Leon Louw, Executive Director of the Free Market Foundation, described the Democratic Alliance (DA) as the “more pro-market, capitalist, classical liberal” political party in South Africa (Louw 2011). Indeed, shortly after the Democratic Alliance was created in 2000, it included in its statement of principles freedom of expression and association, a dedication to the rule of law, federalism, an independent and vibrant civil society, a free enterprise economy, and the right to private property (Democratic Alliance 2000).
In November 2018, the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung awarded the Democratic Alliance its 2018 African Freedom Award. The DA’s leader since 2015, Mmusi Maimane said, in accepting the award, that the DA had “been fighting for a free and open society with opportunities for all for the past 60 years.” He said that liberals have “to become a lot better at crafting and explaining liberal solutions.” He criticized the government’s policies of expropriation of property without compensation, free university education, and the proposed nationalizations of healthcare, the information technology sector, and the Reserve Bank, pointing to Venezuela and Zimbabwe as examples where similar ideologies had failed. Maimane (2018a) has written that for the Democratic Alliance a prosperous society can only arise “in a liberal democracy with a market economy, a capable state, a zero tolerance for corruption and a Constitution that guarantees its people their rights, including the right to own property.”
The DA has had remarkable electoral successes in a country often thought to be dominated by one party. In the 2006 municipal elections, the DA took control of the city of Cape Town, where the South African Parliament is based. It governs the city to this day. The former journalist, Helen Zille, became the mayor of Cape Town, the first time any liberal party in South Africa governed a major city. In the same year, Tony Leon declined to run for the position of leader again, with Zille being elected. Zille won the World Mayor prize in 2008, the only time the prize has been bestowed upon a mayor of an African city. The prize is awarded biennially by the City Mayors Foundation, a London-based think tank.
In the 2009 general election, the DA was elected as the government of the Western Cape Province, which it has governed since then with an outright majority in each successive election. The provincial government and municipalities in the Western Cape have received successive clean audits from the Auditor General on financial management, outperforming all other provinces in South Africa (Winde 2019).
In the 2016 municipal elections, the Alliance won pluralities in the cities of Port Elizabeth, Pretoria, and Johannesburg under Maimane’s leadership. The coalition government in Port Elizabeth fell apart soon thereafter and was returned to effective ANC rule, but the DA remains in power in Pretoria and Johannesburg today as the result of an informal and precarious arrangement with the Marxist-Leninist party, the Economic Freedom Fighters. Through 2014, the DA had gained in every national general election since 1994: 1.7 percent in 1994, around 10 percent in 1999 when it became the official opposition, 12.4 percent in 2004, 16.6 percent in 2009, and 22.2 percent in 2014. But the DA has been the subject of intense criticism from contemporary classical liberals, especially in recent times. In the 2019 general election the DA attained 20.8 percent of the vote—the first time since 1994 it had lost voter share (Johnson 2019).
At a 2015 meeting of the DA caucus in Johannesburg, Paul Pereira said that “when messages become blurred, when a pursuit of electoral reward trumps common sense and political principles,” the DA could destroy itself, which he felt was in progress at the time. The DA, noted Pereira, had already flip-flopped on racial policies in defiance of its colorblind tradition (Pereira 2015). Andrew Kenny (2019) has said that after Tony Leon left the DA as leader in 2003, the party “began to stray from its liberal values,” became apologetic, and adopted affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment into its policies, thereby becoming an “ANC-lite,” “in the hope of appealing to ordinary black people.” Frans Cronje (2019b) later accused the DA of “jettisoning” its liberal heritage.
Even among the party leadership all has not been well. On 20 March 2017, the popular former leader of the DA, Helen Zille, herself a social democrat (see Zille 2013, xi), warned that the DA might, as it tried to secure more black votes, “start to swallow every tenet, myth and shibboleth of African racial-nationalist propaganda, including the scape-goating of minorities, populist mobilization and political patronage” (Zille 2017). Zille was that same week penalized by the DA for innocuously noting that Singapore, a former colony of Britain, had in part benefited from being a colony. She said it was incorrect to claim that the legacy of colonialism was purely negative. Maimane responded by referring Zille to a disciplinary hearing and said Zille’s views were inconsistent with the party’s values (Mngadi 2017). The settlement subsequently reached between Zille and the party was that she would, and did, apologize for her remarks, and that she would no longer participate in DA political activities (News24 2017).
An historical contrast may be helpful: at the Progressive Party’s inaugural congress in 1959, it became clear that liberal South Africans who were involved in the party would not be whipped into line. Leadership and party positions could be criticized, making the party dynamic with a “healthy, enquiring, and individualistic attitude” (Swart 1991, 77). The contemporary DA, however, shows much less tolerance for public disagreements with leadership figures (Cele 2019).
In the days leading up to the 2019 general election, the Institute of Race Relations‘ Gareth van Onselen accused Maimane of leading the DA down a “vacuous, ambiguous, directionless and anti-intellectual” path. Van Onselen continued that Maimane and the DA had abandoned the battle of ideas and opted to give the “[African National Congress’s] ideas a fresh coat of paint, and present them as [their] own,” Through all these criticisms, however, the DA’s leadership holds fast that the party represents liberal values “that put the individual first.” (Van Onselen 2019). Maimane (2018b) says the DA “will never abandon [its] liberal values.” In May 2019, after the DA’s disappointing showing in the 2019 general elections, Zille (2019), who was DA leader between 2007 and 2015, acknowledged that she had played a role in having the DA join the racial-nationalist narrative, and apologized for it.