ANALYSIS | Race, redress and liberalism: How the DA lost its way

Newly elected DA leader, Mmusi Maimane with his Helen Zille at the partyâ??s federal conference on May 10, 2015 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Yesterday, Maimane was elected as the DAâ??s new leader, making him the first black leader of the party. (Photo by Gallo Images / City Press / Muntu Vilakazi)
Newly elected DA leader, Mmusi Maimane with his Helen Zille at the partyâ??s federal conference on May 10, 2015 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Yesterday, Maimane was elected as the DAâ??s new leader, making him the first black leader of the party. (Photo by Gallo Images / City Press / Muntu Vilakazi)

Helen Zille’s return to DA politics is a clear and unabashed challenge to the Mmusi Maimane doctrine. There are stark differences between two prevailing schools of thought in the party: one a traditional liberalism, the other a form of modernist pragmatism. Only one will survive, writes Pieter du Toit.

Helen Zille wasn’t seriously contemplating returning to active politics, she said exactly two weeks ago Friday, sitting and drinking coffee in the shade at the Aardklop National Arts Festival in Potchefstroom.

She was enjoying retirement, she said, and explained how she adored her grandchildren. It was also clear she was relishing her collaboration with the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) – and some remnants of the failed Purple Cow project – in producing a combative podcast titled "Tea with Helen". She had already hauled journalists Peter Bruce, Ferial Haffajee and Max du Preez to face her wrath, and was eagerly looking forward to summonsing other journalists to do battle with.

But Zille, formerly a DA member of Parliament, provincial education minister in the Western Cape, mayor of Cape Town, DA leader and premier of the Western Cape, was clearly restless. She and her husband, academic Johann Maree, had recently moved into a temporary house in Bloubergstrand, the idyllic seaside suburb north of Cape Town. But the DA was all she was thinking about. Plus she’d just been elected branch chairperson in Blouberg, as it is commonly referred to.

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Zille scoffed at the suggestion that her election as branch chairperson was the start of a political comeback. But it was clear she thought the DA was in a significant amount of trouble.

Seven days later she announced her candidacy for the position of chairperson of the DA’s federal executive committee, the party’s most powerful decision-making body. It sent shockwaves through the organisation. The former leader, sidelined by her successor after a series of public confrontations, was returning to salvage a flailing party.

Inheriting a growing and stable party

When Tony Leon bequeathed the DA to Zille in 2007 she inherited a stable, growing and coherent organisation. Leon’s task, arguably the most difficult, was also very clear: Don’t kill the party.

Its forerunner, the DP, was almost wiped out at the polls in the 1994 election. Voters didn’t care that it was the DP that ensured the inclusion of some of the most critical checks and balances on government in the interim constitution. All they were concerned about was giving the ANC its long-awaited majority while installing the National Party as the official opposition.

25 January 2006. Cape Town, South Africa. Helen Zi

Then-DA leader Tony Leon and Helen Zille in 2005, a year before she became mayor of the coalition government in Cape Town. (Gallo Images)

But when Leon held Zille’s hand aloft at the Gallagher Conference Centre in the winter of 2007 after she comfortably won election as leader, the DA was by some distance the biggest opposition party. It killed off the NP, but was still miles behind a rampant ANC, who was touching 70% of popular support.

Zille’s task, as oppoosed to Leon’s and apart from making the party one of government, was to grow among black South Africans. She was clear about the need to introduce black and coloured South Africans into the party leadership and the phrase “growing your own timber” quickly became part of the DA lexicon.

The DA, if it was ever was going to challenge the ANC, or if it wanted to be the dominant partner in a coalition that toppled the ANC, was going to have to become attractive to the dominant demographic on the electoral landscape. And the DA’s leader set about the task with gusto. She learnt to speak Xhosa, she disposed of the stuffy, old liberal culture in the party, redirected resources to the hinterlands and increasingly aligned policy with social democratic values.

South Africa, however, was and remains a country where identity politics is dominant. Zille understood this and sought to strike a balance between representivity and the party’s founding philosophies about race, which demanded that it should not be an overt or determining factor. Individual merit and equal opportunity for all should remain the ballast of the DA, she believed.

Fixated on Lindiwe Mazibuko… and race

In 2011 Zille helped to elect Lindiwe Mazibuko, a talented 31-year-old former staffer and first-term member of Parliament, as leader of the opposition, ousting Athol Trollip. It was known inside the party that Mazibuko, a black woman, was Zille’s choice as the next party leader and that the parliamentary position was to serve as launching pad to succeed her.


