'The untold story of the DA'

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Last week, Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille told an audience at Alexandra in Gauteng that she was launching a campaign – a campaign to tell the untold story of the DA.

"When I travel around South Africa, it truly shocks me to hear that many people think the DA would bring back apartheid if we won an election," she said. "There are a significant number of people who think the DA was responsible for apartheid, and that Helen Suzman was a member of the ANC. I ask myself how we allowed these false perceptions to take root."

And I was immediately taken back in time to where the process really started…

February 1997, in Cape Town shortly before the opening of parliament, I was having lunch at the Round House restaurant in the shadow of Lion's Head. Sitting across the table from me was former President, former deputy-President, and now leader of the opposition Frederik "FW" de Klerk.

It was little over six months prior to that that the National Party decided to leave the government of national unity headed by President Nelson Mandela. One media commentator decried the turn of events as the worst crisis to strike the country since abandoning of the gold standard in the 1930s.

In fact, it was nothing of the sort. Freed from the power-sharing obligations imposed by the interim constitution which governed the 1994 elections, the ANC promptly replaced the departing Nat ministers with a new crop of talent. Meanwhile, the Nats, under De Klerk, were trying to find a new identity.

And that was my question to De Klerk. I was at the time 35 years old, in senior management at Independent Newspapers, a firm believer in economic growth driven by free market principles to fund social upliftment. What could the National Party do to make itself appeal to me as a voter? The ANC was already fulfilling my needs.

Roelf Meyer, seated next to De Klerk, nodded in support of my point. De Klerk smiled wistfully; he did not have an answer.

Roelf Meyer as secretary-general was at the time pushing for a new sense of vision within the National Party. De Klerk did not share his vision instead backing hardliners headed by then Western Cape Premier Hernus Kriel.

Meyer left the party shortly thereafter joining forces with Bantu Holomisa to form the United Democratic Movement. De Klerk resigned from the party in August and stepped down from politics.

With the 1999 elections, the New National Party was trounced in the polls. The ANC under Mbeki won a two-thirds majority in parliament, the Democratic Party under Tony Leon took 38 seats, and the National Party dropped to third place with 28 seats (down from 82).

And it was then that Tony Leon hit upon what no doubt seemed like a good idea at the time – why not have the Democratic Party join forces with the New National Party and contest the next election under a single banner?

Think about it. The party of Helen Suzman (who during the darkest days of apartheid was the sole liberal voice of dissent in parliament against the tyranny of the Nats); that same party now wanting to join hands with the Nats?

The marriage proceeded post haste – the Democratic Party and The New National Party merged to form the Democratic Alliance with Tony Leon as leader of the party and NNP leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk as leader of the opposition in parliament.

But marriages of convenience are doomed to disaster. The marriage fell apart when Tony Leon attempted to discipline Cape Town mayor Peter Marais on a matter of principle. And Marthinus took sides with Marais.

Then leader of the ANC in the Western Cape, Ebrahim Rasool, saw an opportunity. He persuaded Thabo Mbeki to introduce floor crossing legislation which would allow elected representatives to change parties without losing their seats. The legislation was ramrodded through parliament with unseemly haste.

Several things happened as a result. The DA lost control of the Western Cape Provincial Government to an NNP-ANC coalition, Patricia de Lille quit the PAC to form a new party called the Independent Democrats, Peter Marais became premier of the Western Cape, and Gerald Morkel (who was premier) became mayor of Cape Town.

The floor crossers were scathingly referred to as "crosstitutes".

Then in an irony to trump the others, the New National Party dissolved to merge with the ANC.

So I feel for Helen Zille. The former racists of the National Party had been within her party's ranks for a short period only. But the taint is apparently forever.

It need not be so. All Helen Zille needs to do is to remind the world of the fact that for a brief period, the party of Helen Suzman abandoned principle for political expediency. The person responsible for that is no longer in the party.

But that would mean mentioning two words that were conspicuously absent from Zille's heartfelt speech in Alexandra.