External and internal crises piling up around the Democratic Alliance appear to be distracting the official opposition at a time when it should be focusing on campaigning for the 2019 general elections.
The party has been consumed by the water crisis in the Western Cape and the still-evolving controversy over Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille’s suspension.
The latest in the DA’s list of concerns is a directive Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema gave his councillors in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, instructing them to table a motion of no confidence against mayor Athol Trollip.
Malema made the announcement on Tuesday after the DA did not vote in support of his parliamentary motion for expropriation of land without compensation. Malema said his party would throw its weight behind a credible ANC candidate to replace Trollip as mayor.
Malema’s threats, which will probably sour relations between his party and the DA, could not have come at a worse time for the blue brigade as it grapples with internal dissent and how to find relevance after the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as the ANC’s and the country’s president.
Over the past few years, the DA had used the troubles brought by erstwhile president Jacob Zuma for its election campaigns.
The snowballing issues are threatening the DA’s 2019 electoral ambitions.
But the DA’s director of communications, Mabine Seabe, this week expressed optimism that, despite the difficulties the DA faces, the party’s campaigning ahead of 2019 was resuming without hitches.
“We’ve continued with our various campaigns. There is not a day that we are not on the ground. We have been at the forefront of this VAT campaign [against a planned value-added tax increase],” Seabe said. “Our public representatives are working and campaigning. Just because it’s not in the media does not mean we are not working.”
In the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, where Malema plans to start the DA’s unravelling, the party already has an acrimonious relationship with its main coalition partner, the United Democratic Movement (UDM).
The two parties have been embroiled in a protracted disagreement over the axing of the deputy mayor, Mongameli Bobani, who was accused by the DA of conspiring with the ANC.
More recently, UDM leader Bantu Holomisa accused the DA of believing itself to be a big brother over smaller opposition parties and has warned other parties wanting to form partnerships with the DA to be wary of the party’s “hypocrisy”.
In November an attempt by the UDM to have Trollip removed through a motion of no confidence failed to pass when the EFF voted against it, helping Trollip to survive. Now, the about-turn by the red berets poses a real threat to the DA’s control of the metro, which it snatched from the ANC in 2016.
With Ramaphosa’s ascension to the presidency, political observers believe the DA will find it hard to increase its electoral support in the 2019 elections.
The party previously said it was concerned about the effect a Ramaphosa presidential victory would have on its electoral hopes. Last month, federal executive chairperson James Selfe told the Mail & Guardian that the new ANC president posed a “strategic challenge” for the DA.
The threat of decreased support means that, now more than ever, the DA needs to be on good terms with smaller opposition parties if it is to win Gauteng and take national office with the formation of a national coalition. The UDM example illustrates that the party has struggled to keep relations with its partners tight.
A senior DA member told the M&G that the party was concerned by the EFF’s actions in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, but would plan for any possible scenario in 2019.
“A year is a long time in politics but we plan for all eventualities. Whether we receive the support of the EFF and other opposition parties or not … but as part of the coalition we continue engaging the leaders of all parties and talking about the kind of party we want post-2019,” the DA source said.
Internally, eyes are firmly fixed on the party’s handling of the disciplinary procedures against De Lille, who is being investigated on charges of misconduct.
The DA says the action it is taking against De Lille is simply for the purpose of good governance but it finds itself sandwiched between criticism from the public as well as other political parties — the UDM, the Pan Africanist Congress, the EFF and the ANC — which are accusing it of victimising De Lille.
The situation has painted De Lille as a noble black leader under attack.
Should De Lille be unhappy with the action taken against her by the DA and leave the party, she is likely to cause a dent in the DA’s voter base, particularly among coloured voters.
Coming off the high of the 2016 municipal polls, the steady disentanglement of the DA appears to have caught the party off-guard and leaves it with little time to find its balance ahead of the next election. — Additional reporting by Matuma Letsoalo