South Africa’s main opposition party has been its own worst enemy as it attempts to unseat the African National Congress.
With elections due next year, the Democratic Alliance has botched attempts to fire Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, igniting infighting and irking supporters, while an agreement that sees it run other major cities risks unraveling. With the ANC on a high after Cyril Ramaphosa replaced unpopular president Jacob Zuma, the DA’s goal of winning 30% support and the opposition pushing the ruling party below 50% looks implausible.
“The DA really did not deal with Patricia de Lille very well at all,” Zwelethu Jolobe, a politics lecturer at the University of Cape Town, said by phone. “The mud slinging has come at a particularly bad time and no one knows who is right or wrong. Ramaphosa has moved fast to capture ground from the opposition parties, who had a clear target when Zuma was president.”
De Lille, 67, has served as mayor of DA-governed Cape Town since 2011 and has a loyal following in the city, the country’s second-biggest and its main tourist attraction that boasts the lowest jobless rate of the major metros. Her departure could cost the DA significant support, particularly among fellow mixed-race Cape Town residents who comprise more than 40% of its population.
De Lille accuses a rival party faction of seeking to further their own political careers by toppling her, and says the party hasn’t told her why she should be fired. The DA said De Lille broke its rules when she said on radio she intended leaving the party once she’d cleared her name, but hasn’t disclosed details of any other transgressions.
“With hindsight we could have handled it better,” John Steenhuisen, the DA’s chief whip in parliament, said by phone. “However, we had to take a very tough decision against a senior member of the party and this shows we hold ourselves to the same high standards as we hold the ruling ANC.”
The feud isn’t the DA’s only problem. A co-operation agreement with the Economic Freedom Fighters, the third-largest opposition party, that let it wrest control of several cities from the ANC after a 2016 municipal election may unravel after the DA refused to back EFF demands to change the constitution to allow for land seizures.
And Herman Mashaba, the DA mayor of Johannesburg, has been criticised for treatment of undocumented immigrants that human rights groups say breaches the constitution and for failing to meet some election pledges.
“There is a considerable degree of factionalism and conflict within the DA,” said Frans Cronje, chief executive officer of the South African Institute of Race Relations. The institute’s polling data shows that in the current political climate the ANC would win about 60% backing, the DA 20% and the EFF 7%, with the balance of voters undecided or unlikely to vote.
The ANC’s support tumbled 8 percentage points to about 54% between the 2014 national election and the 2016 vote, amid a backlash against Zuma’s immersion in a succession of scandals. Another marked decline could see the party of Nelson Mandela failing to win a majority for the first time since the end of apartheid in 1994. The DA drew about 27% support in 2016.
A former labor union leader, businessman and one of the richest black South Africans, Ramaphosa won control of the ANC in December and was elected president in February after the ruling party forced Zuma to resign. In his first 100 days in office, Ramaphosa overhauled the cabinet and the boards and management of troubled state companies, spearheaded a crackdown on graft and started a drive to lure $100 billion in new investment.
Ramaphosa’s actions have been well-received, according to a survey of 750 randomly selected registered voters by research company Ipsos, with 76% approving of his performance as president.
DA spokesman Refiloe Nt’sekhe denied the party is divided and dismissed a City Press report that it was at risk of splitting as gossip. “We are more confident than ever that we will grow our support where we govern,” she said by email.
The DA will have to act swiftly to quell the infighting and rethink how it tackles a rejuvenated ANC, according to Jolobe.
“The DA has lost the initiative on the big questions of the country,” he said. “The Ramaphosa presidency is moving very fast and is leaving them and other opposition parties behind.”