SUPPORT: DA leader Helen Zille with supporters at the party's federal congress in Boksburg on Sunday. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
SUPPORT: DA leader Helen Zille with supporters at the party's federal congress in Boksburg on Sunday. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

THE Democratic Alliance’s (DA’s) federal congress held at the weekend raised many questions about its future and role in our politics.

Its planners are ambitious, and leader Helen Zille said on Saturday that it was possible for the party to take Gauteng in 2014 when the next national elections are held. "It’s a stretch, but it’s possible."

This seems fanciful at first glance, considering the African National Congress (ANC) still has more than 65% of the national vote.

But an examination of the last five years shows the DA has changed dramatically and the situation it finds itself in has changed significantly too.

Some of this relates to the changing face of the economy, but it also has much to do with the differences between President Jacob Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki.

Ms Zille was elected leader in 2007. The leader before her, Tony Leon, had to learn to speak Afrikaans on the job. In the 2007 leadership election, all three candidates — Zille, Joe Seremane and Athol Trollip — could speak Xhosa, which was a major change in itself.

However, more was to come. When Mr Leon met Mr Mbeki, in their only official meeting while the former was official leader of the opposition, he did so at a time when the SABC had, up to that point, refused to carry parts of the DA's conference live on radio and TV.

This weekend’s conference was covered by SABC2, SAfm and, perhaps most significantly, Ikwekwezi FM — which does not broadcast primarily in English.

Ms Zille has been fulsome in her praise of the SABC, saying it has been fully professional throughout the process. This lack of hostility appears to be mirrored in parts of the country where the DA has not been welcome before. It has become common for DA leaders to visit some of the poorest parts of South Africa, and in areas where inequality is stark.

Part of this process has seen experienced white DA councillors going into areas such as the Kya Sands informal settlement, and using their knowledge and experience to be seen to make a difference. Some of these communities appear to have become less hostile to the party’s message and in some areas even seem to welcome it.

Other strategies have included trying to move the debate away from identity. The youth wage subsidy was a major example of this. The DA tried, it seems with some success, to show that the ANC was preventing jobs being created by not instituting the subsidy.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions’ reaction during a DA march on its headquarters played right into the party’s hands. Instead of a debate about identity, it was about economics — in which the DA has the ANC’s record to point to.

But perhaps the biggest change has been Mr Zuma’s leadership of the ANC and the antics of the party’s former ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema. Ms Zille has always claimed that Mr Malema would push the "realignment of our politics". After last year’s local government elections, the ANC itself blamed Mr Malema for its poor showing in minority communities, after he had claimed that "whites are criminals", in what may have been an attempt to get the young black vote.

But for the opposition party, Mr Zuma’s leadership has provided a useful symbol under which to claim the ANC is corrupt. His Nkandla residence, failure to appoint a Special Investigating Unit head and his appointment of Bheki Cele as national police commissioner are some of the instances the DA has been able to use to back its claim the ANC is not fit to lead. The alleged inaction by Mr Zuma on the economy is another.

The DA campaign appears to have had its biggest effect on urban, younger and well-educated black people who appear to be questioning their loyalty to the ANC. But the DA still has a long road ahead.

For many, it still appears "too white" and there is still a large liberation dividend held by the ANC. The 2014 national elections are likely to show just how much further the party has to go.

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.

This article was amended on November 26 2012 to clarify the reference to the SABC's coverage at the time of Mr Mbeki and Mr Leon's official meeting.