The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s main opposition party, is battling to quell infighting over its stance on race-based employment quotas that may stall its recent gains among the black electorate in next year’s vote.
The dispute overshadows this week’s policy conference when the party plans its challenge against the ruling African National Congress. Some members argue the DA’s opposition to proposed laws aimed at pressuring companies to hire and promote more black staff will discredit the party among black voters just as it has been gaining electoral support. Party leader Helen Zille and others say such measures amount to “racial coercion” and would hurt investment and jobs.
“To a lot of members of the public, the DA gives the impression that wherever there is a conflict between white interests and black interests, its gut reaction is always to come out fighting to defend white interests,” Keith Gottschalk, a politics lecturer at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, said in a Nov. 14 phone interview. “This may be a misperception, but it is something the party needs to address very seriously.”
Traditionally backed by whites and mixed-race voters and espousing free-market policies, the DA controls Cape Town, the second-largest city, and has made headway in attracting black voters and leaders. It’s seeking to win more than 20 percent of the vote next year by tapping into public anger with the ANC-led government over shortages of jobs and corruption. In 2009, the party won backing from 16.7 percent of the electorate, up from 12.4 percent five years before.
Zille, 62, a former journalist who is currently premier of the Western Cape Province, won a second five-year term as DA leader in November last year.
The increasing threat her party poses to the ANC’s political dominance was evident in 2011 municipal elections, when it won 24 percent of the vote. Besides retaining control of Cape Town, the only big city that doesn’t have a black majority, it also won 39 percent of the vote in the capital Pretoria, 34 percent in Johannesburg and 40 percent in the southern city of Port Elizabeth.
The wrangling over quotas went public this month when party legislators voted in favor of government-proposed changes to labor laws, only for the DA leadership to reverse the support. Sej Motau, the party’s shadow minister for labor, and his deputy Andricus van der Westhuizen were removed from their posts.
The amendments include increasing penalties for companies that don’t meet racial hiring targets, and scrapping a requirement for available skills and economic and financial factors to be taken into account when determining compliance.
Motau told Johannesburg’s City Press newspaper he stood by his vote. He declined a request for comment yesterday, saying he would only do so after the party’s Nov. 23 conference.
Lindiwe Mazibuko, the DA’s parliamentary leader, said that while there were differences of opinion within the party over the law, legislators failed to properly consider its implications and erred when they voted in favor of it.
The flip-flop may undermine the DA’s attempts to portray itself as a credible alternative to the ANC. It also risks shedding support to Agang SA, a new party formed by ex-World Bank Managing Director Mamphela Ramphele, which has many similar policy positions to the DA.
“The DA were beginning to focus all their energy and policy strategies on the black voters, especially your black middle class,” Somadoda Fikeni, a political analyst at the University of South Africa in Pretoria, said in a phone interview yesterday.
“Now you get this thing which says that the DA is vehemently opposed to a policy which the black middle class looks at as a necessary corrective action in terms of historical redress,” he said. “They are most likely going to lose those people either to Agang, or the ANC or some may simply stay away and not vote. I think it’s going to have a massive effect.”
Census data shows that nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, white households earn six times more than their black counterparts. Whites, who make up 8.7 percent of the population of 53 million, occupied 73 percent of top business management posts, the Employment Equity Commission said in an April 20 report.
The ANC, which has ruled Africa’s largest economy since taking power under Nelson Mandela in the first multiracial vote in 1994, accuses the DA of abandoning the black electorate.
“By withdrawing its support for employment equity and broad-based black economic empowerment, the DA has effectively sent an unequivocal message to its black supporters that they are on their own,” Stone Sizani, the ANC’s chief whip in Parliament, said in a Nov. 12 statement. “It has become increasingly apparent that the party is using black supporters as mere voting fodder.”
While the DA supports measures to redress the injustices of white minority rule, Zille told the Cape Town Press Club on Nov. 14, the new laws “take us back to the era of race classification, segregation, imposed quotas, draconian enforcement and inspectors.”
In a Nov. 17 newsletter, Zille conceded that the party’s stance on affirmative action was “difficult to explain and understand, even to some members of our own caucus,” and said the issue would be addressed at the party conference.
The debate within the DA is a symptom of a growing party, Daniel Silke, author of Tracking the Future: Top trends that will shape South Africa and the World, said in a Nov. 14 phone interview from Cape Town.
“Its new supporters are a substantially different group to its existing minority support base,” he said. “Their life experience and fears and expectations are quite different. There will be policy differences.”