South Africa’s national pastime is the erasure of political memory. Let’s defy that impulse for a moment, and think back to the early months of 2014. Helen Zille — formerly a liberal anti-apartheid journalist; currently a white supremacist “classically liberal” social media ghoul — was at the time the leader of the Democratic Alliance. After purging her party of viable successors, most notably then-parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, she was casting around for a black personality with star power to act as a front.
For a brief shining moment, she thought she had found the perfect candidate: Mamphela Ramphele, leader of the nascent Agang political party, one of those pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-apartheid-is-over-bitch type movements that emerge from the Sandton-tariat every now and again. Agang, backed by fawning white businessmen, was just a few months old and already a non-viable mess. The DA presidential candidacy looked like a serendipitous lifeline.
The arrangement, sealed with a kiss, lasted for 48 hours.
(Some additional intrigue: Zille broke Steve Biko’s murder-in-detention story; Ramphele was Biko’s partner at the time of his death. The intersecting narratives went deep.)
Why are we rehashing this ancient history? It’s to remind ourselves, in the wake of a remodelled Democratic Alliance — one almost entirely denuded of black leadership and re-conceived as a white libertarian beachhead in an ocean of black nationalism — that the party, led in spirit and in fact by Zille since 2007, has always been something of a clown car. A couple of phone calls to previous employers would have disqualified Ramphele for any management position; in a few short months, she had managed to court the loathing of most of the activists in her new party. Only a week or so prior to the announcement of Zille and Ramphele’s political nuptials, the DA don had assured a roomful of journalists that its electoral list—presented with fanfare at the Rosebank Hyatt—was the result of a “democratic process,” unlike that of the wretchedly corrupt and manifestly illiberal African National Congress.
Ramphele’s name was not on the list.
Such humiliation should have provided a moment of real introspection, but the DA doesn’t do introspection—or rather, it does, but not when it comes to Helen Zille. As she’ll be the first to tell you, after ascending to the throne, she doubled their votes in a decade from two million to four million. She’s the moneybags, the bank account, the ATM, the fundraising fount that keeps the Big Blue Machine fuelled up and ready to drive into a wall. And under her, there was once an attempt—feigned or real or a combination of the two—to cast the party as representatives of all liberal South Africans, a party that could plausibly one day win a majority at the polls.
You’re laughing, but it’s easy to understand why people bought this crap. Her opponent in 2009 and 2014 was Jacob Zuma, a globally recognised symbol of misgovernance and corruption, and literally the best gift the political gods could offer an opposition politician. (In short: if you couldn’t grow your share of votes against that useless asshole, pick another profession.) What’s more, there was nowhere else for black liberals to call home. The DA would have to do, but it was apparently never a comfortable space to inhabit. (Full disclosure: I am not a black DA member, and I never have been. This view was formulated following many, many discussions over many, many years.)
Practically, intellectually and metaphysically, Zille has owned the DA since taking over from Tony Leon in ’07. When she “left” politics following the 2019 elections and the end of her tenure as Western Cape premier, the cash dried up, the party began a retrenchment process and, as one insider told me, “there was no water at meetings”. Things changed, and they changed quickly: early in Zille’s reign, the DA was all about beer-commercial diversity and the optics of racial harmony—an approach that has long since gone out of fashion, and one that Zille has subsequently described as her “biggest mistake.”
Personally, I can identify a few others. Watching her address township rallies was eye-wateringly embarrassing—she was shrill, condescending and madam-ish. Inside the DA, she could reportedly be brutal, and it was a harsh place for young talent to thrive. (It’s a meritocracy, see?) After she discovered social media, she slowly moulted her liberal skin, and was radicalised as what Quillette readers would term a “libertarian” — which is something you can’t be if you’ve run bureaucracies in a major city and a province, and have suckled at the government teat for a couple of decades.