Newly-elected leader of the opposition in Parliament Lindiwe Mazibuko, 31, between the deposed Athol Trollip and DA leader Helen Zille in 2011. Zille pushed for Mazibuko to succeed her. (Gallo Images)

But Mazibuko, elevated to the benches of the National Assembly in 2009 after working as researcher and spokesperson, struggled to manage the large caucus and maintain policy coherence. She also wanted to chart her own course, distinct from what Zille wanted.

Their relationship soured, and the conflict came to a head in 2013 when the caucus – under Mazibuko’s direction – deviated from policy and supported amendments to the Employment Equity Act. The amendments strengthened existing regulations and race quotas governing the workplace.

Zille described the decision to support the amendments as a "plane crash". Mazibuko told Zille to butt out of caucus issues. Shortly before the following year’s election Mazibuko announced her decision to retire from politics to the Sunday Times – before she even told Zille.

By then however there was a new black star on the rise in the DA.

Mmusi Maimane and Halley’s comet

Mmusi Maimane joined the DA in 2009, the same year in which Mazibuko became an MP, and quickly shot up through the ranks. Eloquent, attractive and charismatic, he was identified as a possible solution to the problem of leadership diversity.

If Mazibuko’s rise was spectacular, Maimane’s resembled Halley’s comet shooting across southern skies.

A little more than a year after Maimane became a paid-up DA member, in 2011, he was elected councillor and was soon appointed leader of the DA in the Johannesburg metropolitan council. In 2012 he became national spokesperson, in 2013 he was unveiled as the party’s candidate for premier in Gauteng, in 2014 he was elected parliamentary leader (taking over from Mazibuko) and in 2015 he succeeded Zille as leader of the party.


Happy days... Helen Zille congratulates Mmusi Maimane during the DA's elective conference in Port Elizabeth in May 2015. She now wants to make a return to the party leadership. (Gallo Images)

But like with Mazibuko, the relationship with Zille was also fraught with tension. She was unhappy with the direction the party took on the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements, uncomfortable with Maimane’s vocal adulation of ANC figures like Thabo Mbeki and opposed the party’s changing position on race.

Zille didn’t want to give up the party leadership in 2015. She wanted to lead it into the 2016 municipal election, ensuring that it broke out from the Western Cape and ensuring a smooth leadership transition.

But Trollip, slighted and still smarting from his ouster by Mazibuko and Zille in 2011, put paid to that.

He wanted to claim the position of federal chair and wasn’t to be denied because of Zille’s sensitivities about diversity. Zille again calculated that the party couldn’t go into a local government election with only white faces at the top of the ticket.

And, although she was nominated for leader unopposed, she declined the nomination. By the winter of 2015 Zille was gone, and the DA became Maimane’s party.

The clash of two schools of thought

Fast forward to 2019, and the ANC-fixation of the DA is happening apace. It is riven by factions and sub-factions. Policy development is secondary to securing patronage and power. It suffered a disastrous result in the May 2019 general elections and has since lost a string of by-elections. It is ensnared in an unofficial coalition with the EFF in Johannesburg and Tshwane.

There seems to be no end in sight to the party’s woes.

It is clear that Zille, banished to the sidelines after her tweets about Singapore and her rambunctious behaviour on social media, wants to whip the DA back into line.

Maimane’s stewardship of the party has not only seen it lose support but has seen it stumble and flounder among contradictory policy statements, most notably around this country’s seemingly intractable problem of race.

090519w- Nuus -Pretoria- Democratic Allianace lead

Mmusi Maimane, DA leader, and Athol Trollip, DA federal chairperson, at the national election results operational centre in Pretoria in May this year. Both were highly agitated when they were asked questions about the party's poor performance. (Gallo Images)

Race and how it relates to redress have moved closer to the centre of the party’s collective policy consciousness and the message from the leadership is that the party cannot ignore race as determinant of the individual’s place in society. Opponents of this school of thought believe race as the main determinant is anathema to the party’s whole value system.

This conflict have now exploded into the open. The former grouping accuses the latter of being racist because they don’t support redress based on race, and the latter accuses the former of racism precisely because they believe in race as a prime factor.

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It seems that the ideology and principles on which Leon and Zille built their party – liberalism, individual rights and strict non-racialism – is not what Maimane believes is what’s needed to build his. He very early during his tenure said that his race is part of his identity, and the party broadly followed his lead.

The ejection of Patricia de Lille, a popular but difficult politician, internal tensions around policy and ideology and a poor election result have now resulted in the DA’s existential crisis coming to a head. Maimaine has been unable to give direction to the party internally, and unable to articulate externally exactly what the party represents.

There are significant and fundamental differences between the two main schools of thought in the party. Zille’s return is a clear and unabashed challenge to the Maimane doctrine and will determine the future trajectory of the party.

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