To take control of the future, South African political parties must resurrect the past

Former politicians Helen Suzman and Nelson Mandela share an embrace.
Former politicians Helen Suzman and Nelson Mandela share an embrace.
Image: AP Photo/John Parkin
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In South African politics, nobody gets anywhere without “struggle credentials.” They are badges of honor proving that these leaders, like Nelson Mandela, fought against the apartheid regime.

Struggle credentials have been influential in landing top posts. For example, the heads of the state-run South African Broadcasting Corporation are often ANC appointees. Struggle cred can make men rich: ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, the former unionist is one of the country’s wealthiest men through Black Economic Empowerment deals. Most importantly, it remains one of the major reasons the ruling ANC, whose key decision-makers are struggle veterans, remains the powerful party among the majority black population.

Now the Democratic Alliance (DA), the country’s second most influential political party with a leader Helen Zille eyeing the presidency, wants to cash in. As part of its “Know Your DA” campaign, the party released a pamphlet depicting former leader and anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman in an embrace with Nelson Mandela. The tag line: “We played our part in opposing apartheid.”

Suzman was the leader of the Progressive Party, the only official opposition in parliament to the ruling National Party at the time. The Democratic Alliance has its origins in Suzman’s party. But since coming to power, it has struggled against the perception of being a white-led party preserving the interests of the white minority.

Last week, Zille said she was shocked that people thought the DA would bring back apartheid if it comes into power. Its use of the Mandela image has annoyed the ANC. But the DA says it has every right to use the image, because, like the rest of us, it knows all too well that struggle history still counts in the eyes of voters.