Zille’s dilemma: pond or ocean

2009-01-31 00:00

The Democratic Alliance’s candidates’ list, which was released last Sunday, is interesting as much for what it conceals, as for what it reveals. A bit like Helen Zille’s recent botox, it applies a cosmetic gloss over some definite wrinkles.

Crucially, the list leaves unclear whether Zille is going to lead her party from the trenches of Parliament, the rear echelon of the Western Cape premiership or from the home comforts of her Cape Town mayoralty. This is “yet to be decided”, according to the party.

It is bizarre of the DA to release the list, but not to have resolved whether its leader will even be in Parliament. It’s a bit like having a non-playing cricket captain. To have done so signals strong differences over what Zille’s role should be. It might well be, given Zille’s belief that she is the only one in the DA who has adequate leadership skills, that she intends to continue with some ambitious combination of posts. It would be a mistake.

The DA executive apparently wants her to lead the party from the front, from Parliament, while Zille remains unconvinced. There are compelling arguments to bolster the view of her colleagues.

It is true that Zille’s exceptional performance as the mayor of Cape Town will deliver electoral benefits to the DA in the coming general election. A DA victory in the Western Cape provincial elections is very likely. But the decision to combine the mayoralty with party leadership has achieved its goal — to lure new voter support by providing a rare example of good governance. However, if Zille chooses to remain party leader, there is no reason for her to continue preferring the mayoralty or provincial premiership to a seat in Parliament. It is risible for the leader of the largest opposition party to criticise the African National Congress for downgrading the role of Parliament, but by choice to make these points from a lower tier of government.

Nor has the unusual arrangement of Zille delegating the role of parliamentary leader of the opposition to Sandra Botha been a success. Botha had inadequate access to the overworked Zille and the relationship between the two became strained. Since Zille, as party leader, wanted the final say, national issues were queued with local Cape Town matters for her attention.

It is hardly surprising that Botha threw in the towel and made it known that she would be available for a diplomatic appointment. The ANC responded with alacrity to get Botha off their backs. Along with her colleague, Sheila Camerer, she has accepted an ambassadorship and joins the disquieting exodus of experienced DA MPs.

There are other signs of organisational strain in the previously well-oiled DA machine. It is tardy in responding to press inquiries. Its website is an amateurish vanity page for Zille, more appropriate to a Facebook teenager than a political party.

From looking at the website one would not know that this is a national political party with scores of representatives at every level of government. One cannot even access on it the DA’s list of candidates for the election.

There is, of course, nothing innately wrong with the DA building its brand around Zille. For decades, the DA’s previous incarnation, the Progressive Party, was built around the feisty Helen Suzman. But then Zille needs to be trading blows in the national arena, not piddling about in the regional pond.

Zille also has to allow real authority to devolve to her few remaining senior lieutenants. She cannot feasibly continue her manic executive style of two demanding jobs, without the health of the party — and potentially her own — being damaged.

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