Can the DA survive the illness it caught from the ANC?

The stage bearing DA leader Mmusi Maimane's face at the party's election manifesto launch in Johannesburg.
The stage bearing DA leader Mmusi Maimane's face at the party's election manifesto launch in Johannesburg.

Of late the DA in the Western Cape showed signs of a not-so-mysterious illness.

We've seen before our very eyes the once proud liberation movement, the ANC, turn itself into a lurching zombie, stomping on our country, stealing our money, devouring itself.

How did it get to this?

The short answer is that it suffers from hubris – the political illness that affects the powerful in such a way that it arrogantly believes it can do no wrong and completely forgets about the people it is supposed to serve, which leads it to its eventual doom.

This illness is most commonly contracted when a party is secure in power; leaders become power drunk and the party attracts shysters looking to make a quick buck off government deals and careerists looking to get their snouts in the trough. These power-drunk politicians, shysters and careerists aren’t mutually exclusive, of course.

While years of electoral dominance and a string of shysters and careerists and power drunk leaders proved a very conducive incubator for the hubristic virus now ravaging the ANC, it seems that the second biggest party in the country has also been infected.

It is not a surprise that it reared its ugly head in the Western Cape, where the DA has been in power in the Cape metropole since 2006 and provincially since 2009, and this looks to be the case for the foreseeable future, with the ANC floundering in opposition.

The symptoms of the infection could be seen clearly over the last few weeks.

Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille seemingly unilaterally disbanded the city's Special Investigations Unit, which is a matter of concern enough. Then in the ensuing spat with mayco member JP Smith allegations of impropriety relating to the security upgrades at De Lille's home made its way into the public realm.

This set in motion a string of events looking like a small-scale, DA-branded version of the ANC's Nkandla debacle.

When ANC leader in the city council Xolani Sotashe tried to bring information relating to the security upgrades to a portfolio committee meeting last Wednesday, he was told it can't be heard. A DA councillor claimed it is sub judice – right out of the ANC parliamentary playbook for dealing with uncomfortable matters. 

Sotashe then made the information public and went on a site visit to De Lille's home in Pinelands, searching in vain for a firepool. In response city council speaker Dirk Smit derided him for making the information public and said now more security upgrades are needed. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? 

Like a friend said, the only thing needed to complete the Nkandla-pantomime is for De Lille to mock the opposition's pronunciation of Pinelands. Picture her at the podium in City Hall: "Pinelands! Piiiinelands! Piiiiiinelands! He-he-hey!"  

Granted, so far there isn't concrete proof of impropriety by De Lille, but the defensive way the DA handles it is the problem. Especially considering that they are a party who says transparency is important to them, and whose biggest selling point is that they're not the ANC.

Similarly, in the provincial government, when allegations emerged earlier this year that MEC of human settlements Bonginkosi Madikizela's birthday cake was paid for by a provincial government contractor Premier Helen Zille took it upon herself to investigate the matter. No report on the matter was made public. DA MPLs blocked the provincial legislature's conduct committee from getting to the bottom of the matter.

Meanwhile our beautiful city is being shilled off to a bunch of Donald Trump wannabe greedheads putting up tacky "luxury apartments" most Capetonians can’t afford, while many of the city’s inhabitants still live in squalor.

When the DA's Western Cape congress congregated in a church in Goodwood adjacent to a Builder's Warehouse, it was without its two highest ranking public representatives in the province – Premier Zille and Mayor De Lille. The former being suspended from party activities after her tweets about colonialism, and the latter put on "special leave" along with JP Smith about the SIU/security upgrades spat.

The congress also had a bit of an ANC vibe, and not only due to the cries of “Amandla!” that rang out. The vast majority of delegates wore T-shirts and other regalia bearing their preferred candidate’s names, and the candidates were clearly organised in slates.

The two candidates who contested the provincial leadership – Madikizela and Lennit Max – hardly inspires confidence.

Madikizela’s political pedigree, if one could call it that, is as follows: He was an ANC member, apparently loyal to the Ebrahim Rasool faction. When the Skwatsha camp came up trumps, he left in a huff when he didn’t get nominated as ward councillor candidate.

After competing unsuccessfully as an independent candidate, he joined the UDM, only to be kicked out amid allegations that he recruited UDM members for the DA. He joined then mayor Helen Zille’s staff at the city, before following her to the provincial legislature after the 2009 elections, where he was appointed as MEC for housing. 

Max, a former police commissioner, joined De Lille’s upstart ID in the early 2000s, only to be suspended, after which he joined the DA. His sex life also made for tabloid fodder. He actually took the notion of a dick measuring contest literally. Last Saturday was his fourth unsuccessful bid to become the DA’s provincial leader and now he wants to contest the election results.

So, to recap: the DA’s two most powerful politicians in the province – leading two of the DA’s flagship governments that are supposed to convince South Africans they are a better alternative than the ANC – are barred from party events, and Madikizela and Max competed for the top spot in a divisive campaign. This amid unanswered questions, which the party keeps from being answered, about impropriety about birthday cakes and security upgrades. This clearly is an indication that all is not well in DA-land.

The question then is, is the DA’s case of hubris terminal?

Not yet, but a strong intervention is needed.

The main reason for the prognosis is that the party’s national leader Mmusi Maimane seems well aware of the danger his party is in.

When he addressed the Western Cape congress last Saturday after being introduced like a boxer – “From Dobsonville, Soweto… Mmuuusi Maaaaiiimane” – he pulled no punches. He warned against the main symptoms of hubris – patronage, racially divisive campaigns and complacency. 

At these types of events, a leader’s address is usually a chest-beating exercise followed by a Kumba ya-singalong around the campfire. So the fact that Maimane opted for stern introspection is telling. To what extent his message hit home is unclear. Just as he warned delegates against cults of personality, they started chanting “Mmusi! Mmusi! Mmusi!” Well, it is not unusual for party political events to be irony-free zones.

Mmusi will have to put his MyMoney where his mouth is and deal decisively with the hubris that got hold of his party.

This sickness comes at a very bad time for the DA. They actually do have a chance to lead a coalition government come 2019.

They won’t be able to affect the change they keep banging on about if they’re suffering from hubris. And whether you like the DA or not, you wouldn’t want another zombie lurching around the place. We’ve been stomped on enough.

- Jan Gerber reports for News24 from Parliament. Follow him on Twitter: @gerbjan.

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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