The Plot to Kill Helen Zille

2014-05-18 10:30

Politics is a blood sport. It especially captures the imagination when the death match isn’t between opponents of different parties but those within the same camp. Palace intrigue and how the internal political machine works – something to which so few have real access but which many wish to know about – is particularly popular. It’s no surprise that shows like House of Cards, then, no matter how inaccurate, has captured the imagination of the public.

Jan-Jan Joubert’s report in the Sunday Times (18/05.2014) does exactly that. By reporting, in excruciating detail, how the real-world internal divisions of the DA are so far from its public ‘holier than thou’ image, we have been able to gain insight on the inside workings of the DA. And the plot to kill Helen Zille.

What makes it so dramatic, of course, is not so much that we have allegedly discovered that our leaders can say nasty things about each other. Rather, it is that this phenomenon exists within the DA. In its desperation to set itself out in contrast to the ANC – ANC incompetence to DA delivery, ANC corruption to DA good governance, and so on – the DA also made the mistake of denying some of the key features of politics with respect to how it does its business.

Factionalism, internal division and conspiracy are not only the ANC’s problem. They are the DA’s too. And that has little to do with personality – it is the nature of politics. Everywhere.

So, when stories like this one breaks, it will cause the DA particular harm. Not because people don’t expect such from politicians but either (a) because they naively chose to believe the DA and are now horrified to discover otherwise or (b) they, possibly, suspended their disbelief but these shenanigans affirm their original suspicions even more. The distance between what is perceived to be and what is, is stark reality. And it can hurt.

This is obviously a problem that the DA must handle in how it moves forward. While, in the short term, it may be to the DA’s benefit to always accuse the ANC of bad behaviour and deny the same is possibly true of itself, it is bad in the long term. The reason being that when ‘scandals’ such as these break, the media and the public latch onto them. They are given more air time, and thus do more damage, than they should. Everyone loves saying I told you so to a seemingly hypocritical and moralising politician.

And this is an interesting backdrop to the current DA saga. It is clear that the perfect storm is being engineered to get Zille out.

Let me say this: Zille is not without fault. I believe, and I have expressed as much before, that she is her own worst enemy: she is so committed to the vision she has to the DA in the long term that she gets tripped up on the small details. While it makes perfect sense to Zille to do something the public don’t always follow her immediately. Even if the end she may be right.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. A leader that has convictions and stands by them is to be admired and respected. But, when the leader takes action that only they understand and which is not clearly communicated to others, other than an inner core, in politics especially, then you are in trouble.  That is to be avoided where, despite the merit of the decision, the initial reaction to what is being done is significant and strident opposition. Even if decision turns out to be the right one in the end. Ex post facto narrative building is not good. Newspapers and voters don’t care about yesterday’s stories. They care about tomorrow’s. Zille has, for a long time, been able to do that effortlessly. She needs to be able to do that again.

Because if she fails to do so her position within the DA will become even more precarious. The Mazibuko affair has started a process of pushing Zille to the brink. And that is deliberate. Those who wish to see the back of her will continue to put these obstacles in her way – hoping to injure her so that they can strike fatally. Because, truthfully, for all her faults, Zille’s position is mostly impenetrable. And therein lies the problem. Zille is at her weakest, ironically, when she is at her strongest. Because she can feel secure in her dominance of the DA, she can feel as though she is impervious to attack. But that is mistaken.

Zille’s vision has put her on a collision course with many in the party. These, to my mind, disguise their opposition to her repositioning project on the grounds of classical liberalism. How much liberalism infuses their classic privilege and naked ambition, two things which are threatened as a result of Zille’s determination, I am not sure. But at least they attempt to provide a coherent rhetoric for their formalism and defence of the status quo.

This group is powerful and exists throughout the country. They even include some who got Zille to where she was. Typically, Zille forged ahead and those who thought they would have some hold over her – and an ability to push their own agendas – have been proven sorely mistaken. And so, without the ability to themselves ascend the leadership, they look for a new champion whom they can support, elevate and eventually dominate. In politics, there is no short supply of visionless but ambitious greasy pole-climbers and it is only a matter of time before they rally around him, or her, to push Zille out.

The more Zille is tripped but by their tactics, such as, possibly, leaking with such detail to the Sunday Times, the more Zille will come under attack. And the more they paint her as an out-of-touch and accident-prone leader, the more difficult they also make it for Zille’s supporters to openly associate with, and defend, her.

It is, of course, nothing short of brilliant. By pushing Zille further out – with her enemies at her back and her supporters nowhere to defend her – the more isolated she becomes. And in that isolation the more dangerous she is: to herself and the party. The more erratic she becomes and the less disciplined the team around her is. Waging war on every front can do that to you.

Zille still commands the DA, and national stage, like no other DA leader can. She is a political force to be reckoned with. The DA’s own polling shows it and the ANC, who must be sitting back and thanking their lucky stars that this has switched narrative away from them, knows it too. Zille, and those around her, need to regroup and refocus. In doing so, they will save her and the party from imploding any further.

That will involve a certain degree of maturity that has been missing in the last few weeks. The unfortunate way in which Mazibuko’s departure has been handled, by Zille herself and those close to her, was an avoidable disaster. It is deeply regrettable and I am personally disappointed by it. But, stoked by those who wish to push Zille out, it has now become a ruinous affair. Zille and her team need to show leadership. A thicker skin and some humility will go a long way.

Otherwise, we can expect many more self-serving and anonymous sources to come forward. The DA will become more porous – like the ANC is now – as people with ambition of high office conduct a shadowy campaign against the leader they wish to replace. That speaks much to their character and how they conduct themselves. ‘Fear of reprisal’ is a weak excuse for people who want to cause maximum damage. It is not a fair way in which to fight. It smacks of cowardice, hypocrisy and timidity. They did it to Mazibuko before and they will try to do it again. Only this time, they have a bigger target in their crosshairs. They should do the honourable thing and do Zille on notice and fight her openly.

The DA and the country will be better for it. South Africa’s constitutional democracy depends on a strong, though not necessarily united, opposition. The more it navel-gazes and fights fires internally, the more the ANC can get away with. And that is not good at all.

But make no mistake that the plot to kill Helen Zille is alive and well. This is – and is not – about Mazibuko. It is about the longer term direction of the DA and the country as a whole. Zille’s political enemies will ratchet up their assault on her position hoping that one of the many strikes they will launch will be the fatal one. But, for the sake of the DA and the country, let’s hope she lives to fight another day.

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