The DA's Helen Zille Problem

2015-01-07 14:45

Helen Zille (CityPress)

Last year’s moves by the DA’s powerful Gauteng structure seemed to suggest that some within the party are not altogether happy with Helen Zille’s dual roles as DA Leader and Premier of the Western Cape.

Shanti Aboobaker, writing recently for The Sunday Independent, wrote of DA Gauteng Leader John Moody’s intention to amend the party’s Constitution to rebalance the party’s Western Cape bias. Moody, it said, has been lobbying disaffected colleagues in other parts of the country to back his proposals at the party’s upcoming Federal Congress.

Moody was quoted as saying that his wing of the party should “claim its space in terms of ratio (and) number of votes.” He went on to say that, “It’s exceptionally unfair if a province brings in huge numbers in terms of both votes and funding but has one person as provincial leader on the federal executive (when there is) one person for other provinces, no matter how small the provinces are.”

The party’s Western Cape bias (in terms of office and personnel location, its dominance of decision-making, and its claim of the lion’s share of resources) has come about for two understandable reasons.

Firstly, the Western Cape was the breakthrough province for the DA in 2006 which anchored its later growth. The City of Cape Town became the party’s ‘jewel in the crown’ with Zille herself using it to show that the party had a ‘good story’ to tell. Zille used that to great effect to ensure her own ascendancy within the party when she was elected Leader to replace Tony Leon. Naturally, then, Zille, and the Western Cape, became the locus of the party’s attention.

Secondly, Zille has embedded herself within the province. Through her mayoralty (2006 – 2009) and premiership (2009 – present) she has been able to show the DA’s philosophy in action. That she is also the DA’s national leader makes it natural that the party’s focus, as determined by her, would also focus there.

And therein lies the problem.

Growth occurs in two waves: consolidation and expansion. While, the DA has done the former spectacularly, the latter remains contentious. Since 2006, the party has gone on to win a majority of the province’s municipalities in the Western Cape and taken the provincial government twice. It is unlikely that, barring a major catastrophe, the DA will lose any time soon. However, the party’s comfort zone dictates its policy and strategy for the whole country. The party’s base is being treated as if it were unreliable. This is not the case. The DA will hold onto the Western Cape through a continued record of good governance. But, it needs to break its group-think and adopt differentiated and dynamic strategies to attract other parts of the electorate, located far away from Cape Town. That is the only way it may ever challenge for national government.

When Lindiwe Mazibuko suddenly resigned from her post as Parliamentary Leader, there was much debate over whether Zille should replace her. Zille demurred. In hindsight, perhaps, she should have done so.

Zille needs to create distance between herself and the Western Cape. The longer she remains concerned by the provinces’ day-to-day issues, the less value her input as national leader will have. Even if she is right, as Moddy’s comments show, her provincial leaders will always be suspicious of her true intentions: is she speaking as the Premier of the Western Cape or the party’s Federal Leader? Under the status quo, the parochial threatens to overshadow and undermine what is truly important: the party’s national performance. It is an invidious position to find oneself in but one that can easily be solved.

Zille has no reason to be reluctant to relinquish her provincial role. She is lucky to be surrounded by capable politicians with a long history in the province who can take over from her. Patricia de Lille is a living rebuttal to the naysayers who suggested Zille should not have moved from City Hall. Of course, if she remains in the post too long, the danger may be that she creates the image that there is no one capable to succeed her. That is more devastating.

Mmusi Maimane may be another concern. But, Maimane has recently indicated that he is not as wedded to the parliamentary leadership. His ambitions are clearly to hold a position of government. If that is the case, a soft landing is available: the local government election is only a year away.

Zille is obviously the party’s biggest asset. But in her continued role, the party should be wary that she becomes its biggest liability. That would be ruinous to an otherwise distinguished career. As Enoch Powell said, ‘all political careers end in tears.’ One wonders whether, for Zille, those tears will be tinged with sorrow or joy.

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