Helen Zille and the DA want it both ways. On the one hand the party talks a big non-racialism game, but the other makes no room at the party leadership table for ideas of diversity. This is evidenced by the resurgence of Helen Zille and its proximity to the resignations of Herman Mashaba, Atholl Trollip and, notably, former party leader Mmusi Maimane.
Shame, I feel for the Mmus. I’ve been there in a leadership position with ideas of radical transformation and then hounded by the higher-ups into an untenable situation when my methods and strategies made certain board members uncomfortable. Transformation is a long game that challenges the existing structures and alienates opposing viewpoints.
The DA went into the 2019 elections off of a decade where the only political tactic was to nip at a vulnerable president’s heels. Thabo and JZ were easy targets for negative politicking, but Cyril Ramaphosa is both a successful business man as well as a beloved political figure – except in circles where the Chris Hani conspiracies are gospel.
Scrambling to get its house in order to fight an existential threat (DA thrived when there was disorder among the ANC voters, having to face a united majority meant actually needing a strategy) Mmusi was set up for failure. He wasn’t the best orator and didn’t have the full support of the core DA constituencies. And by trying to be all things to all people, the Mmus was left without a convincing stance on any policy. Also, Trollip and Solly Msimanga, noted Mmusi allies, had made blunders in their mayoral positions which further reduced support in the newly won areas.
The DA were on the ropes for various reasons and the scapegoat was the floundering Maimane.
Enter Helen Zille, the very person who thrust Mmusi into the spotlight and her band of merry white men the South African Institute of Race Relations. The glorified lobby group torpedoed and hints of race-based policies in favour of a redress-averse narrative of non-racial inclusion. Black economic empowerment and land reform are particular areas of interest for this organisation, and those just happen to be the current keys to the South African political discourse.
Look how quickly the EFF lost ground once Cyril reclaimed the conversation around economic and land reform.
For Mmusi to even have a hope of winning favour among black voters he needed to talk a different party policy game than the non-racial line he was expected to tow, and he knew that. The quick fix that the IRR pivoted to was to endorse male Zille clone Alan Winde, who was spotted on stage at his dear leader’s farewell shindig while the residents of Sir Lowry’s Pass village were waging war. It must be noted that he was head of safety and security for the City of Cape Town at the time.
Winde shares Zille’s general appearance and bizarre flair for colonial apology. He is also beloved of the IRR, now quite clearly the driving force behind DA policy making since Zille has taken office as party Federal Executive Chair. Winde is largely a passenger on the political train as far as I can see with even the party’s now Parliament leader John Steenhuisen speaking out when the organisation put its weight behind the Western Cape Premier. It seems, though, that Steenhuisen will be granted a stay of execution for being outspoken against this powerful liberal lobby group. A luxury that is rarely afforded within the DA ranks. But this is quite in line with my own experience where having an opinion can be career limiting for certain groups, but lauded as heroics when others iterate the same points.
But the bottom line remains: Mmusi Maimane’s leadership was called into question and he has been identified as the reason for the DA’s decline. Look, the guy was clearly rushed through the system, taking a decade to go from religious TV show host to the leadership of the official opposition. Even though he quoted Nadine Gordimer’s well-known verse about not remaining neutral, Maimane had to learn to temper his more extreme views in order to appeal to a wider audience.
Maimane was a man who was never allowed to be his true self and that showed in the general public perception that he was a “hollow man” without any real principles. He wasn’t a great orator, he wasn’t a particularly good politician either. But the notion that the DA will improve without him at the helm is daft. Yes, some of the more Conservative votes that were lost to the FF+ will come back, but that’s a declining market. As long as the party explicitly shares the values and mission of the IRR it is difficult to see people of colour flocking to an organisation that has little interest in redress and achieving economic equity.