Tough decisions to be made

THE Democratic Alliance’s election of Helen Zille as chairperson of its federal council has sent shock waves through the party, with immediate fallout in the resignation of Herman Mashaba, the DA mayor of Johannesburg. He decried Zille’s win as signalling a takeover of the party by right-wing elements.

Mashaba’s resignation is puzzling. A self-made businessperson and former chair of the right-wing think-tank the Free Market Foundation, his criticism of Zille seems misplaced. His views on economic issues are on the right of the political spectrum. And he sounds even more conservative than Zille on the issue of undocumented immigrants. Zille was elected to the party’s top post because she remains popular among the DA’s membership base. She is also the last top DA leader with anti-apartheid struggle credentials dating back to the 1980s End Conscription Campaign and the Black Sash. But she’s also a hugely controversial figure. The reasons for this stem from comments she has made on Twitter in recent years, including a series in which she defended the legacy of colonialism.

Her posts prompted stinging criticism from party leader Mmusi Maimane, as well as other black members of the party. Zille’s appointment, Mashaba’s resignation and signs that there is a concerted campaign within quarters of the party to get rid of Maimane, all point to a political party that’s in deep turmoil. This affects the DA’s strength as the official opposition nationally.


The DA can best be described, mostly, as a broad church of liberals. On one point on its spectrum are what could be called “equal-opportunity liberals”. Mainly white liberals, this group tends to oppose affirmative action, arguing that it violates the principle that opportunities should be allocated on merit.

Another faction comprises “affirmative action or diversity liberals”. This group is mainly black and supports affirmative action as a way of addressing the past injustices of apartheid. These camps are divided, not entirely, but significantly, along colour lines.

As well as policy, there are other dimensions to the tensions in the party. One is around the coalitions it established in three cities after the elections in 2016, when neither the ANC nor the DA won sufficient support to run the councils. In Nelson Mandela Bay the DA took over running the highly corrupt council by establishing a coalition with the much smaller United Democratic Movement. The partnership was fraught and finally collapsed in 2018 amid a great deal of acrimony.

In the cities of Tshwane and Johannesburg, the DA’s toehold on power has been even more fragile. The DA is in a tactical alliance in both councils with the Economic Freedom Fighters. This alliance involves the EFF supporting the DA’s mayors on a vote-by-vote basis, or abstaining from voting. This appears to limit the DA from instituting completely the clean governance which it has made the showcase of its rule. Another dimension to the party’s situation is that the party has two centres of power. Zille, as the newly elected chair of the federal council, the party’s highest decision-making structure between its federal congresses, holds arguably the most powerful post in the party. Maimane, as leader of the party, will be bound by the policy and strategic choices of the federal council led by Zille.


It would be strategic for Zille and Maimane to negotiate immediately the relationship between themselves and between their posts. It would also be strategic for Zille to let a professional public relations officer handle her Twitter account. Part of leadership is about making tough choices. One of these should be: does the DA relinquish power in Nelson Mandela Bay, in Johannesburg and in Tshwane, rather than taint its brand as the clean-up party? If it fails to make these hard decisions it risks sliding even further in the polls. The party secured only 20,8% of the national poll in elections earlier this year.

This result is no doubt what’s brought the present tension to a head, and is not only about the future of Maimane. Other failures that have been pointed out include the party losing Afrikaner voters to the right-wing Freedom Front Plus. In 15 months the party will be in full campaigning mode for the local government elections in 2021. It will therefore need to finalise its leadership posts, its candidates and its policies in the intervening months. As well as preventing Afrikaner voters from swinging back to the Freedom Front Plus, the DA also needs to strategise how it plans to win back black votes, and win more of them than it has before.

For example, it needs to spell out its alternative options to affirmative action and black economic empowerment. This debate often goes under the title of “race as a proxy for disadvantage” — mostly economic disadvantage. All told, the 60-year-old DA faces an interesting and complex year ahead. As the party grows larger, the coalition of viewpoints within it must also grow.

Maybe it could learn a few lessons from the ANC, which brings together nationalists, communists and the labour movement, among other persuasions, in a veritable broad church.

• Keith Gottschalk is political scientist, University of the Western Cape.

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