DA has its work cut out to show it's not a 'white party with a black leader'

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.

The Democratic Alliance can boast all it wants about being the most diverse party in the country but at its elective conference last weekend it failed spectacularly to demonstrate its claim.

Instead, the party once again elected a white male-dominated top eight leadership. As the new leadership was ushered on stage, it became clear that only one black woman, Refiloe Nt’sekhe, made it into the leadership. She was re-elected to the position of deputy federal chairperson – a position shared with another man.

She was surrounded by men, five of them white, one black and one coloured.

Many within the DA are in denial that the party needs a racially and gender balanced leadership, with their retort to critics being that eight of the provincial leaders are black (most of them still men) and that it's the most diverse party in the country, with all races represented.

It cannot be fine that the top leadership remains white and male dominated, 24 years into South Africa’s democracy when the party’s growth lies in the black community.

It does very little to fight the dominant perception that it is a "white party" with a black leader but still essentially protecting the interests of white liberals. In politics, perception is sometimes more powerful than reality, and the leadership outcome of the DA federal congress gives opponents ammunition against the party ahead of the 2019 elections campaign.

Adopting diversity as a clause without a real action plan to break the glass ceiling for black leaders in the party is meaningless. It simply suggests the DA knows what's the right thing to do but won't do it. The clause is effectively a defensive tool to be used when critics point out the lack of diversity.

South Africans have seen the likes of Lindiwe Mazibuko, Makashule Gana and now Solly Msimanga try and fail to ascend to the top echelons of the party. When the party got Mmusi Maimane as its first black leader, it was seen more as him "given the pedestal" than fighting for it and winning it. It spoke more of then party leader Helen Zille's power.

It is an undeniable fact that without Zille he wouldn't have made it. Mazibuko wouldn't have made it as parliamentary leader if Zille didn't want her to. While Zille might want to point this out as evidence that she's not a racist, it raises questions about whether black leaders can rise through the ranks of the DA without the approval of white party bosses.

The fact that Mazibuko, Gana, Msimanga are recognisable DA leaders, especially in black communities, but fail to make it into the top eight, shows that there are structural problems within the party.

This remains a sad regress, especially as the party under Zille had made strides in actively seeking and recruiting young talented black leaders within its ranks.

Some like Mazibuko, despite the huge investment and the public image she had built for the party, are lost to it now.

The likes of James Selfe who was re-elected as federal council chairperson argue that people in the party are elected based on merit but fail to acknowledge the structural challenges making it impossible for blacks to rise.

Any political party has a dominant power base that, when unshaken, wins the day in policy direction and leadership elections. The DA is no different. Unfortunately, it is an all-white male club.

Another challenge is the selection of delegates to its federal congress which is the highest decision-making body. It prioritised elected public representatives to have a seat at the conference. 

However, the black caucus has won a constitutional change to ensure that 45% of delegates at the next conference must be non-public representatives.

The formula of how they will be chosen will be decided at the federal council in June. This could be a game changer for the party – ensuring that those who live in predominantly black townships find themselves at the decision-making table.

"We need more delegates from constituencies we represent," said one leader who was pushing for change.

The party has rejected the use of quotas, which admittedly can be problematic. For the ANC, the 50/50 gender quota has forced the party to have more women in their decision-making structures, but it does not always guarantee that all the best make it to the top. Many often rely on the dominant male-led power block to give them a seat in the ANC's national executive committee.

However, any organisation must have an action plan to ensure equity. The government introduced affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment as critical tools to force the public and private sectors to address the effects of decades of black oppression. Without them the apartheid status quo could easily remain in place and entrenched.

So, instead of shouting that people are elected on merit by majority black delegates, the DA should be making it clear that it is concerned about the lack of demographic representativity in its leadership.

It should spell out how it will "actively promote" diversity as promised in the new constitutional amendment. Or will the party wait for the next federal congress for factional battles over the meaning of "actively promote"?

- Mahlase is politics editor of News24.

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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