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Helen Zille: "The Balance of Power is Shifting"

South African opposition leader Helen Zille tells Think Africa Press that the Democratic Alliance has "cracked" the "glass ceiling".
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The DA's Helen Zille claims her party has "cracked" a glass ceiling. Picture courtesy of the Democratic Alliance.

Several weeks after the Local Government Elections were held in South Africa on 18th May, analysts and commentators remain seemingly unsure as to how to interpret them. Despite an expected victory for the ruling African National Congress (ANC) with 63.65% of the vote, many analysts and journalists celebrated the Democratic Alliance's (DA) 21.97% vote share as a victory, berating the ANC for its poor performance. Others suggest the ANC's overwhelming win provides ample evidence for the party's unchallengeable dominance and South Africa's lingering lack of electoral diversity.

DA party leader, Helen Zille, is trying to make headway outside its Western Cape heartlands and deepen its reputation of successful governance. However, issues of race remain an obstacle to its political development. For despite the DA's uplifting muli-racial stance and attitude of 'delivery for all', analysts remain sceptical as to whether this will be sufficient to challenge the ANC and initiate substantial changes in the political landscape.

ANC in "permanent decline"?

Speaking to Think Africa Press, Zille was unequivocal that the May elections were a success for the party. "We are thrilled about the election results," she said. "We increased our support across South Africa to the point where one in four South Africans now vote for us, we challenged the ANC in close elections in key cities, and we won Cape Town with a 61% majority.

"We now govern in 18 councils outright, and will most likely govern in several others in coalitions. Every other party in the country lost support. Only the DA grew, along with the National Freedom Party, which was a brand new party and so could only grow.

"South Africans, by and large, are tired of race-based politics and want to see real, tangible, long-lasting changes in their lives. More and more, South Africans are choosing to vote for their future, not their past."

She added: "The ANC is in permanent decline. This is the second consecutive election where they have shown significant decreases in support. The DA has won significant support from black South Africans. While we may not have smashed through the glass ceiling yet, we have certainly cracked it."

Having gained 5.3% more support than in the 2009 General Election, the DA did indeed gain significant ground in many contested areas such as Tshwane (Pretoria) and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), where it improved by 16% over the 2006 local elections. Unlike the ANC, the DA improved in almost all provinces, even those with the highest proportions of black voters, such as Limpopo and Mpumalanga. Meanwhile the ANC's overwhelming victory was met with criticism from all sides, and whether deemed as the beginning of the end, or " business as usual", the ruling party suffered clear losses in most provinces. Yet claims of the ANC's 'failure' may be premature: the party lost a mere 2% compared to the 2009 elections, retained its two-thirds majority and kept its hold over all of the contested areas. Considering dissatisfaction with local government services was so great and that party accountability at a local level is typically much higher than at national level, the ANC suffered comparatively little.

Sources of success

Euphoria over the DA's success dominated interpretations of the election results and fuelled discourse over the significance of its all-inclusive, non-racial stance. With criticism levelled at the ANC over its racially-charged slogans and constant references to the party's national liberation struggle, the DA's ideology is painted as the only ideology with a real future. Certainly, Zille has the potential to promote a politics of "inclusive South Africaness" and bridge the gap between racial fault lines: a white South African whose part-Jewish parents fled German in the 1930s, she speaks English, Afrikaans, German and Xhosa, and as a young journalist wasinstrumental in uncovering the truth about anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko's brutal death in police custody in 1977.

Yet Zille has rarely used her past to boost her political credentials, and has rather developed a reputation for her party that contrasts with that of the ANC. She has worked hard to project a multi-racial image, for instance launching the DA's election campaign in Soweto, a black township south of Johannesburg which was always a focal point of anti-apartheid activism, and placing three DA politicians from the three main ethnic groupings on election posters across the country. Whether these are clever political tactics or a genuine belief in a unified South Africa, the Democratic Alliance is gaining momentum and support by focusing on issues above racial jargon and leadership bickering.

Yet the question remains whether the image projected is truly echoed by the population's support, and whether this will get the DA anywhere near the ANC's throne. The DA's success in these elections can be partly explained by the unexpectedly high voter turnout of 58%, 10% more than in 2006, and by the decline of support for other opposition parties. The Inkatha Freedom Party, its splinter group the National Freedom Party and the ANC-splinter Congress of the People (COPE) are gradually diminishing into oblivion, with the DA mopping up the votes. And with high voter turnout it seems energised voters did come out to cast their vote for Zille's party. Clearly the DA has become the leader of racial and social minorities, yet contradictory to DA ideology, this could well turn into a racial stalemate, with South Africa as a two-party nation. While the DA more than doubled its support amongst black voters from a meagre 2% to 5%, it has yet to make any significant inroads into majority black, working-class communities. Zille claims "while we may not have smashed through the glass ceiling yet, we have certainly cracked it" - but perhaps the ceiling is one her party cannot break.

"Wake-up call"

Although a recent report on the election results by the Institute for Strategic Studies in South Africa is hopeful about voters moving "across parties", it is unlikely that the DA has the capacity to significantly break into majority black communities. The DA does not pose a left-leaning, working-class alternative to disillusioned ANC supporters; election results show that even voters in those municipalities that experienced the most severe service delivery protests in recent months, such as Ficksburg and Ermelo, still voted overwhelmingly for the ANC. Certainly this does not indicate that the ANC is in "permanent decline", as Zille describes. Even if the Democratic Alliance does make inroads in such voting communities, it is questionable whether the DA can have a significant effect on major national issues such as unemployment and education. As a party that has grown from the bottom up in the Western Cape, focusing on local governance and service delivery, its economic and education policies have never really been put to the test. Perhaps its limit lies with governing the Western Cape and being a source of pressure for President Jacob Zuma and the ruling ANC government. For as Zwelinzima Vavi, the General Secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), argued, the 2011 Local Government Elections are a "huge wake-up call" for the ANC. If this is the case, it may well be the DA's greatest victory

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