On Wednesday 23 October 2019, the opposition DA lay leaderless and in political tatters as both party leader Mmusi Maimane and federal chairperson Athol Trollip resigned, capping the party’s worst crisis in its short history.
The newly elected federal council chairperson Helen Zille was visibly shocked as Maimane and Trollip announced their resignations from their party positions. While Maimane will stay on as the leader in Parliament, he is no longer party leader. Usually, Trollip would have remained interim leader until the party elected a new top team at the end of 2019, but with him walking the plank too, the DA is now leaderless and, arguably, rudderless too.
Maimane and Trollip’s resignation follows that of Herman Mashaba, the Johannesburg mayor, who walked out of the door on Monday.
Zille made a shock announcement to run for the position of federal council chairperson less than a month ago and won that election on Sunday 20 October, shifting the balance of forces in the party against Maimane. While formerly a progressive who was part of the team in the DA that crafted the political philosophy of “One South Africa for all,” Zille is now a more conservative politician.
Her super political action committee (Super PAC) is the SA Institute of Race Relations, where she was briefly a senior fellow, which is crafting a more conservative and libertarian direction for the DA. In the South African context, this means taking an opposition stance to group rights, to black empowerment and against land expropriation and the ANC’s pivotal idea of a social development state. It is likely the DA will now move in this direction and seek to shore up the white Afrikaans vote that is being eaten away like in the Pac-Man game by the FF+.
What next for Mmusi Maimane?
Maimane will not leave the party immediately and will remain as the party’s parliamentary leader as he regroups. A young politician, 39 years old, he may well form a new political party with Mashaba, Trollip and himself at its helm.
But if the history of small splinter parties in South Africa is any indication, it will attract only a small support base — the May 2019 national election was contested by 48 parties. What is clear is that the DA’s ambitions of becoming a party of government (as opposed to a party of opposition) has hit the doldrums. The party does not have a mayor in Johannesburg and its leadership in Pretoria is struggling under mayor Stevens Mokgalapa.
The DA lost 120,000 voters just to the FF + in the May elections. Independent elections analyst Dawie Scholtz told Daily Maverick that his predictions show another 20% of its core support may have headed to the FF + if recent by-elections are an indicator, especially in the northern parts of the country.
The party will only elect new leadership at its congress at the end of the year. Zille said on Wednesday that the party was consulting lawyers to determine who should be the interim leader because Trollip, as federal chair, would have stepped into Maimane’s shoes. Maimane’s loss means the party has now lost its most well-known black leaders including former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille and former parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. There are many other talents, but they are likely to be shocked by the turn of events and could quit.
The political landscape
The DA dropped to 20% of national support in the May election and missed many of its ambitious targets to grow into a party of government. Maimane instituted an electoral review by former leader Tony Leon, former electoral strategist Ryan Coetzee and funder Michiel le Roux.
That review recommended he step down, which Maimane has now done. His exit is likely to accelerate the pace of the loss of black support the party is said to have suffered in the May election, presumably as its black voters move to an ANC revitalised under President Cyril Ramaphosa.
If Zille is to be influential in the DA, black (African) support could shrink further as she has adopted political language that interprets support for black empowerment as akin to what she calls “racial nationalism”.
The political hard break means that the centre of the political terrain has shrunk as Maimane’s DA was deliberately positioned as a centrist party — in a similar zone occupied by Ramaphosa’s ANC. As the two largest parties, this meant the mainstream political spectrum was centrist to social-democratic.
Now, the post-Maimane DA suggests politics may become more polarised as the DA marches to the right to claim back its supporters from the FF + while the EFF is growing at the radical left of the spectrum. DM