But most catastrophically, Zille and her cabal didn’t have a sophisticated ideological or economic blueprint for how best to address massive inequities that—like it or not—cut mostly along racial lines in South Africa. For them, the cure to our ailments has always been the same: growth. (I was once on a panel with the SA Institute of Race Relations fellow who said that if the South African economy expanded at the rate of 10% a year, we’d be just fine. Sadly, this is not even close to the dumbest thing I’ve heard an IRR representative say.)
Who would this growth accrue to? How would this growth be unleashed? At the core of the Zille DA philosophy, espoused with coded sophistry by outfits like the IRR, was that if the country’s best and brightest were allowed to thrive, if ANC cadre deployment was outlawed, and if race-based affirmative action policies were defanged, then utopia would be around the corner.
Second, and just as dangerously, their bona fides were established not on what separated them ideologically or economically from the ANC, but rather on the “fact” that they were a clean, effective governance machine, as evidenced by their management of the City of Cape Town and the province of the Western Cape. Essentially, they said, they were Mandela’s ANC with a bookkeeper. If you listened even closer to the dog whistles, they were Mandela’s ANC, except white.
But there’s a small issue here. From 2006 until 2018, Zille and her successor as Cape Town executive mayor, Patricia de Lille, visited monstrous injustices upon the city’s poor. The town has become a legend for urbanists, who consider it a fuck-up of Pompei-like proportions, minus the lava. (That said, it’s no worse than other South African cities. Congrats to all involved.) Despite the good work both of them have done in the past, Zille and De Lille will be judged viciously by history, and the Cape Town water crisis exposed other fault-lines within the party.
Once, Cape Town “proved” how the DA had nailed coalition government, but that coalition fell apart after De Lille—fiercely protecting her own patch—played the race card, bent her former coalition partners over her knee and spanked them like naughty schoolboys. Certainly, the national government has played a vast role in Cape Town achieving the status as one of the murder capitals of the known universe, but you don’t get to cash the mayoral or premiership cheques without accepting a huge part of the responsibility.
“In Cape Town, the DA’s conservative funding base still seemed to call the shots. Maybe this is simply the way that power works: a cosy relationship between money and public office, part of the grubby transactional nature of politics. As Stephen Watson prophetically wrote in the conclusion to his collection of stories, A City Imagined, “metropolitan politics will doubtless persist, here as elsewhere in South Africa, as the public domain (though lately privatised) of the seven deadly sins, avarice chief amongst them”.
The lesson is simple: a political party doesn’t have to be ANC-level corrupt to be corrupted. And the DA’s moral corruption is built into its machinery. In a deliberate attempt to veer away from the Soviet structures of African liberation parties, the DA’s arcane framework is meant to resemble a corporation. Members of the party always complain that journalists don’t take the time to understand how the party works, but that’s largely because the party works in a way that no mortal human can possibly comprehend. Briefly, there is a political wing, and a sort of back-end structure known as the federal executive, which is run by a CEO (and has for much of its lifetime been all-white). Then there’s an in-between part called the federal council, which also “isn’t political”: earlier this month, in the move that precipitated this mess, Zille was elected as the Federal Council Chairperson, and promised to “stay in her lane.”
This system shouldn’t work, and it hasn’t. The DA’s top-out range was always going to be around 28% of the national vote, which—let’s be honest—is an objectively amazing place to be. At the zenith of their power and success—which coincided with the nadir of the Zuma era—the DA could have run the Western Cape, Gauteng, and the four big metros. (The ANC’s Gauteng “win” in the 2014 elections is one of the great untold stories of our generation.) That’s enough power and patronage to make just about anyone happy. But not the DA. At the core of the party’s entirely inevitable implosion is, of course, hubris: the belief that it could one day Rule It All; the belief that Helen Zille and her backers had the skills to forge a path to majoritarian rule; the insistence that this would magically happen with a black leader (albeit one who was loyal to Zille unconditionally).
