Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille (File, Netwerk24)
Its transitions and electoral contests were supposedly done in an orderly but dignified manner, outsiders were led to believe.
But two recent contests have blown that myth wide open.
In Gauteng, the race for the provincial leadership was characterised by accusations of dirty tricks and smear campaigns.
In the Western Cape, simmering tension between factions has been thrown into the public domain by the war for the Cape Town metro, one of the big prizes in the party.
The DA’s bitter political contests are a far cry from the time when Tony Leon was party leader, a period when such fights did not end up on the front pages or at the top of news bulletins.
This is no reflection on the quality and style of leadership of Leon and his successors, it rather has to do with the evolution of the party and its access to power.
Back in the day, the best thing a leader of the DA could hope for was to be a leader of the opposition at a council, in a legislature or in Parliament.
These were important positions, but it was nothing like real power.
Today, members of the DA know what real power tastes like.
Their party now has institutional power, controls big budgets and has access to instruments of patronage.
There is the possibility of even more power falling into the party’s hands at the next general elections in 2019, and therefore more access to sweets and chocolates to dish out to nicely behaved children.
These incentives mean that DA politicians are now forced to behave like real politicians.
They walk around with sharp daggers in their belts and have rear-view mirrors installed on their heads so they can see potential back-stabbers coming from afar.
These daggers and rear-view mirrors will become more prevalent in the next 18 months as DA members vie for the spoils of power.
The other big thing that has changed is that the liberal purism of the past is receding.
In the past, DA leaders had this religious attachment to an idealist brand of liberalism that bore little relation to reality.
They espoused pie-in-the-sky policies that did not speak to the majority and were therefore not designed for the acquisition of power.
Their mentality was not far removed from that of mums at cake sales.
In the past decade, these dreamers have gradually retreated into the background.
More realistic leaders, who recognised a political party that wants to make a difference in the lives of the people, should challenge for power and not have members who stand around admiring the texture of one another’s hair.
This shift has fundamentally altered the character of the party and the nature of contestation.
And it is not, as some liberal fundamentalists might believe, a result of the changing demographic of the DA.
Those throwing knives at Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille come from all hues and the primary actors are actually of the melanin-deprived segment of our population.
Playing for public sympathy, De Lille stated this week, as if it was a big revelation, that “these attacks on me have been about power and positions all along”.
De Lille herself is no virgin when it comes to power politics.
She played the game well when she was still in the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and abandoned that party only when she realised it was moribund and was in no position to wield any power.
Having loudly opposed the floor-crossing legislation, she used the same system to leave the PAC and form the Independent Democrats (ID), a party that was meant to bring freshness and realign South African politics.
The short-lived growth of the ID was based largely on the floor-crossing opportunities that De Lille used effectively to entice disgruntled representatives from other parties that were represented in the different spheres of state.
De Lille’s decision to collapse her party into the DA was based on the recognition that its growth had reached a ceiling.
If she was ever to wield formal political power, it would be through another vehicle. Her strategic decision paid off when she was elected as mayor of Cape Town.
In her rise in the DA, she has knocked out other seasoned political players.
Favourable conditions and her own political acumen enabled her to land punches that left her opponents reeling to the floor. Now her turn has come.
The brutal political game playing out in the Western Cape is something the DA is going to have to get used to.
For those in office, the lesson from this is that incumbency does not offer full protection.
You need the smarts.
The fights ahead will show the DA that the infighting you see in other parties is not just because they are inclined towards waywardness – although many in those parties are.
All politicians, even those who have service ingrained in their hearts, are power mongers.
Power battles are natural and can strengthen parties, provided they are not destructive and disruptive of governance.
So, once again, welcome to the real world.