Daniel Silke: DA buckles at the knees as Mashaba walks and Zille makes a comeback

Herman Mashaba. (Gallo Images)
Herman Mashaba. (Gallo Images)

The DA will spin Herman Mashaba as rarely in-step with prevailing party thinking, but he was a forceful personality who occupied a hitherto unexploited position in our politics – a populist conservative free-marketer who was anti-immigration to boot, writes Daniel Silke.

The optics of the last 24 hours will not be kind to the Democratic Alliance (DA). In comes Helen Zille in a technocratic position as federal chair, while out goes Herman Mashaba, the Mayor of Johannesburg.

In the midst of attempting to turn around its own fortunes, the DA has yet again scored a dramatic own-goal in not managing the aftermath of its disappointing May performance.

Ultimately, that's what it's all about. The ANC constantly looks as though it will splinter – after all, it's a broad church of very disparate interests. But power still binds it together. The DA's own broad-church experiment seems currently to be floundering and its on-going electoral losses compound this.

FIRST TAKE: Mashaba punches DA in the face, Maimane calls him a hero

Considering the bigger macro picture of national (read ANC) governance in almost every category, you would've thought that the DA's opposition project would at least remain cohesive and focussed – even if the personalities seemed dauntingly bigger than they would care to admit. While the party will spin itself as ready to self-correct, the Mashaba resignation has dealt it a fresh body-blow and with that a substantially weakened position ahead of the 2021 local government elections.

The essential (and perhaps now even existential) DA problems remain. The party is increasingly unattractive to both its historic voter base as well as its new target demographic. And the last 24 hours have done little to offset this.

Mashaba's resignation is probably more important than Zille's appointment in this debacle. He sure was a maverick on policy and broader outlook. In many ways, he seemed even more conservative than the liberal DA stalwarts he roils against.

The DA will now try and spin him as an outlier and rarely in-step with prevailing party thinking, but he was a forceful personality who occupied a hitherto unexploited position in domestic politics – a populist conservative free-marketer who was anti-immigration to boot.

While some of these positions seem extreme, they really should've found a place within the broader DA. Given his unique niche, Mashaba remains a political asset and can still attract support should he choose to mobilise outside the DA.

But clearly, for Mashaba, his move was not just linked to Zille's appointment. He feared the end of the EFF/DA arrangement that kept him in the mayoral chains. Relinquishing this seemed a step too far. As a team player, therefore, Mashaba was prepared to quit on the expected end of the arrangement leaving some doubt as to his adherence to broader party discipline.

Ultimately, just as the DA has so woefully managed many of its recent crises, so was this unedifying, to say the least. Zille's election was always going to be polarising. She brings exceptional strategic and organisational skills yet will be seen as a gatekeeper to the leadership of Mmusi Maimane. Although she has committed to "staying in her lane" when it comes to potentially wading into leadership issues, the re-deployment of a senior former party leader is often fraught with additional tensions, especially given the prospect of two centers of power emerging in the DA.

In the end, it's Maimane who now bears the brunt of all of this. Appearing on the same platform as Mashaba immediately after his resignation speech, Maimane heaped praise on his former colleague. It was a remarkable post-facto endorsement of someone who had just announced his resignation from the very same party and had lambasted the DA to boot. Clearly, the sympathies of Maimane were with Mashaba as the press conference ended.

Both the Zille and Mashaba episodes have weakened Maimane even further. And he looked strained and demoralised as he followed Mashaba onto the podium. Perhaps Maimane should've cut his losses immediately after the election but instead, the similar indecision that had plagued the DA in recent years now continues under his embattled leadership.

While the ANC and EFF will be laughing all the way to the bank on this one, South Africa is poorer for it as its main opposition falls into disarray. The DA will have to think long and hard about its future in the complex milieu of South Africa's political economy – and so will Maimane.

- Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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