Latest DA exit – Patricia Kopane – suggests more attractive options for black leaders elsewhere
On Monday the latest resignation of a high-profile black DA leader came from MP Patricia Kopane, the party’s former Free State leader. Kopane is defecting to Herman Mashaba’s ActionSA, in a move which is becoming increasingly common for the DA’s ex-representatives.
When the DA’s Makashule Gana announced his resignation from the party in early August, federal council chair Helen Zille was not impressed by the media’s insistence on highlighting the fact that Gana’s exit was the latest in a series of departures of black DA leaders.
Terming Gana’s resignation “normal”, Zille posted on Facebook a list of black DA public representatives who remained in the party. Among them was MP Patricia Kopane.
Just ten days later, Zille’s list will need updating. On Monday, Kopane announced her resignation as both an MP and a member of the DA.
Kopane has been one of the DA’s stalwarts for close on two decades, joining the party in 2003 and rising to the position of Free State provincial leader, a post to which she declined re-election in 2020. DA loyalty runs within Kopane’s family: her father James Letuka is a Member of the Free State Provincial Legislature.
In her resignation statement, Kopane made no mention of any racial issues within the party, and stressed that she harboured “no ill-will to the DA” and “the many good people who remain within the party”.
But Kopane also wrote: “The truth is that I no longer believe that the DA is the political vehicle that I joined in 2003. I do not feel that I belong in the DA or that I have the space to make the political contributions to my country”.
As much as it angers Zille, it would be bizarre not to note that Kopane’s resignation comes as part of what the Sunday World recently termed “Blaxit”.
The list of prominent black leaders the DA has lost in recent years, in addition to Kopane and Gana, includes former Midvaal mayor Bongani Baloyi, DA KZN star Mbali Ntuli, former Gauteng leader John Moodey, former MP Phumzile van Damme, former Johannesburg leader Funzi Ngobeni, and former Tshwane leader Abel Tau.
After Gana’s resignation, Zille wrote that departing black DA representatives “become an overnight celebrity and are elevated, retrospectively, to a position of ‘senior leadership’ in the party (which is rarely the case)”.
From the list above, however, it is hard to make the claim that the figures the DA is losing are no-name individuals the media is over-hyping in order to create drama where none exists. Those departed figures are provincial party heads, members of top party structures, metro leaders, high-profile MPs, mayoral candidates…
And there are several other party figures in similarly significant positions who Daily Maverick understands are currently mooting defections too.
But there is one sense in which Zille has a point about media double standards. Less attention has been paid to the white figures who have been leaving the party in recent years, such as the DA’s Gauteng provincial director Michael Beaumont, former Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip, and DA leader John Steenhuisen’s chief of staff Graham Charters.
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What is interesting about all these departures, regardless of the race of those involved, is that DA defectors are overwhelmingly heading in one of three directions.
The first is ActionSA, the political party started by yet another black DA deserter: Herman Mashaba.
The evidence of internal turmoil in ActionSA following the 2021 local government elections — including the ousting of Makhosi Khoza and purging of other representatives — has apparently not lessened the sense from some former DA leaders that Mashaba’s party may offer a promising political future. Neither, apparently, have the accusations of xenophobia which have dogged ActionSA from the outset.
It is to ActionSA that Patricia Kopane is headed, with Kopane terming Mashaba’s outfit “an exciting new party” on Monday.
There she will find former colleagues Trollip, Beaumont, Baloyi, Ngobeni, Tau, Moodey and probably many more.
It is now clear that ActionSA is by some margin the political home of choice for former DA representatives.
But there are two other interesting potential destinations. One is the One South Africa Movement, former DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s platform to assist independent candidates in elections. (This is where Charters went, to name just one).
The other, around which there is a growing buzz, is former Business Day editor Songezo Zibi’s Rivonia Circle, which is busily at work building a grass-roots network of activists which looks likely to develop into a formal political party. Both Gana and Ntuli have expressed enthusiasm for this project, which seeks to harness the talents of the black professional class in South Africa.
While the DA might not be fond of the scrutiny and criticism that tends to come the party’s way following each new departure, these exits can also be viewed as part of the maturation of South African opposition politics in a way that is healthy for the country at large.
The DA has, after all, truly come of age when it has splinter parties — much as the ANC has Cope and the EFF — winning significant votes in national elections.
But on the less positive side for the DA, its black leaders in particular now have genuine options within the liberal opposition for alternative places to take their political skills, intellects and energies if it is felt that those qualities are not sufficiently recognised by the DA. Whatever Zille might say, that should be a wake-up call for the party. DM