The DA took a gamble when it marched on the ANC. And that it seemingly came out ahead had more to do with luck than wisdom, writes Phillip de Wet.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) is not a house entirely united. Right from the mooting of the idea to march on Luthuli House, purportedly to advance an agenda on jobs, it was opposed by some of the top party leadership.
But the voices of caution lost out to those caught in the grip of election fever. A big splash was needed, the reasoning went, and a head-on confrontation with the ANC could both sway undecided voters and help ward off a bleed of votes to smaller opposition parties.
It also seems likely that the sudden upsurge in support for the Economic Freedom Fighters, with its unashamed militancy, was in the backs of the minds of those who got their way.
On Wednesday, both the DA and the ANC claimed victory, even before the DA march in the Johannesburg city centre had properly ended. Both parties were deluding themselves to reach their conclusions, though for the DA the danger inherent in that self-delusion is larger.
The DA got lucky. It risked drawing a violent response from ANC supporters, and justified the risk by speaking about democratic rights. Had any of its members – or perhaps worse, some of its private security guards – been injured on the day, those injured people would inevitably have been seen as martyrs. But whose martyrs, exactly? Could South Africa have come to see them as human sacrifices offered up by a coldly calculating party?
The DA also risked a confrontation with police on the day. Had the situation been judged sufficiently volatile, police commanders would have been obliged to prevent the DA from marching at all. The party would then have a choice between an embarrassing climb-down (with an associated whiff of cowardice) or being the antithesis of a law-and-order party, while trying to campaign on crime and lawlessness. Either would have cost it dearly.
The biggest risk, though, is that DA supporters would take the fight to the ANC and would become the aggressors.
The DA insists that when it marched on the Cosatu headquarters in 2012 and the rocks started flying, its members were merely retaliating. “They were picking up the bricks at their feet and throwing them back,” as one leader puts it.
Yet in the midst of the chaos of that day it was hard to say just who threw the first projectile, or the first insult, and the country was left only with the enduring image of two groups fighting it out with little to tell them apart but the colours of their T-shirts.
And of course there was the risk on Wednesday that the DA crowd would get such a beating at the hands of the ANC’s “defenders”, that individuals and communities around the country would be cowed out of open support for the DA in the May elections.
None of these eventualities came to pass, because the DA got lucky. Its preparations largely held, its discipline did not falter until the end, and the police were both decisive and nimble enough to prevent any real violence. It could, very easily indeed, have been different.
A true gambler will tell you that the time to be most cautious is when you are winning. Should the DA now come to believe its own line, that Wednesday’s march was a victory, things could go badly for it.
If anything, Wednesday showed just how inept the DA is at the more vigorous brand of street politics. Only last-minute negotiations prevented a fallout with some of its hired security guards over payment; its own marshals simply did not have the numbers to do the job. It very nearly fluffed a rendition of Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika, and relied heavily on common struggle songs, because it lacks the showmanship that seems so essential to advancement through the ranks of other parties.
Most importantly, the DA becomes a plodding beast on the streets. It lacks the vitality of a Cosatu crowd, the raw emotion of an ANC crowd, and the speed and fury of the EFF.
In the end, the game of street politics is rigged against the DA. It did not lose on Wednesday, and it may get lucky next time, and the time after that, but every streak must come to an end.