DA leader Mmusi Maimane, centre.  Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES
IN IT TOGETHER: DA leader Mmusi Maimane led a media conference in Sandton on Wednesday in which he announced that the party had agreed on coalitions with Cope, the ACDP, FF Plus, UDM and the IFP. Picture: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES

IN THE eyes of the party’s critics, there are strong parallels between the DA’s plan to secure national power in 2019 and the divide-and-rule strategies of the National Party (NP) in the 1980s.

Some NP leaders saw clearly that an inclusive franchise was ultimately inescapable, and they explored various "group rights" and "consociational" models of government in their efforts to mitigate the likely effect of one-person-one-vote on minority control.

Their central strategy, however, was to divide the black electorate into distinct racial and ethnic parties with which anti-ANC alliances could be built.

The tricameral parliament was the forerunner of a system in which coloured and Indian voters would organise outside the ANC. Meanwhile, it was hoped that Bantustan political vehicles, such as the IFP, would rally ethnic constituencies around a pro-market and anti-ANC position.

As for the ANC itself, efforts were made to separate the more conservative leadership on Robben Island from the seemingly Moscow-aligned exile leadership in Lusaka. This was the key intention behind the isolation of the Rivonia generation on the island, and the initiation of talks with Nelson Mandela while he was unable to communicate with the liberation movement’s exile leadership.

The strategy DA leader Mmusi Maimane set out in his Bokamoso newsletter two weeks ago is similar, in some respects, to the NP’s divide-and-conquer approach. Given that leaders are normally permitted to sign their names only to collective positions — Helen Zille’s tweets aside — we can probably assume that Maimane’s view reflects a wider consensus in the party’s leadership.

The DA has already brought most Indian and coloured voters into the fold. Since the local government elections, it has formed coalitions or alliances with smaller parties that have primarily black support bases.

White electors have meanwhile been mobilised into a voting pattern that conservative analysts have associated, since 1994, with the "African masses".

Whereas black voters in fact allocate their votes in a differentiated way, and support a diversity of parties — the ANC, the EFF, the DA, the IFP, the COPE and the UDM — white citizens today resemble a racial voting bloc. They turn out in big numbers and with an apparently single will: few whites will vote for the ANC, even where, as in Johannesburg, it has governed relatively effectively.

Maimane emphasises that the DA cannot govern without one further crucial change also anticipated by the NP’s strategy: a split in the ANC leadership. According to the DA leader, such a divide is now on the cards: "The tipping point for a radical political realignment is closer than ever".

Maimane views the ANC as a body divided in two. On the one hand, there is a "majority" group whose intention is to "plunder state coffers for personal gain and retain the ability to do so through patronage and populism". This is the "Zuma patronage faction".

There is also a minority "reformist faction", made up of "good people in the ANC" such as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who "want to put SA first". Maimane predicts that the Zuma faction will intensify its assault on public institutions, "stealing as much as possible now, in case the ANC ship goes down".

There is no way, in Maimane’s view, that the patronage faction would allow a reformist leader to emerge. Since the reformist minority cannot win, they will be forced to leave and join the anti-ANC reformists on the outside.

Maimane observes that reformers "have never had more reason to jump" and he promises them a "soft landing". He argues that the widely anticipated firing of Gordhan, perhaps after a ratings downgrade, could precipitate a mass defection of reformists from the liberation movement.

It would be unfair to exaggerate the parallels between the two parties, because there are very significant differences between the DA’s vision of the future and the scenarios assembled by NP ideologues in the 1980s.

The DA is not a promoter of group rights or an ethnically divisive party. The reformist majority that Maimane discerns in society is driven by its yearning for constitutionalism, probity and good government. Moreover, most of the patronage politicians of the Bantustans and rural provinces will remain in the rump ANC, rather than being embraced and manipulated by the DA’s leadership. The echo of the past — if it is there at all — is a subtle one.

The outcome that Maimane anticipates is not an impossible one, but it is nonetheless highly implausible. Why, then, is this vision so fixating for the DA’s leadership?

It is possible that its imaginative force derives from a familiar underlying premise: that, through a series of complex divisions, alliances and coalitions, a party that still depends on the mobilisation of a small minority of citizens — white voters — can somehow, against all the odds, end up in control of the whole society.

Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.