Senior DA leaders are plotting to form a breakaway "true liberal party" which they hope will contest next year's general elections.
Angry about the direction the party is taking under the leadership of Mmusi Maimane, the senior leaders have been holding consultations and are said to be keen on getting Western Cape Premier Helen Zille to head the new force.
City Press is aware of at least five senior and prominent MPs who are said to be involved in this new initiative. The move comes in the wake of serious tensions over race, transformation and other policy positions.
While Maimane and his core leadership want to broaden the DA's appeal by making it responsive to transformation and economic inequality, some party ideologues believe this stance is forcing the DA to divert from the traditional liberalism for which it has stood.
Threat to coalition dreams
The war in the DA, and now the threat of a split, is jeopardising the party's stated objective of increasing its support to such an extent that it can force coalition governments in various provinces.
The internecine strife comes as President Cyril Ramaphosa's popularity is making the ANC an attractive option for supporters who had become disillusioned with the governing party during former president Jacob Zuma's tenure.
Independent research company Ipsos says the DA is currently polling at about 20% nationally. This is down from the 22.2% that the DA garnered in the 2014 general elections, which was itself a big jump from the 16.7% it got in 2009.
'Recruit high-calibre people'
City Press can reveal that senior leaders have approached the SA Institute of Race Relations for advice on how to go about the dramatic move.
Frans Cronje, the institute's chief executive, has confirmed three meetings which have already taken place with "like-minded people", including liberal formations sympathetic to the cause.
Cronje advised the group that in order to make a strong impression, the new party would have to recruit "high-calibre" individuals from the liberal space.
Cronje would not be drawn into revealing who the big names were or which DA members were involved.
"Liberalism has never had mass appeal in South Africa, but a lot of its ideas are sensible [when it comes to] the market economy and the like.
"The party, therefore, must not be run as a traditional political party in the sense of rallies and mass campaigns. It should rather seek to attract a small number of high-calibre individuals who would be able to bring their own constituencies into the party.
"That was my advice. Central to that advice is that if the party does not have a big name who is popular in that community, I think it is very unlikely that it is going to succeed," Cronje said.
In June, Zille confirmed that she had been approached to form her own political party, but said that she declined the offer. She revealed this after she was forced to step down from all decision-making structures in the party, following a row over a series of tweets in which she endorsed aspects of colonialism.
"That party is materialising and Helen is aware of it, because she has been approached to lead it," said an insider close to the process.
For the past two weeks, City Press has made numerous attempts to get hold of Zille and her media team. All attempts have been ignored.
The De Lille factor
A senior leader confirmed that he had been approached to join the new party and that there was great unhappiness among some in the party.
"There is a group of hardcore DA leaders who feel that the DA is no longer truly liberal – and something is being done about it," he said, referring to the new party. "At the rate the DA is going, it is highly possible that we will wake up in 2019 and see this party contest. A lot of people are really unhappy.
"There are many factors that will make us lose votes: this liberal party matter; and you also have some people, black, who will cross floors to the ANC or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) because of the manner in which the party has handled the Patricia de Lille matter. Let's face it, what wrong did Patricia do? There is yet to be clear evidence."
Last week, the former Eastern Cape premier under the ANC, Nosimo Balindlela, who had crossed the floor to the DA, announced that she was leaving to go back to the ANC.
Provincial DA heavyweight Veliswa Mvenya also announced her departure from the party last week.
Van Damme defends Maimane
DA MP Phumzile van Damme said this week that she and other leaders were aware of talk circulating about plans to start a new party, but added that these were nothing new as such talk happened with every election season.
"It never, ever takes off and I don't think they would do well.
"We haven't heard any definitive announcements of a true liberal party being started," Van Damme said.
She defended claims that the party had abandoned its ideological stance, saying that it was a liberal broad church and had always been so.
Van Damme also came to the defence of Maimane, saying he had a mammoth task of bringing South Africans together.
"He is working extremely hard. It is difficult in South Africa to bring races together," she said.
"The ANC and EFF don't have to do that. They are black parties; you can come in as a white person but you are a guest, whereas with us we are bringing together very different people from different races. It is not easy.
"People disagreed on the DA's white privilege [tweets] and the Ashwin Willemse thing [referring to a tweet in which the DA leader said Willemse's experience was common for many South Africans]. They said Mmusi jumped the gun without having all the facts.
"But what Mmusi was saying is that he gets what being undermined in the work space is like – and, regardless of what the facts were, that core feeling is something that I identified with, that a lot of black people identified with," she said.
"People don't understand what it means to be black, so we're having those conversations. It is not a group kumbaya session. It is an effort to try to understand each other.
"I understand from a lot of white people that they feel alienated and not understood, like they don't belong – and that is a conversation we need to have because they can't go back to the UK or the Netherlands. This is their home. They need to feel like they belong here. That is the project that the DA is engaged in," Van Damme said.
DA's 'identity crisis'
Former party leader Tony Leon denied talk in political circles that he had been approached, saying that he was in no rush to rejoin the political arena.
He also described the idea of the new party as mere speculation.
Leon said the DA was, however, facing an identity crisis of sorts which stemmed from the party's growth spurt.
"I think there is a corner of South Africa that consists of true believers of different ideologies, and obviously as parties get bigger, they tend to lose their ideological core.
"It gets diffused because you are trying to attract a bigger audience. As you grow, you have to expand and as you expand, you tend to sometimes soft peddle on some issues – not because you don't believe in them, but because you are trying to reach a bigger audience," Leon said, echoing a similar sentiment to that of Cronje.
"What is fundamental for the party is for people to say: 'This is our core offer beyond Zuma and corruption. Here is what we stand for and this is what we are'. I think it is in the DA's ecosystem somewhere, but I am not sure it has been front and centre in the last few years."
Cronje expressed similar sentiments: "The first thing that needs to happen is, the DA needs to decide what it is. At the moment, the state of the DA is such that it's turning in circles. One day it's one thing and the next day it's another thing, and no one can actually understand where it stands.
"I won't say the DA is not a liberal party at this point. I'd say it is confused at this point. It doesn't know what it wants to be and where it wants to go, and I think that's causing it some harm."