Terence Corrigan | Moonshot Pact experiences lunar crash - News24

The idea of a "Moonshot Pact" that the Democratic Alliance (DA) floated at its congress called to mind the heady days of space exploration. Getting a "man on the moon" was a statement of ambition, audacity and of the human imagination.

Terence Corrigan

The idea of a "Moonshot Pact" that the Democratic Alliance (DA) floated at its congress called to mind the heady days of space exploration. Getting a "man on the moon" was a statement of ambition, audacity and of the human imagination. 

US President John F Kennedy articulated this in a speech in 1962:

'We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.'

Recent events in Johannesburg have shown Kennedy's admonition to be applicable to our politics.

The broad outlines are well known. The city now has a new mayor – for however long he lasts – supported by a coalition of the ANC and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). 

The Patriotic Alliance (PA) has emerged as the kingmaker – without its backing, the Moonshooters could not make the numbers they needed.

Show of strength

It cannot be gainsaid that this was a significant setback for the "Moonshot" project. If nothing else, getting control of Johannesburg would have been a show of strength and momentum to the city's residents. 

More fundamentally, it demonstrated the difficulties inherent in finding common ground. It’s been said often enough that anti-ANC sentiment is not a sufficient basis for cooperation among parties nor an adequate appeal to voters. Among this group, even this was not universal, as the PA has operated in coalition with the ANC (in Johannesburg and elsewhere) and would not renounce this.

Besides, political parties have their own interests and motivations. Even like-minded parties are, in some sense, competitors. It matters for a political party that occupies the leading role in a coalition. It matters how much trust exists between the different groups. It matters who is perceived to be calling the shots, especially where big personalities are involved, as is the case with Helen Zille, Herman Mashaba, and Gayton McKenzie. 

There is also difficult terrain to navigate as to whether taking office is necessarily the most desirable option in any given circumstance. Can the hold on office endure once it is secured? Can anything meaningful be achieved, or is this a poisoned chalice?

Quite legitimate (and important) in the hustle of politics, these questions are interpreted in different ways by different parties, which, legitimately, have different priorities and may come up with different solutions. 

But the discord among them may come across as petty or incomprehensible to observers. This is especially so in what seemed a clear case of actualising the goals of the Moonshot Pact, which was to keep the ANC and EFF from power. When the two largest Moonshooters in Johannesburg, the DA and Action SA, fielded separate candidates for the mayoralty, it's a safe bet that many in the city and across the country saw this as petty rivalry that betrayed Johannesburg's long-suffering residents.

Behind this, there is some important background. All indications are that South Africa is indeed moving towards a period of intensely competitive politics. The dominant one-party system is crumbling; whether the ANC loses its national majority in next year's election or whether that happens in 2029, the country is moving inexorably towards a future in which cross-party cooperation will be essential to making governance work. 

Specific niches

Indeed, when the DA was rocked by its sub-optimal showing in the 2019 election, and the subsequent departure of Mmusi Maimane, Herman Mashaba and others, some analysts sniffed disapprovingly that it was giving up on the idea of becoming a majority party (it’s doubtful some of these analysts would ever have thought this possible or desirable anyway). They may have been correct, though not for the reasons they had assumed. 

In the near future, it's doubtful that any one party will be able to replicate the position the ANC has held in South African politics. A showing of 25% or 35% might be as good as it gets, with parties incentivised to focus on retaining specific niches to bolster their own potential influence.

Access to power will be mediated by the ability of different political formations to find one another and find workable accommodations with one another.

For the Moonshooters, success will additionally depend on bringing a sufficient proportion of either uncommitted or ANC-aligned voters into their fold to take them cumulatively over 50%. Dr Frans Cronje argues that polling by his Social Research Foundation points to some 40% support for the broad Moonshot parties (the "broader centrist opposition") and 50% for the ANC. He adds that in ideological terms, a large part of the ANC's base holds positions entirely compatible with the opposition and is disillusioned with the ANC. If a third of the ANC’s support could be brought over, this would provide a solid majority. 

If this is possible, it will likely be achieved by several different formations with varying offerings – civil society-focused groups such as Build One SA and Rise Mzansi might have a particular role to play here. 

The key will be the ability to cooperate. For those of a more transactional bent, it will mean conceding that rehabilitating South Africa will be a long-term process with limited initial reward. All will need to understand that their programmes will be diluted to accommodate one another. Leaders will need (perhaps holding their noses) to tolerate one another.  

As the largest Moonshot party, the DA has a challenging role: to be willing to defer at times to its smaller (and perhaps more opportunistic) peers where it may feel entitled and better equipped for a more prominent role. This will take both forbearance and strategic nous, but it is in the nature of the politics to come. It will have to guard against alienating its potential partners. 

And, as Dr Cronje argues, disaffected ANC voters are put off by the intra-party bickering among the opposition. It undermines the latter's credibility.

The mayoral election was a lunar crash for the Moonshot. It holds analogies with the frustrations and failures that attended the path to the Apollo mission that landed on the Sea of Tranquillity on 20 July 1969. 

Politically, what confronts South Africa in this generation is as difficult as it was scientifically for the United States of the 1960s to make it to the moon. But it is a challenge that South Africa has no choice but to meet.

Terence Corrigan is project manager at the Institute of Race Relations