Pieter du Toit: Maimane's dramatic resignation could threaten DA's future

Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille at the press briefing on Wednesday. (Sarel van der Walt/Netwerk24)
Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille at the press briefing on Wednesday. (Sarel van der Walt/Netwerk24)

The DA's future will be determined by what happens in the next 48 hours. The key will be how it navigates the treacherous waters of identity politics. There's no doubt: the party's future is under threat, writes Pieter du Toit.

In the end there was nowhere to go for Mmusi Maimane, who resigned as leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) on Wednesday afternoon.

He had been pummeled from all sides since the party’s election return in May, and a damning report into internal party failings – coupled with the return of Helen Zille to the leadership this past weekend – saw his position dramatically weaken within the space of 72 hours.

The party has undoubtedly been thrown into deep crisis and is entering unchartered terrain.

The resignation of a party leader is unprecedented, and the only other comparable situation is the equally dramatic departure of Frederik van Zyl Slabbert as leader of the DA’s political ancestor, the Progressive Federal Party, in 1985, because he too believed that his party was failing.

As Herman Mashaba did on Monday when he resigned his DA commission as mayor of Johannesburg, Maimane has detonated a bomb in his own party, attacking it and distancing himself from what it has set out to achieve.

By declaring to all and sundry that “the DA is not the vehicle best suited to take forward the vision of building one South Africa for all” he declared null and void all his attempts, pontifications and statements over the years in which he defended the party as a non-racial home for all.

He has effectively recanted everything and delivered a strategic and very painful blow to the party’s collective solar plexus.

By admitting that he failed, and that he doesn’t believe the DA to be the place for non-racialism, he has given the DA’s political opponents enough material to launch wave after wave of attack.

Whereas the ANC and EFF’s racial nationalist assaults on the DA could previously be warded off by Maimane’s insistence that the DA is not a white enclave, in the world of South African identity politics, this will now be almost impossible to do.  

The DA, Maimane said, is fake.

Maimane’s final act of revenge – he is expected to be sacked as parliamentary leader later on Thursday – is particularly damaging because he is the latest in a series of high-profile black leaders to depart the stage. He now joins Mashaba, Patricia de Lille, Lindiwe Mazibuko and to a lesser extent Mamphela Ramphele as a previously anointed black face of the party.

This will not go unnoticed and will be exploited to its fullest extent.

And who will have to defend it? Zille.

Her return to the DA was about one thing: to reverse the party’s closer embrace of race as determinant of disadvantage, redress and opportunity. Under Maimane the DA adopted an ideologically flexible and pragmatic approach to race, more closely mirroring the governing ANC’s philosophy. This was done in the hope to attract more black voters quicker.

It has however led to severe internal acrimony and policy uncertainty, which translated into May’s poor showing in the general election.

There is no doubt that Zille has moved very quickly to reassert her influence in the party and that Maimane’s resignation was helped along by her unsettling presence as chairperson of the federal council – albeit with demonstrable and sizeable support.

And she will now proceed to build a campaign around a possible leader to succeed Maimane, someone committed to an unbending ideology of a strict – but presumably responsive – approach to race and redress.

The party’s future will be determined by what happens in the next 48 hours.

If it fails to urgently resolve the interim leadership issue and is unable to effectively and clearly articulate why Maimane had to go it will continue haemorrhage support. Internal tracking polls, coupled with the hard numbers since the election, show it has failed to convince the black electorate and has lost significant numbers of white voters.

It should also, as a matter of urgency, formulate a clear and understandable policy around race and redress. The malaise in which the party finds itself in signals chaos, and voters and supporters are repelled by disorganisation and uncertainty.

The future of the DA, a party that purports to occupy the centre on South African political spectrum, is under severe threat.

Ensuring its future will take a herculean effort of organisation and persuasion.

- Du Toit is assistant editor for in-depth news. 

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