IT IS said that defining moments sometimes creep up like a thief in the night, and this may yet prove to have been the case for the Democratic Alliance (DA). In an astounding display of political incompetence, the party first voted in favour of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill in the National Assembly late last month, before recanting a few days ago. The incident exposes the difficulty of the party’s position as it seeks to grow its support base to challenge the African National Congress (ANC) for power in 2019.

At first glance, it appeared that the party’s parliamentary caucus had recognised the sensitivity of the decisive moment it faced. If it voted against the bill, the ANC would seize the opportunity and reinforce what a significant number of black people already believe about the DA: that its primary concern is to defend the economic and social privileges of white South Africans. With an election less than a year away, and after so much effort in recent months to try to re-explain its position on black empowerment, the DA could ill afford another rearguard action on black economic empowerment.

Having apparently fashioned sufficient ambiguity to escape the attentions of a press corps too occupied by the public protector’s Nkandla report and Khutsong and Bekkersdal protests, among others, its ideological centre began to make a noise. The most prominent was the DA’s former leader, Tony Leon, who often performs acts akin to reaching out from beyond the grave to make telling interventions in the party’s political choices. By the weekend, a proverbial earthquake had flattened the DA’s parliamentary caucus with changes that accompanied its about-turn.

The DA’s present position is that it no longer supports the bill because it is premised on "racial coercion". It also feels that supporting the bill would be a departure from its core liberal principles. When the bill is presented in the National Council of Provinces, the party can be expected to put up spirited opposition, in effect arguing against its earlier, considered position to support the bill.

It may not admit it, but Helen Zille’s party is at a crossroads. It faces a choice between dogmatically sticking to its ahistorical, wilfully ignorant approach to equality or a recalibration of its views to make a braver analysis of South Africa’s socioeconomic asymmetries.

In essence, the brand of liberalism advocated by the DA’s ideological nerve centre refuses to acknowledge explicitly that the effects of institutionalised racism are not ended by the mere repealing of offending legislation. The results of such marginalisation linger for generations after and are reflected in subliminal actions that deny people opportunities for personal growth, regardless of the legal framework.

The present patterns of South Africa’s income distribution are an outcome of a racially discriminative historical framework. It is now an animal that gallops ahead while replicating, at frightening speed and depth, inequalities whose origins predate the democratic era the DA believes will automatically cure the problem. Of course, many black people know this and disagree with the party, and that lies at the heart of its continuing difficulty in penetrating a black middle class whose vociferous support would be the turning point in its political fortunes.

Does this mean the DA has to adopt the same binary racial reasoning of which the ANC is often guilty in order to validate the political and personal emotions of a black constituency it craves? Not at all. What we have is a piece of legislation that demonstrates a failure to secure national consensus on steps that would sustainably include black people in the economy.

The DA’s inability to deliver a message that secures better consensus is part of what it needs to reflect upon, and fast. It is this inability to present a telling argument to black South Africans that makes it difficult for it to explain why and how failures in education and skills development are fuelling historical inequalities because their biggest victims are black. It is a line it needs to communicate while dispelling the sophistry of some of its supporters, which proposes that it is fundamentally these post-1994 failures and not historical inequalities that cause black people to sit at the bottom of every income index in this country.

To grow significantly enough to challenge the ANC in 2019, the party needs to face the raw facts of its present circumstances. Its core, white constituency, a combination of liberals and right-wing former National Party types is not only numerically small relative to the rest of the electorate, it is also dwindling. While it may be the core that sustained and grew it in the early years of its post-1994 existence, it is not its future.

The party’s future is represented by the background and outlook of a young corps of black leaders, whose interpretation of liberalism is not ahistorical and has the best chance of resonating with young black voters. By sticking to its outmoded thinking, the party is putting the likes of Mmusi Maimane and others in a most invidious position, where they have to account for why they associate with a party that refuses to acknowledge the structural conditions that keep black people outside the rump of the economy.

A failure to make this emotional connection with black people compromises its message in areas where it is strong, such as running administration more effectively than the ANC has been able to where it governs. Despite the furore generated by the toilet protests in Cape Town, the Western Cape remains the leading province in the provision of sanitation, at least according to the 2011 census. Its provincial and municipal administrations have not needed rescue and it seems to be doing better at implementing Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s policies than ANC provinces themselves.

All of this matters little when your core future growth constituency believes your ideological position is one that seeks to entrench their suffering. It is as basic and as profound a political failure as it gets.

What the DA needs is to realise is that it is in the same zone where the UK’s Labour Party realised it needed to readjust its ideological position to fit the desires of a new UK. The process was painful and incurred many seasoned casualties but it led to a period of unprecedented success for the party, during which Tony Blair became its longest-serving prime minister.

Ironically, the DA likes to lecture the ANC about the need to confront its own decisive moment in relation to the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party, but as its bumbling performance over this bill has demonstrated, it has hardly proven adept at doing the same in its backyard. It seems frightened of losing its historical self and adopting a new persona and ethos that can produce a comfortable, negotiated position with which its future supporters can live.

In the same way that neotraditionalism is the main obstacle to initiatives that would save the ANC’s long-term future, the DA’s similar failure to evolve its position will also lead to its stagnation and terminal decline if left unmitigated. While discontent with ANC failures will continue to produce a steady stream of disaffected supporters to its ranks, it will hardly produce the seismic shift required to unseat the ANC.

That requires a combination of political skill, intellectual depth and a sharp sense of the public mood. As the latest imbroglio demonstrates, the main opposition is all at sea when it comes to these.

Zibi is a senior associate editor at the Financial Mail.