How Zille was pushed

2015-04-19 15:00

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DA leader Helen Zille’s final decision to step down from the party leadership was a sudden and tearful one, and her hand was forced.

It also showed a week is a long time in politics. She announced her decision last Sunday in Johannesburg, but six days before, on Tuesday, she had confirmed, to various party leaders, her candidacy for leadership at the party’s federal congress on May 9 and 10 in Port Elizabeth.

By Wednesday of that week her decision changed. She initiated a meeting of several hours with close advisers and confidantes, DA members of Parliament (MPs) Gavin Davis and Geordin Hill-Lewis, on her candidacy. Davis went into the meeting believing it would be in the party’s best interest for her to step down. Hill-Lewis was conflicted.

During the meeting they had an in-depth discussion about Zille’s leadership – following three months of informal discussions.

There they made a list of the pros and cons of Zille staying on as party leader – she referred to this list when she made her announcement on Sunday.

Some of the major considerations were that the party’s research showed that it was on the verge of a growth spurt, and that a new, energetic leader could make this happen faster.

The party relies heavily on regular public polls to plan its campaigns, and it is hoping to win – or get close to winning – a number of new metros in next year’s local government elections.

Another consideration was the fact that DA Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip would be running as the party’s federal chair at next month’s elections against one of the party’s current deputy federal chairpersons and MP, Makashule Gana, and Western Cape member of the provincial legislature (MPL) Masizole Mnqasela.

A former parliamentary leader and long-time politician, the older Trollip stands a good chance of winning, and there is consensus within the party that two white faces at the top would stunt the party’s plans to win more black voters.

Trollip, who is also running as the Nelson Mandela Bay mayoral candidate next year, could not be persuaded to withdraw. Some within the party believe that a small group, including Trollip and DA chief whip John Steenhuisen who will be managing DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane’s campaign for party leader, was responsible for pushing Zille out.

There is also resentment that processes were manipulated to favour Maimane, who was the public face of the party’s R130?million Gauteng election campaign last year.

Zille left Wednesday’s meeting without a clear decision, but already leaning towards stepping down.

She arrived at a two-hour party management committee meeting in DA federal council chairperson and MP James Selfe’s office in Parliament that night looking tired. Her stepping down wasn’t discussed at the meeting, which focused on party matters and the Rhodes monument debacle.

The next day, she summoned Selfe, Hill-Lewis, Steenhuisen, DA chief executive Paul Boughey and two party donors whose names have not been revealed, to her Leeuwenhof residence for consultation.

Even at the end of this meeting, it was not fully clear that she would go, although there was enough certainty for party organisers to start summoning members of the party’s federal executive council to a meeting at very short notice on Sunday.

The meeting started at 10am and was set to last no longer than an hour and a half, the time it should have taken Zille to announce her decision and say her farewells to the leaders.

But an intense discussion of nearly three hours ensued, because about 75% of the 24-strong council was not in favour of Zille stepping down. She uncharacteristically shed a few tears – which meant she had to go and refresh herself before the press conference – and repeatedly told the meeting she did not want to go because she wanted to see through her project of realigning South African politics, which she started in 2007.

In the meeting she asked whether the leaders had considered what would happen if the party revealed a major repositioning plan with a majority white leadership corps. Some in the party said this indicated she was pushed by Trollip’s group.

This week, on Thursday, she made her farewell speech to the party’s caucus, and again shed tears, as did some MPs, when she spoke of her personal growth in the DA, race and the future of the party. MPs cheered her several times.

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