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

THE leadership election at this year’s Democratic Alliance (DA) federal congress produced little in the way of fireworks, but it did illustrate how single-minded the party is about future elections.

DA leader Helen Zille was unsurprisingly re-elected to the party’s top position unopposed, and the retention of Wilmot James as federal chairman — despite a challenge from MP Masizole Mnqasela — all suggested business as usual. Mr James is supported by deputy chairs, DA spokesman Mmusi Maimane, youth leader Makhashule Gana and MP Anchen Dreyer.

The addition of Mr Maimane and Mr Gana to the leadership team renders racial barbs thrown by the likes of Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande — who last week referred to the DA as a party of "white madams and base" — increasingly desperate and irrelevant. Evident transformation at the top levels of the DA will require the ANC top brass to rein in those loose cannons in its coalition whose knee-jerk reaction to criticism is to cry race.

While there are, and will always be, those for whom racial populism is attractive, the fundamentally changing face of the DA will gradually make it risky at best as a means of retaining the black electorate. It will also mean the ruling party will increasingly have to differentiate itself in terms of policy. It is here that the DA has the advantage of experience and practice.

Sadly, for the past 18 years, policy has all but been forgotten. It is here the DA has the biggest opportunity to differentiate itself from the ANC. Economic policy is arguably the most important of these.

Well-timed populist ideas such as the DA’s proposal to break up state-owned enterprises such as arms manufacturers Denel and South African Airways and distribute the shares to the public, can surely only be attractive to people who otherwise see these state-owned giants devouring their cash.

In this respect, the DA’s greatest challenge is one of communication. The opposition needs to sell to ordinary South Africans the potential benefits of ditching the ANC’s failing "development state", command-economy approach in favour of a more liberal, lower-tax, high-incentive economy that would reward those prepared to take risks and focus on growth. The principle divide between the economic policies of the DA and the ANC would be the level of state intervention. And if it is to stand a chance of actually winning national elections, this is the DA’s hardest sell.

As the DA grows, it will run into similar problems faced by the ANC when it comes to poor appointments. Even in the Western Cape, where the DA is strong and has a relatively large pool of candidates to choose from, service delivery in some parts has been hampered by self-serving appointees.

While some have argued that the party does not have the "cadre" problem the ANC has to contend with, it undoubtedly does have a problem with some members of the National Party that it had absorbed. It is likely that the remnants of the National Party in the DA cannot be attractive to most South African voters. For the DA to do well, these elements need at least to be sidelined by 2014.

It is inevitable that as the party absorbs more members — such as former Eastern Cape premier Nosimo Balindlela — it will need to work hard not to compromise on its core values and ideology. As the DA grows and develops a growing gravity for homeless political parties and individuals — especially after the Congress of the People’s disintegration — the DA will need to be especially careful who it chooses as bedfellows.

That said, the apparent success of opposition parties demanding a no-confidence vote in President Jacob Zuma, shows how effective a united opposition can be. It showed the DA would do well to find issues and arguments around which to unite the opposition parties, as opposed to Ms Zille’s proposed big opposition merger, which would probably be politically unwieldy and ultimately unsuccessful.

Perhaps the most important lesson the DA can learn from the recent decline of the ANC is to avoid the alienation of the public from the political process. If, while growing fast, the DA can remain transparent, democratic to its core, and inclusive, it might avoid some of the problems the ANC is experiencing.

This is particularly important in how it goes about delivery. Ultimately, this comes down to the DA’s increasing number of councillors. If it can devise a monitoring system in which the effect of every councillor is measurable, and where every councillor is aware that they are being monitored, then the party could avoid the service delivery problems seen in ANC-run wards, where the all-too-common complaint is one of absentee councillors. Given the long and proud history of the ANC’s ability to organise at grass roots, the DA would underestimate this challenge at its peril.