The resignation of DA policy head Gwen Ngwenya this week has emboldened a lobby within the party to push for leader Mmusi Maimane to leave his position after elections.
Ngwenya resigned in an explosive four-page letter she addressed to Maimane this week, accusing the party of hanging her out to dry and making it impossible for her to do her work.
However, insiders say that her resignation, and the leaking of that resignation letter, was a power play by a group of so-called true liberals in the party who are at odds with Maimane.
City Press understands that the group is discussing the removal of Maimane after this year’s elections, should the party fail to grow beyond 22%. The calls for the leader’s removal follow a series of blunders, which have been damaging to the DA’s reputation.
According to the DA’s constitution, a federal congress – the highest decision-making body, which can remove the party leader – must take place “at least once every three years”.
“The federal congress generally meets at least once every three years, but must be convened at any time by a two-thirds majority vote of the federal executive, a two-thirds majority vote of the federal council, or when requested by a petition signed by at least 5 000 members of the party,” reads the constitution.
Maimane’s allies in the party told City Press that provincial leaders supported him in overwhelming numbers and that he was ready should the group’s move be made after elections.
A member of the federal executive told City Press that Maimane’s hiring of Ngwenya was one of the many “blunders” the party leader had made which had come back to haunt him.
“She should never have been hired, knowing what her views are. We are talking about redress and our goals regarding that, and then to go and hire a person who is quite clear in her views about race – that was the blunder that was made.
“But it is also a party blunder generally not to give enough people support,” the member said.
Former party leader and Western Cape premier Helen Zille, who has also been at odds with Maimane, has thrown her weight behind Ngwenya.
“I think Gwen has been totally honest about the reasons she resigned and for that I support her,” Zille told City Press.
At the heart of Ngwenya’s resignation is the party’s position on BEE, which she and the so-called liberals she is aligned with believe should be scrapped in favour of a nonracial policy.
Senior party leaders, including MP Phumzile van Damme, Gavin Davis – who has subsequently resigned as an MP – Mike Waters and Maimane, contradicted one another last year over whether the federal council had opted to officially scrap race as a yardstick for those who are disadvantaged, from the party’s BEE policy.
Ngwenya refers to this fallout in her letter as well, saying: “In August 2018, I published an article indicating that BEE had not lived up to expectations and that the DA was exploring a policy alternative. None of that was not true. At the federal council in July, I had been given a mandate to explore a nonracial alternative. Furthermore, I quoted your own words from a Bokamoso [the DA’s newsletter] saying: ‘We need a wholesale change in empowerment policies, to move away from race-based policies that enable elite enrichment towards policies that fundamentally break down the system of deprivation that still traps millions of South Africans in poverty.’
“The result of communicating what was a party mandate and the words of the federal leader was a public repudiation of my position by the federal chairperson. I believe he acted on the wisdom of our communications operation.
“Instead of having the courage of its convictions, at the mere whiff of a debate on BEE, the party felt it best to attack the head of policy [rather] than to own up to its own structure’s decision.
“That was probably the moment at which I should have tendered my resignation; when I was hung out to dry without so much as a phone call for reiterating what the leader had months ago already said, albeit within the relative safety of a DA newsletter,” she said in her letter.
Van Damme told City Press this week that the DA was not falling apart, saying there was a healthy debate of ideas.
“In any political space there will always be a contestation of ideas, so I do not think it is odd that we are seeing that. The DA is a liberal party with many strands of liberalism, but we stand united around the basic principles of liberalism.
“I do not think this means that DA members are at war with each other; it just means that there is a contestation of ideas, which is healthy in a political party.”
When asked about plans to position her as a challenger this week, Ngwenya refused to comment and directed all queries to the party.
The DA has also moved to allay fears that Ngwenya’s resignation has left it scrambling to cobble together a manifesto. “The allegation that the DA does not take policy seriously is simply false,” said national spokesperson Solly Malatsi.
“We have a proud history of having the most comprehensive policy platform of any opposition party in South Africa. Policy in the DA is developed by drawing on a great deal of expertise from inside and outside of government.
“Our manifesto is at an advanced stage of development and will be launched on February 23. It will give real life to our vision of delivering change that will build one South Africa for all.”
Malatsi also vehemently denied claims made by Ngwenya in her letter that she had not been given enough resources to execute her duties.
“Ms Ngwenya was equipped with a staff contingent. This was the most investment the party had made into the policy process, with a view to increasing it. The assertion that the unit was resource-starved is therefore false.”
Another senior DA leader said it was just a matter of time before Ngwenya was pushed out of the post. “Ms Ngwenya jumped before she was pushed. She was unable to effectively manage the policy process in the DA, and created considerable unnecessary internal division as a result.
“In particular, she seemed determined to create a quasi Institute of Race Relations within the DA, and was unable to lead a process that would see us give expression to our commitment to redress, based on our liberal philosophy and beliefs.
“The manifesto process thus had to taken away from her, to ensure that a quality product was delivered timeously. Unfortunately, Ms Ngwenya has sought to portray herself as a victim, when she was given every opportunity to succeed.”