Zille, Zuma: different styles, same problems

2012-01-28 00:00

POLITICAL parties seethe with factional intrigue and jockeying for position. As a result, party leadership is a tightrope walk.

The challenge is to retain cohesion by keeping mavericks leashed, while not stifling contrarian views that can revitalise the party.

This against the tricky reality that unlike chief executives who have enormous power to impose their views and advance their favourites, party leaders govern by consent.

The leaders of both the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance are wrestling with disciplinary actions that illustrate this dilemma. Both confront mavericks who have cocked a snook at them and can potentially cause ongoing ructions. President Jacob Zuma wants to be rid of suspended ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema. Helen Zille wants to be rid of Masizole Mnqasela, the DA’s Home Affairs shadow deputy-minister.

Malema hurled abuse and threats at minorities and tripartite alliance leaders, leveraged party membership to access tenders, and threatened to topple a neighbouring government. He has damaged perceptions of South Africa abroad, stirred fear and loathing locally, and wreaked mayhem within ANC ranks.

Zuma’s meek acquiescence fuelled the public perception of him as an ineffectual leader. Only when the rottweiler made the mistake of biting the hand that fed him, was Zuma provoked to discipline Malema.

Zille’s leadership instincts are the opposite of Zuma’s pliable style. She has unchallengeable confidence in her judgment and does not suffer fools gladly. Unfortunately, Zille also seems to believe that anyone who differs from her is a fool, and probably a traitorous one, too. Minor differences are sometimes reacted to as though evidence of incipient mutiny.

Mnqasela’s sins are schoolboyish compared to Malema. Nevertheless, he faces six DA misconduct charges and possible expulsion.

Five charges relate to remarks during last year’s battle between Zille’s protégé Lindiwe Mazibuko and incumbent Athol Trollip, for the parliamentary leadership.

With Zille’s more than tacit backing, Mazibuko romped home. But Mnqasela supported Trollip in some fiery outbursts, including labelling Mazibuko’s candidacy “window-dressing”. 
This sparked Zille’s sharp put down that Mnqasela’s thinking was “Verwoerdian”. His original comment now forms part of the DA’s accusation of racism. Another charge stems from Mnqasela stating that Zille is “running the party like a spaza shop” and a third from expressing the fear that MPs who do not support Mazibuko might be jobless in 2014.

Mnqasela also “stated or clearly indicated” to Zille that he would vote for Mazibuko if rewarded with a post in Zille’s provincial cabinet – the kind of horsetrading that is endemic in politics, but here resulted in the fourth misconduct charge. The fifth relates to derogatory remarks about the performance of a DA colleague, the provincial Housing minister.

The final charge is that Mnqasela improperly solicited provincial government work for his business in 2009. To which the obvious question must be why neither the director-general approached, nor the DA leadership, immediately brought police charges?

Mnqasela’s remarks are certainly injudicious, sometimes mildly offensive, although they are often so grammatically impenetrable that it is difficult to be certain, but to deduce a racist contravention of the party’s and the nation’s constitution, is bizarre. This is thin-skinned, petty vengefulness. Such disciplinary action is unprecedented in a party that historically has a robust tolerance of difference. After all, without a sufferance of plurality the DA could never have effortlessly absorbed the old National Party — apartheid relics about which the adjective “racist” would have resonance.

Two leaders, two dilemmas. Now to see whether Zuma will prove his reputation for appeasement by giving the nod that allows Malema’s appeal to succeed. And whether Zille will cement her reputation for being controlling, by contriving Mnqasela’s exit.

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