Helen Zille: No Longer Fit to Lead the DA

2014-03-25 11:05

Political parties are defined by the collective vision of their members; however, reality is such that we have come to know that it is the leadership that plays the most significant role in shaping the nature of a political party. Without people, a political party remains nothing but a name with neither an identity nor defining features. Therefore, in order to forecast the future character of a party we must examine its current crop of leaders. Importantly, when doing this, it is imperative to zoom in closely on the leadership style and vision of the leader or president of the party under examination.

My contention is that outcomes of close examination of the doings and leadership style of the Democratic Alliance (DA) leader, Helen Zille, present to us a leader that has reached her peak and has run out of ideas to lead her party properly. This emerging reality has ability to undermine the gains that the DA has amassed thus far in the democratic era of South Africa. Ever since the rebranding from being known as the Democratic Party, the DA is the only political party that has grown in terms of its percentage share at the polls in every election. However, if the DA does not think beyond its current leader it risks losing its growth trend come the 2019 elections. Helen Zille is growingly using combative politics that undermine democratic principles within her party, while at the same time eroding the image of the party as a potential contender for power to govern South Africa.

The reason why progressive countries limit the tenure of Presidents in government to two five-year terms is precisely because being at the helm of an institution or structure is exhausting – especially when it comes to inventing new ideas of governing and leading a structure. Therefore, it becomes important for leaders to be changed at regular intervals in order for institutions to move forward and not be frustrated in their quest to generate new ideas. This is the only way institutions can manage to remain relevant. It must concern South Africans that the DA may soon slide back and reverse its gains because that may signal the demise of opposition politics in the country. This may only be averted if a hostile takeover by a progressive bloc that will infuse new ideas and energy to transform the party’s politics happens within the DA or if a new party with a mass following emerges to challenge the ruling party.

Four incidents indicate Zille’s dwindling astuteness to captain the DA ship. The first is her desperate insistence to lead a DA march to the ANC Headquarters (Luthuli House) despite the public outcry for her party not to do so. Zille went ahead to defy all sane and sundry voices (even within her party) which cautioned that such an event would unnecessarily stoke political tensions in the lead up to the elections. This action alone allowed many people, even those opposed to the ANC, to close ranks and reprimand the DA for its inability to articulate DA policies without leading an unnecessary onslaught on the ANC.

The second incident is that involving Zille’s slandering of the DA Youth Leader, Mbali Ntuli, when she insisted on calling the young leader a prima donna. This partly stemmed from Ntuli’s public disagreement with the march to Luthuli House. Tellingly, Zille went on to reveal how unprofessional Ntuli was acting within the party, giving details of trivial things such as unreturned calls and smses. This may seem insignificant but it shows two things, Zille drags those who disagree with her to the gutter if need be and secondly it marks a generational clash. Any party that seeks to govern South Africa will have to give meaningful space for young leaders to dissent with their elderly counterparts. For purposes of demonstrating transparency and accountability, political leaders should not shut space for public disagreements amongst its members and leaders, so long as it is not mudslinging. Our politics can only shape up and thrive if there is nail-biting, substantial, dialogue within and outside organisations.

The third incident is that of the emergence of the black caucus within the DA under the watchful eye of Zille as a leader. This black caucus – an informal grouping of disgruntled black (mostly young) leaders that feel they remain systematically sidelined from power – symbolises a simple reality that the mechanics that govern the DA remain in the hands of a few elite of white people. These young black leaders now understand that for the DA to transform it must go beyond peppering its leadership structures with black leaders. The core policies of the DA must change and its functionality must rest in the hands of the majority. Of course, this reality rattles many of the senior white leaders who are uncomfortable with the idea of sharing political power with black leaders. This has been demonstrated by the defection of three DA parliamentarians to the Freedom Front Plus (leaving under the guise of wanting to fight for minority rights). Therefore, Helen Zille has failed to lead meaningful substantive transformation whereby even the majority of white people would be seen in rallies instead of using black members and followers to make public statements through unreasonable marches.

The last incident is of course the famous wicked kiss of the DA and AgangSA that did not last for long. Zille and Ramphele allowed themselves to succumb to pressure of an external (residing abroad) donor that made it clear that if the two parties merged he would be in a position to pump in significant funds for the two parties to fight the election campaign. I do not wish to delve into the problematic relationship between politics and political funding in this article. However, it is clear that when big money is involved, politicians are willing to thwart internal democratic processes. Another important revelation from that unfortunate episode is that it shows how much Helen Zille is willing to jump at any possibility to squash and swallow a party that is contesting the same space that is occupied by the DA. AgangSA is a liberal party led by a black middle class, the same constituency that the DA has been flirting with for some time, and this made AgangSA an immediate threat to the DA.

The point to draw from these incidents is that the DA is slowly gravitating away from its core objective of focusing on its message to South Africans. The party is caught up in confrontational politics that have potential to annoy the electorate. Whilst the collective leadership might be to blame, Zille herself emphasised – in the aftermath of the botched marriage with AgangSA – that the role of leaders is to lead even if it means undermining internal structures of the party. Therefore, there is credibility in the argument that the DA is at a crossroads because of her leadership style and vision – which I argue has now hit the ceiling. The DA needs a new breed of leadership in order to truly transform, beyond the image and faces, towards substantive politics that do not see tokens to amass political credibility out of black members. The party must see black people as equal partners worthy of leading in the highest strategic echelons without being micromanaged. Ensuring that the DA does not fall on the Zille sword would be a meaningful intervention in rescuing opposition politics in the country.

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