“There will be blood on the floor.”
That is what one senior DA figure predicted to Daily Maverick would be the atmosphere of the party’s federal executive meeting on Monday.
And although DA federal chairperson Athol Trollip set a largely bullish tone in a statement read to journalists after the meeting, there were indications of substantial unease behind the scenes.
It was noteworthy that DA leader Mmusi Maimane was not present at the post-meeting press conference, although the official explanation was that he had left to catch a flight. Nonetheless, his absence struck a strange note among a group of leaders bent on pressing the point of party unity — to the point that several of the DA provincial leaders clasped each other around the shoulders throughout the press briefing.
Trollip played down the announcement that the DA will now undertake “a review of the organisational structure and how best we can operate as a party”, saying that it was “not unique”.
But the fact that such a review has not been carried out within the DA since 2004 suggests that this is indeed a moment of significant reckoning for the party.
Trollip said the review will take into account feedback from “all stakeholders of the party”, but will also invite input from “external” sources.
Federal executive chair James Selfe elaborated:
“In 2004 we had a very thorough review of the party systems and as a result of that we changed the way we selected candidates, evaluated party representatives […] What we want to do in this review is see after that period whether those systems are still appropriate.”
Selfe added that it would be necessary to assess whether those systems were appropriate in light of the differences in the DA’s constituency between 2004 and 2019.
It was not clear whether Selfe’s reference to “the way in which the DA selects candidates” reflects a particular concern for the party in this regard.
Daily Maverick understands, however, that some DA figures were dissatisfied with the candidates put forward by the party to stand as provincial premiers, arguing that the majority was too low-profile and uninspiring to the electorate.
The statement read by Trollip after the leadership meeting did not openly admit to any particular failings of campaigning or strategy going into the elections. It pointed to the “rise of nationalism on both the left and the right”, together with “internal challenges”, as “play(ing) a role in our electoral fortunes”.
Asked by journalists whether the DA should not have predicted the rise of racial nationalism before elections, Trollip responded that the DA’s commitment to holding the non-racial centre ground “precludes us from trying to contend with racial nationalist parties and we’re not going to do that”.
Trollip would not be drawn on clarifying his reference to “internal challenges”, terming it “completely premature” to discuss these before the consultation had been carried out with DA structures.
Although reports are rife that a faction within the DA will seek to use the disappointing election results as a justification for the removal of Maimane as the leader, Trollip was adamant that Maimane is going nowhere any time soon.
“We would like to state that Mr Maimane remains our leader until a federal congress, scheduled for 2021, decides otherwise. Any talk of a leadership change before a federal congress must be dispelled,” Trollip said.
He said Maimane continued to enjoy the “unambiguous” support of the rest of the DA leadership and that responsibility for the outcome of elections — “whether good or bad” — was shared jointly.
The fact that the DA’s post-mortem appears to have focused heavily on organisational structure suggests that the party may be taking seriously a critique voiced by former party strategist Ryan Coetzee, who tweeted: “The party can’t function properly if the leader, the chief whip, the chair of (federal council) and the CEO/strategist don’t sync like the mechanism in a well-made Swiss watch.”
The DA’s current set-up involves an opaque machinery at the top of the party, with much of the decision-making being guided by non-elected representatives such as its CEO, Paul Boughey, and COO, Jonathan Moakes. This is standard practice for most modern political parties — the ANC’s Cyril Ramaphosa also has a tight-knit cabal of personal advisers and strategists — but in the DA’s case, the internal rifts within the party are likely to flourish in a situation with divided centres of power.
Moakes, in particular, is sure to face heat now as the DA’s campaigns manager for the 2019 elections. Although it is true to say that the party largely plateaued in these elections rather than facing catastrophic losses, the facts remain that the DA has shed five seats in the National Assembly and been unseated as the official opposition in two provinces: In KwaZulu-Natal by the IFP and in Mpumalanga by the EFF.
This, against the backdrop of an election at which the ANC was unarguably at its weakest ebb since 1994, will fuel calls for a significant regroup and rethink before the DA girds its loins for the 2021 local government elections, in which its performance has historically been stronger than the general elections.
With national leadership making it clear that it will not sacrifice Maimane on the altar of electoral performance, it remains to be seen whether any DA provincial leaders will be made to carry the can for drops in support in individual provinces.
A complaint voiced by a number of provincial party figures to Daily Maverick was the national campaigns team’s decision to focus resources and attention on the Western Cape and Gauteng — and to a lesser degree the Northern Cape — at the expense of the other provinces.
In an interview with the Sunday Times’ Chris Barron in the wake of the election results, Trollip suggested that it was South African voters, rather than the DA, who needed to “do some soul-searching”.
Trollip later claimed on Twitter that he had been quoted selectively, but there was consistency between his interview and the party’s public statements after its Monday leadership meeting: In the sense that no political miscalculations would be openly acknowledged for now.
At least by the party’s current leadership, that is; former leader Helen Zille, no doubt to the chagrin of many DA insiders, has already published her own 1,400-word analysis of the party’s failings. Contending with Zille’s very public back-seat driving will have to be added to the DA leadership’s current list of strategy headaches. DM