'We shouldn't get bogged down in race' - Helen Zille on DA policies, the IRR and working with Maimane

Helen Zille alongside DA party leader Mmusi Maimane. (PHOTO: Sarel van der Walt)
Helen Zille alongside DA party leader Mmusi Maimane. (PHOTO: Sarel van der Walt)

Newly elected Democratic Alliance (DA) federal council chairperson Helen Zille has defended the Institute of Race Relations' (IRR) views on party matters and criticism of members, saying the think tank can "speak about who they like".

But her views differ from those of party leader Mmusi Maimane, who recently raised concerns about the relationship between the party and the IRR, as well as the organisation's views on leadership and the direction the DA should take.

Zille was speaking to News24 just minutes after the party announced her election as the party's new federal council chairperson, following a two-day federal council meeting in Bruma, Johannesburg.

READ | Herman Mashaba resigns as mayor of Joburg

Maimane earlier told News24 that he had raised the matter with delegates at the federal council during his opening remarks on Saturday, but Zille said the IRR didn't only focus on the second-largest political party in the country.

"Have you seen the campaigns they are running? They have a massive campaign on expropriation without compensation, a massive campaign on the National Health Insurance, a massive campaign on prescribed assets … They speak about ANC leaders all the time," said Zille.

"They speak about other leaders all the time. [They] don't speak about 13 other parties because which other opposition, except the EFF, is worth debating? They hardly exist," she continued.

People 'insert themselves in DA politics'

In the lead up to this past weekend's federal council meeting, the IRR criticised Maimane's leadership, calling for him to step down and citing a "white male" – Western Cape Premier Alan Winde – as a more appropriate replacement.

It also launched a campaign aimed at saving opposition parties in the country but focused on the DA and singled out certain leaders, accusing them of causing racial tension in the DA.

Some in the DA have complained that the organisation was a mouthpiece for a particular faction in the party and that it was being used to fight political battles and influence decisions made from outside the organisation.

READ | DA review report: Agreeing to EFF support in Joburg, Tshwane 'was a mistake'

Zille attributed the IRR's focus on the DA to the fact that the party was in the news.

"So, the truth is they speak a lot about the DA, speak a lot about the EFF, speak a lot about the ANC and you know what, it's irrelevant, they are an NGO; we live in a democracy, they can speak about who they like," she said.

Zille said the IRR, for which she briefly worked this year, was not the only organisation "inserting" itself in DA affairs.

READ | 'I look forward to the new energy' - Maimane congratulates Zille on top DA post election

"You know what, so many people insert themselves in DA politics all the time. Every time I open the newspaper and see a column against so and so, they are inserting themselves in DA politics. So what? That is how a free society works," said Zille.

'Race is a red herring'

Zille said she felt her relationship with her successor, Maimane, was "very warm". She added that they would work on the basis of the principles set out in the DA's constitution.

Maimane backed Athol Trollip for the role of federal council chairperson and some in the party suggested that a loss in the critical position would have dire consequences for the direction of the party and his role as leader.

But Zille told journalists at a media briefing just moments before her sit down with News24 that she would stay in her "lane".

"For me, the most important policy is that we shouldn't get bogged down in race – what we should get bogged down in is how do we get people into jobs and that we should be debating day and night," Zille said, speaking of a resolution the federal council took to hold a policy conference.

READ | 'I will stay in my lane' - Helen Zille after winning top DA post election

She said while she didn't know how the leadership would function together, there would be an in-depth discussion on the policies from every perspective, and the party would then get behind those.

"For as long as we only ever talk about race for so long, we won't talk about things that are really critical and how we get people into jobs and how we get people into skills they need to fill those jobs," Zille said, adding that this was the only issue many South Africans felt comfortable discussing.

"Race is a red herring on many issues," she continued.

Zille said the only way to fix South Africa would be to obsess over the economy and get people jobs, building a life that they can value.

When pressed on this issue, she admitted race played a factor in many instances when dealing with issues such as jobs, education and inequality

And while she admitted that even DA leaders raising race as a concern were not in the wrong because "race is an issue", she insisted the country was obsessed and reduced all issues to race.

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