The DA, which is the country's biggest opposition party, is facing its biggest crisis yet after Mmusi Maimane resigned as leader on Wednesday, declaring that the party he has led for four years "is not the vehicle best suited to take forward the vision of building one South Africa".
Maimane's remarks were met with widespread indignation inside the party's parliamentary caucus, with his dismissal as parliamentary leader apparently imminent.
The party's problems were compounded after it became known that there is legal uncertainty about who is acting leader because Athol Trollip, the federal chairperson, also resigned. The DA is now effectively without a leader.
After a day of high political drama, on Thursday:
- The DA's parliamentary caucus will meet at 10:00 to deliberate about Maimane's future. Indications are that he could lose his position as parliamentary leader before noon.
- The federal executive will have an emergency meeting to consider legal advice about who will lead the party in the wake of the resignations.
- John Steenhuisen seems poised to take over from Maimane as parliamentary leader, with either Natasha Mazzone or Phumzile van Damme being touted as possible chief whips.
The DA, which had its worst electoral showing in a quarter century in May and has since lost a string of by-elections, was plunged into disarray after the shock return of former leader and Maimane opponent Helen Zille to leadership structures last week.
This followed the tabling of a damning internal party review and the dramatic resignation of Herman Mashaba as DA mayor in Johannesburg on Monday.
As the battle for the soul of the DA appeared to have reached boiling point, the two senior leaders' - Maimane and federal chair Trollip - resignation left the party deeply divided.
Maimane's future was the main topic for discussion during an emotionally charged seven-hour meeting of the party's federal executive at its Bruma headquarters in Johannesburg. The meeting was chaired by Zille who was elected as chairperson of the federal council on Sunday.
Although his decision to step down as leader was accepted, attempts were made to convince Maimane to remain in his position until an elective congress could be held. He refused. Trollip, a former parliamentary leader and Maimane loyalist, followed suit.
According to sources, there was some empathy for Maimane when he resigned, but that it quickly evaporated after his contentious remarks during the press conference that followed the meeting.
It is expected that Annelie Lotriet, the chairperson of the DA's parliamentary caucus, will declare a vacancy in the position of parliamentary leader on Thursday morning and that Maimane will be replaced by Steenhuisen who is currently the chief whip.
There is speculation that Steenhuisen's position could be filled by either Mazzone or Van Damme, who are both high profile and firebrand MPs currently serving as caucus whips.
In his resignation speech, Maimane blamed a smear campaign to discredit him for his downfall, making a dramatic admission that he does not believe that the party could build a non-racial South Africa.
"There has been, for several months, a consistent and co-ordinated attempt to undermine my leadership and ensure that either this project failed, or I failed.
"This extended to the smear campaign that was run on the front pages of an Afrikaans weekly paper in an attempt to destroy my name and my integrity," Maimane said, referring to two recent lead stories on the front page of Rapport.
Maimane, who stood next to Mashaba when he blasted the DA during his resignation speech on Monday and called him a hero, proceeded to knife the DA even further and seemed to distance himself from the party.
Referring to his wife, Natalie, Maimane said: "We have come to the conclusion that despite my best efforts, the DA is not the vehicle best suited to take forward the vision of building one South Africa for all."
His comments have led to a firestorm in the parliamentary caucus, with some MPs on Wednesday night saying Maimane's continued tenure as parliamentarian was now impossible.
According to some MPs, with direct knowledge of discussions in the caucus leadership, Maimane "could have remained an MP for as long as he wished" but that his "slagging off" the party he once led has now made that impossible.
Maimane supporters said the only way to get rid of him now would be through a motion of no confidence. There is also speculation the federal executive will ask him to resign voluntarily.
It is unclear whether Maimane will attend the caucus meeting, which will be held in the Helen Suzman caucus room in the Marks Building.