Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille at the launch of the party's 'Know Your DA' campaign on Monday.   Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

IN RESPONSE to this Monday’s column by Business Day editor Peter Bruce, in which he wrote, "I keep hearing they (the Democratic Alliance) are targeting 30%. Surely not?", DA leader Helen Zille tweeted the following: "Just to make it very clear: our target is NOT 30% of the vote."

In a subsequent tweet, in response to Bruce’s asking, "What is it?", she wrote: "No predictions yet. Campaigns change things, especially when the ANC pours in huge money. 40,000 T-shirts in one constituency ydy!"

This represents a fundamental U-turn on the part of the DA leader. Usually such about-turns are the sole preserve of the African National Congress (ANC). One’s mind goes to former trade and industry minister Alec Erwin, who said of the Koeberg bolt incident in February 2006: "It is sabotage." In August that year he appeared on national television and said: "Of as much interest has been whether I said that this was an act of sabotage. I did not say this." Yeah, right. Sure you didn’t.

Before getting into why it is that Zille has, out of the blue, abandoned a very public target that the DA, in its formal communication, its leaders’ statements and Zille’s own communication, had so vociferously advocated, let us look at the public record.

The first place to start is the party’s formal agenda — its private goals and targets, set behind the scenes and formally adopted. These are usually established after the last election, approved by its decision-making structures and thereby endorsed as its formal agenda. The public is not usually privy to such decisions but, look carefully and you can find evidence of it.

Give and Gain is a website used by the DA to raise money. Whether the party is still using it is difficult to know, but one of the privileges of donating to the party is a glimpse into its behind-the-scenes thinking. This is a cached website shot of the letter potential donors got from the party, explaining its formal 2014 objectives. It reads:

"The Democratic Alliance (DA) has begun our preparation for the 2014 general elections. Our overall strategic objectives for 2014 are: retain the government of the Western Cape; win at least one other provincial government; increase our national support to 30%.

"These are ambitious goals and over time I will communicate to you how we are to achieve them. None of these goals can be attained without the necessary funds and so I hope that the DA can rely upon your support."

The letter is dated May 16 2012. Zille, who heads the party’s high-profile donation delegations, would have been aware of this pitch and, no doubt, used it herself. As the letter states, these were the party’s "overall strategic objectives for 2014". The DA’s federal council — outside its federal congress, its highest decision-making body — would have adopted them.

Zille now appears to have announced a new agenda on Twitter. That will be news to the DA faithful.

In this election, unusually for the DA — it is usually deeply conservative when it comes to the public expression of such targets — it has gone out of its way to place its private objectives in the public domain. And at the forefront of this campaign has been its national leadership.

The most vocal on this front has been parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, who has stated before (soon after the 2011 local government elections, in October 2011): "Once we have implemented all these steps, we should be able to win 30% of the vote nationally and become the biggest party in Gauteng and the Northern Cape."

She went further, stating specifics: "This would bring our total to 262, from the current 142 seats (in the National Assembly)."

She then repeated the target in March 2012, before the DA’s KwaZulu-Natal congress, speaking just ahead of Zille herself. She said: "The DA aims to win 30% in the 2014 general election."

Zille herself set KwaZulu-Natal its own target in her subsequent speech, stating: "So I have come to this congress today to issue you, the structures of the DA in this province, with a challenge — the DA must become the official opposition in KwaZulu-Natal in 2014." That is another target worth watching.

Mazibuko has repeated the aim elsewhere, often standing right next to Zille. In this September 2013 SABC story you can watch her saying: "We want to win 30% of the vote nationally, 30% of the vote!"

Zille herself has been quoted as identifying 30% as the party’s national target, often at fundraisers and smaller party events. This August 2013 story, for example, reads as follows:

"Zille spoke passionately on the party’s goal to bring the ANC under 50% in Gauteng and to gain 30% of the vote nationally.

"‘This is what we believe to be the tipping point in South Africa’s politics ... I know this is a stretch target but we are determined to build a new majority.’"

