ONE of the more important trends over the past two years has been what appears to be a significant increase in profile, political strength and tactical nous by the Democratic Alliance (DA).
As the African National Congress (ANC) continues to face what could be a slow decline in electoral support, and with several dynamics at play, the DA’s apparent rise is worth watching.
The DA has started to undergo almost wholesale change since the election of Helen Zille as its leader in 2007. Its national conference late last year showed what seem to be very significant changes in the party’s membership.
In short, for the ANC to criticise the party as being for "whites" is now a much more difficult — an almost impossible — claim to sustain.
The loss of this weapon for the ANC is significant, in that it is occurring just as some voters appear to be questioning its "liberation dividend", or whether to continue voting for the organisation simply out of gratitude for leading the struggle.
However, the growth of the DA membership, and the party’s absorption of people of different languages, cultures and beliefs is changing it. In its original form, the Democratic Party, the DA appeared to represent mainly white so-called "liberals", who were generally urban, well educated and English speaking. It could be argued that the party’s strong belief in constitutionalism, the rule of law, a free-market economy and what it calls an "equal opportunity society" stems from these days.
For many DA MPs, issues such as homophobia are seen as pressing. While this would have resonated with the party’s early character, it might not be so pressing for newer members in Tembisa or rural KwaZulu-Natal.
The party is attempting to create itself as a broad church — much like the ANC. The DA often defines itself by what it is not — such as corrupt or racist. However, it also helps the party to grow if it makes few ideological demands on its members.
Should this growth continue over the next few years, it will be at a time when the ANC is likely to face many challenges — internal and external.
So far, leaders of the tripartite alliance, and particularly the South African Communist Party, have shown themselves to be intolerant of the very idea of the DA’s existence.
Criticism of the DA tends to be direct and personal. Some have seen this as proof that the ANC, if feeling threatened, will use state power and possibly unconstitutional means, to protect itself, and to attack the DA.
In particular, the Congress of South African Trade Unions refusal to allow DA members to march to its headquarters over the youth wage subsidy, and ANC members’ refusal to allow Ms Zille and DA leaders to use a public road to walk to President Jacob Zuma’s home at Nkandla, are seen as proof that the ANC will not give up power peacefully.
However, the very presence of the DA, and the newish perception that it is not just a "white" party could well prevent ANC leaders from acting too rashly.
While there appear to be members of the party’s top leadership who want to change the constitution, perhaps to keep themselves in power, there are also others, perhaps more sober leaders in the party, who feel that to do so would simply strengthen the hand of the DA.
They may point to issues such as Nkandla and suggest that to continue to refuse to hand over any information about it could actually push some voters towards the DA.
This, in itself, could well prevent the ANC from behaving in an undemocratic fashion over the next few years.
• Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter.