters. One needs to look no further than the rise of the likes of Trump, Modi and Bolsanero amongst others to understand its success. Thus, over the last two decades, the DA has been able to consolidate the majority of White, Coloured and Indian voters based on these racist fear-based tactics.

Regrettably, in its politically myopic and reckless hunger for power at all costs, it seems the negative unintended consequences of these tactics is completely lost to the DA. The DA does not care about the damage it does to our social cohesion project of building a united, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa particularly given our very painful history of colonialism and Apartheid .  

Will the DA change tactics before the elections? It is doubtful, for two reasons. Firstly, the DA is quite desperate due to its loss of electoral support according to most of the polls. Thus fear- based politics provides immediate short- term voter returns for them to neutralize their downward trend . Secondly, fear-based ‘’swart gevaar ‘’politics which the DA have mastered over decades is now part of their DNA. 

A paradigm shift would therefore be difficult for the majority of their leaders and election strategists.  Going forward we can expect to see a harder racist, ethnic, crude nationalist and xenophobic campaign by the DA. This will only deepen the divisions of our already divided nation and fragile social-cohesion. Thus, it will be left to the ANC to pick up the pieces and heal the wounds amongst our already divided communities after the elections. It seems that the words of Karl Marx: “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as a farce’’ rings true for the DA campaign this year once again.

Khalid Sayed is the Provincial Chairperson of the ANC Youth League in the Western Cape and Zahir Amien is an independent political commentator and an ANC member. He writes in his personal capacity.