Zille has also publicly repeated the party’s goal of taking over the Northern Cape. This June 2012 story from the Sowetan newspaper states that at a party event in Polokwane, she said "the DA was ready to take over Gauteng, Northern Cape and Limpopo". It quotes her as saying: "Of course, it's a big stretch target ... but we don't want South Africa to be a complete failed state before we could start turning it around." Limpopo, then, will be worth watching too. As will the Northern Cape.

But the key fact is that the party itself adopted the 30% target as its formal objective. That has seeped into the thinking of all of its members, at every level. And if Zille is worried that the publicity given to the idea might come back to hurt the DA, she will have to work particularly hard to manage the party’s expectations in the Free State. A story by local Free State paper The Public Eye contains the following:

"The party’s provincial chairperson, Roy Jankielsohn, said they were targeting to go beyond the set 30% target in order to snatch more votes from the ruling party and grow across the province."

The story again quotes a DA statement setting out the party’s formal objectives:

"As of now the DA nationally has started its fundraising to prepare for the polls with strategic objectives: ‘to retain the government of the Western Cape, win at least one other provincial government, and to increase our national support to 30%’, the party’s statement said."

In Gauteng, too, the DA has been bold with its predictions. This Financial Mail story — which carries this line: "The DA holds about 24% of the vote nationally, which party leader Helen Zille says she wants to increase to at least 30% after the next general election in two years" — quotes DA Gauteng leader John Moodey as saying: "This is not impossible to achieve."

And, of course, there is Gauteng itself, around which the DA has fashioned an entire election campaign. The quotes on this are too many to cite but this June 2013 remark from Zille captures the mood: "The DA is marching towards victory in Gauteng next year." So Gauteng will be another measure of the DA’s predictions.

Search the records of various newspapers and media outlets and you will find no end to the number of times Zille and the DA is reported to have endorsed the 30% target. The number is everywhere.

It is a simply astounding assertion to state, so frankly, that the DA is "NOT targeting 30%"; even more astounding that she should claim the party has made "no predictions yet". The DA has never before nailed its prediction colours to the mast so publicly. It has made more predictions, set more targets, and defined more aims and goals than a hyperactive weather reporter.

And central to all of these is the party’s express target that it wants 30% of the vote. It is second only to its goal of winning Gauteng.

The question, then, is why Zille has suddenly abandoned this objective. Bruce makes the point in his piece that the DA has an excellent internal polling unit. The obvious assumption is that it is showing 30% is a target entirely unattainable. Either that, or, in a bizarre change of strategy, Zille is quietly confident the 30% target will be reached, only she wishes to manage public expectations.

On that front, though, the 30% ship has long since sailed. Ask any member of the DA what their target of the national vote is in 2014 and they will say, Pavlov’s-dog-like, 30%. How could they say otherwise, seeing that the party itself has formally adopted that target? The minutes of the relevant federal council meeting will show as much.

The more likely scenario is that all is not going to plan. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is proving to be a menace on the sidelines, eating away at the small pool of black support available to the DA. The Ramphele-DA debacle knocked a good two weeks out of the party’s potential positive coverage agenda, against a backdrop of contradictory communication on everything from black economic empowerment to affirmative action.

Then there is the ANC itself. As Zille herself alludes, it is not mucking around in 2014 the way it did in 2011. With a president besieged, it is pouring all its resources into this campaign. When crunch time comes (the last two weeks of the election), it will put an enormous squeeze on the DA. That will be the ultimate test of the fortitude of the opposition’s black support. Zille’s tweet suggests she is not overly confident it will hold up too well.

It might well be that the DA is no longer targeting 30%. But if Zille wants to be honest about it, that is the phrasing she should use: the DA is downgrading its target. That will be of serious concern to party members and supporters who, thus far, have attached to the 30% in a powerful way. Donors, too, must be scratching their heads. Just to be clear, as Zille says, there is nothing wrong with changing a target, although politically that is problematic, but to pretend you never had one is profoundly misleading.

Zille will have to get the party’s federal structures to agree to whatever revised target she now has in mind, because the 30% aim has been formally endorsed. Perhaps that will be item number one on the federal council’s upcoming meeting this Friday, February 14. If that is the case, Twitter would seem a bizarre forum to break the news.