A desolate shack no more

by The Editor

SERIES: The instantaneous and dramatic nature of current affairs lends itself to a kind of historical amnesia, one where the captivating nature of those things unfolding today, causes one to forget the bigger picture. From the Archives aims to put forward the odd reminder that, more often than not, history is merely repeating itself. In all likelihood, somewhere, someone has already experienced and commented on those all-consuming issues that appear to have materialised only yesterday.

From the Archives

From desolate shack to a party of government

How quickly people forget. And how much there is to forget. South Africa’s history, post 1994, has seen so much packed into so little time: our first democratic elections, the creation and adoption of a constitution, the establishment of a parliamentary democracy and the myriad political developments that have resulted – from the Arms Deal through the removal of Thabo Mbeki from office. Rarely is so much experienced by a society in so little time.

And many of those broader trends and patterns are still playing themselves out. Among them, the growth of the Democratic Alliance – from the foundation laid by its forbearer, the Democratic Party, as a tiny minority party in 1994 (1.7% of the vote), to its election as the official opposition in 1999 (9.6%), to the creation of the Democratic Alliance, which has now set down its roots as a party of government (24%) and which stands alone as the second biggest party in South Africa. If it continues to grow, perhaps in 20 years time people will look back to 1994, to the paltry 338 426 votes the DP obtained, and pay more attention to how over the next decade the idea of a viable, effective alternative to the ANC – and with it political competition and a meaningful democratic order – was both established and legitimized.

It is easy to dismiss all of that as ancient history and focus rather on the here and now. But that would be to overlook one of the great political turnarounds and the lessons that flow from it. And make no mistake – things were bad; very bad. The press, almost without exception, had written-off the DP and its obituary appeared in many editorial columns. Tony Leon, who drove the turnaround, has on many occasions referred to one in particular, by way of illustrating the point: a 1995 Business Day editorial which described the DP as a desolate shack.

I have reproduced the relevant editorial below. It is worth dwelling on, if only for the sake of perspective, as the starting point for a grander narrative, that is still unfolding.

Business Day
8 February 1995
Whither the DP?

Democratic Party leader Tony Leon is correct. A party consistently unable to win more than 2% of the popular vote would have little reason to exist, or to expect to be recognised as a serious player. The demise of the DP on this reasoning would leave without a political home all of those who do not believe any of the three large parties – the ANC, NP and Inkatha – have jettisoned their illiberal tendencies. But a 1.7% party is hardly a home, it is more a desolate shack.

This is so despite the DP’s influence being out of proportion to its size. Even here, however, the party is not faring as well as it did. Colin Eglin’s constitution-making activities continue to stand out. But the party’s views on the burning issues of the day have tended to be knee-jerk reactions rather than thoughtful, creative contributions.

Take the police unrest. “Crack down on Popcru,” was Leon’s response. The report published yesterday shows the matter to be a lot more complex than that, and the DP leader must be feeling more than a little embarrassed. Similarly, he chose to jump on the “open up the truth commission” bandwagon. And his strenuous call for international mediation in KwaZulu ignored the fact that mediation is hardly appropriate at this stage.

South Africa would be immeasurably poorer with a classical liberal party. It would be an irony if it disappeared just as society itself is liberalising. But it is becoming a disturbingly real possibility.