Mmusi Maimane’s ascension in 2015 was glorious to watch, but it came at a massive price: he was known as Zille’s ambitious if unprepared avatar, and he had no real constituency within the party—and thus no power base. He looked weak, and he was weak. He, like so many in the DA, was deeply wounded (and gelded) by Zille’s tweeted idiocies, and her refusal to place the party’s interests over her “right” to opine on social media.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, issues that pertain to many black people seemed to pertain to Maimane: he wanted the country to meaningfully transform. That he didn’t know how to get it there is a discussion for a different time; what’s important is that Helen Zille and her backers did not appear to want the country to transform, certainly not at the expense of its white citizens, and you can’t blame them for that: this is a sweet-ass place to be rich, white and powerful.
Mmusi Maimane is a smart, capable and likeable guy, and its far too early to pen his political obituary, but let’s state the obvious: if the DA’s conservative elements just bit the bullet in service of the long game and backed him; if Zille had stopped undermining him through her microblogging callisthenics; and if Maimane himself had made bold moves like jettisoning idiots for saying dumb things, regardless of whether those dumb things were constitutionally acceptable or not; and if they collectively figured out a post-Zuma strategy..?
The 2019 election near wipe-out, while always a possibility, would have been less of a certainty.
But you cannot transform without backing transformation, and the DA’s real power-players did not do so. They wanted a pliable front, and nothing more. The Ramphele incident failed to teach them that, in the long run, there really is no such person. Transformation is a process, one that requires goodwill and commitment. It also requires the suspension of the usual “classical liberal” shibboleths: that skin colour doesn’t matter, and that we’re all made of flesh, blood, bone and boerie-rolls.
Anyway, it’s all gone to shit now. The closer the DA came to critical mass, the worse its power struggles grew, and the fewer experienced cadres—oops, I mean parachuted-in candidates—there were to do the necessary work. (We should never underestimate the mess the ANC left behind, but that was no secret to anyone.) To illustrate this, we could take the case of former Johannesburg executive mayor Herman Mashaba, another of the pull-up-your-socks black celebs who entered the DA as a free-market anti-poor xenophobe, and left it as the EFF’s aggrieved mascot. It was difficult in 2016 to imagine anyone less suited to running a city, and he was in fact far worse than advertised. The Mashaba/EFF combo revealed what happens when an experienced salesman encounters an experienced and far cannier mafia.
But Mashaba, who quit following Zille’s ascension to the federal council chair, left the party striding across the moral high ground. “I cannot reconcile myself with a group who believe race is irrelevant,” he said. His words set the final power-play in motion: two days later, Maimane and Athol Trollip were gone, bowing to recommendations contained in a review of the party’s dismal performance in the May 2019 general elections.
The DA project hasn’t been a complete failure. Not even close. Think of the passionate MPs, MECs and municipal functionaries who have done great work holding a larcenous regime to account. Think of Jack Bloom breaking the Life Esidimeni mass murders, and his tireless work in the Gauteng healthcare nightmare-scape. Think of Maimane’s thrilling “broken man” speech. Think of Phumzile van Damme and her legal team taking down Bell Pottinger; think of her doggedness in trying to mend the SABC. Think of formal-education-less John Steenhuisen, who as chief whip displayed dazzling skills in Parliament. Think of erstwhile former federal council chair James Selfe, who understood the value of lawfare as a political weapon. Thousands of activists on the ground, hundreds of parliamentary committees, countless successful court cases against a ruling party that was somewhat held in check by their exertions. They have contributed, and contributed massively, to this democracy.
So something terrible has happened on the way to the hollowing out of the DA: the articulation of a South African tragedy. As a senior black DA leader once told me:
“I just don’t know if there’s any point in building a multiracial anything in South Africa.”
The DA is proof that, culturally and racially, South Africa has not progressed much at all; black and white South Africans are separated by a gulf so wide it appears forever unbridgeable. Helen Zille has chosen to embody this divide. The DA is now hers, once again—at last count, she fills pretty much every major leadership position, which happily includes Social Media Policy Chief. Zille has everything she wants, and yet she holds nothing in her hands but ashes. DM