South Africa’s Main Opposition Party Faces Risk of Split

(Bloomberg) -- Several senior members of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s official opposition, have considered breaking away to form a new party because of disputes about its policy direction, according to people familiar with the matter.

Some officials are concerned by the adoption of policies that shift it away from liberal roots ahead of national elections on May 8, including a “Secure our Borders” campaign that analysts say is a populist appeal to widen its support base. Other disagreements include how to handle the issue of black economic empowerment.

South Africa’s Main Opposition Party Faces Risk of Split

They have held talks about securing funding for the new party, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the negotiations are private. The plans were put off until after the election because of concern that there wasn’t enough time to mobilize sufficient support, and there is a strong chance that the group will decide to press for change from within the DA instead, the person said.

Speculation of a split is wrong, said party leader Mmusi Maimane, in a March 18 interview.

“I dismiss those completely. The DA is a growing organization. Along the way there will be people who want to hark back and already we are seeing that,” he said. “For me the great difficulty is you get four or five people who speak to the media and seek to propose that they are splitting away from the DA and suddenly the DA is falling apart, which is a false narrative at its best.”

Vulnerable Party

While the DA has expanded its support steadily from its predecessor Democratic Party’s 1.8 percent of the vote in 1994 to 22.2 percent in 2014, and it now controls the country’s two biggest cities and its capital through coalitions, it may be set for its first post-apartheid decline. In a poll released last month, Ipsos predicted the DA would get 18 percent of the vote and the ruling African National Congress about 60 percent.

Maimane will need to lead the party to an improvement on its performance in the last election given “the last five years of horror” under the ANC government or questions will be asked of its leadership, Tony Leon, who headed up the DA until 2007, said on 702 Talk Radio.

“It’s a party that’s vulnerable,” said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst. “Sometimes their growth strategy is not in line with the core values of the DA.”

The officials feel that some in the DA, including leaders who had defected from the ANC, are less focused on policies than countering corruption with which the ruling party has been associated, the person said.

A messy public dispute with Patricia de Lille, who has formed her own group after being ousted as the mayor of Cape Town, highlighted infighting within the party in its stronghold Western Cape province.

Small breakaway parties generally struggle to make an impact and this may encourage dissatisfied officials to stay within the DA and fight for their ideals, said Mathekga.

“It’s quite painful to be a small opposition party,” he said. “What you are most likely to see is a long, drawn-out battle for the soul of the party.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.