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DA: Federalism subverting a coherent party response

Yonela Diko is currently the Spokesperson of the African National Congress (ANC) in the Western Cape. Prior to assuming his role in the ANC, he worked in various companies in the private sector. Between 2007-2009 he worked for one of the Leading Retirement Fund Companies, NBC Holdings as an Employee Benefits Consultant. After that he joined the Corporate Strategy and Industrial Development (CSID), an Economic Research Unit housed under the School of Economics at Wits University. He did his BCom degree at the University of Cape Town majoring in Economics.

The weekend’s DA political circus over the suspension of Helen Zille has exposed the fundamental problem with their federal structure which is inevitably subverting a coherent party response.

Federal organisations generally involve complex relationships between two (or more) levels of leadership, which can lead to tensions that require mechanisms for resolving them. The first question that arises is who is officially mandated by the Federal Council to communicate its decisions. The second question is who is the council secretary who must then communicate the decisions of the council to the relevant people involved (in this case Helen Zille).

It is improbable that Mmusi Maimane misunderstood the decisions of the Federal Council which would naturally have been written down by the council secretary and read to the council at the end of the meeting. For James Selfe, the chairperson, to be miles apart with the leader of the party on outcomes of the federal meeting speaks to more than just the dishonesty and Zille’s stronghold on the party, but to the fundamental problems with their federal structure,

The problem with having a federal structure, with a federal executive separate from the party’s government apparatus, is that it breeds arrogance and marginalisation from both ends. Federalism, by form and content, refers to a system in which there is constitutionally established sharing of authority between different layers of leadership. Not managed well, there will always be a crippling tension between the sprawling bureaucracy of the federal executive and the party’s government apparatus. Federalism is usually more than just a preferred model of government but more often than not is as a result of pressures from minority nationalisms. It requires no stretch of the imagination which group in the Democratic Alliance would push for federalism as a form of governance in the party.

If you look at the Democratic Alliance, in all the incidences that have involved disciplining party members, particularly the white minority old guard, the relationship between the two entities has proven to be uniquely ineffectual, protecting the wrongdoings of the minority class, and this is leading the Democratic Alliance into a party paralysis.

Mmusi Maimane, as the current leader of the party, thinks he knows best the direction the party should be taking and finds Helen Zille’s comments inconsistent with that direction. Helen Zille on the other hand disagrees with this direction, accusing the DA under Mmusi’s rule as proving no alternative to the ANC but almost a mirror image and registered her worry about this direction. This poses clear challenges for James Selfe who for all intents and purposes is in his chairmanship to protect the minority nationalism. If Maimane thinks he knows best, expecting the federal executive to do what it is told, then that executive is in its minority task.

At best the FedEx role should be an advisory one but one that respects Mmusi as an elected leader. That is however not how the DA operates. FedEx has been turned into a power source to keep Mmusi in check and to keep the interests of the old DA white cabal protected.

The DA has no one to blame for this mess. It can in fact be argued that it is the same FedEx, with its staff working for Zille’s interests behind the scenes, which ensured that other candidates like Wilmot James or even Athol Trollip who wanted to lead the DA came up short in the DA elections. They had hoped that the young and inexperienced Maimane would take instructions from them, unlike the stubborn and old guard James or Trollip. Even with an army of Zille’s partisans more than willing to forgo their autonomy as journalists to propel Zille’s schoolboy candidate, nothing could have prepared Zille for a dismissal from the very schoolboy. The country demanded more from Mmusi, the country wanted him to prove himself, that he is not an Uncle Tom bringing shame to black communities in a country politically led by black people. Mmusi, for once, chose the country, and the deal has collapsed.

Zille and FedEx knew Mmusi was a weak candidate but relied on Zille’s Machiavellian tactics and an elitist circle of mainstream media insiders to manufacture a politician out of Mmusi. This weekend their strategy backfired, their creation started believing his own hype.

This however is the second prominent misjudgement of young black leaders by Zille. She engaged in the same parachuting of a young black leader in Lindiwe Mazibuko, miscalculating the fire that was burning inside Lindiwe, waiting to explode. Lindiwe took the opportunity and endorsement and rose to prominence, confident, articulate, black, excellent, and Zille suddenly realised that Lindiwe was capable of reaching the kinds of heights only a black leader could reach in a black majority country and after a while, Zille would just be a hasbeen, running a province nobody really cared about. Zille started to pull the ropes, the the house of cards came down on Mazibuko. Zille blamed Mazibuko of having an unquenchable thirst for power. Zille has insinuated on SAfm that she gave Mmusi a chance. (Mmusi is about to head to Oxford for a Phd in theology, I hear)

Zille has abused the two layers of leadership in the DA structure to push her own agenda using particularly the FedEx. Now she is using the FedEx to survive.

Federalism by its very nature is never the primary form of organisation, it’s seen mainly as a response to political problems and seldom as a form of organising that will lead to Utopia. The DA, an organisation that has kept reinventing itself, with occasional adoption of the exotic forces along the way, saw that in order to protect itself it must have a superstructure that will not change with the changing make up of the organisation. Federalism was the answer. The alarming aspect in all my encounters with DA public servants is how little they know about their party structure and party dealings. Federalism compromises unity of purpose. In terms of fostering a party identity, federalism will always largely fail to construct a political union within which both black and white or young and old members can live harmoniously.

With federalism, this will not be the last feud to erupt between the DA FedEx and the party apparatus and it will always seem like a brawl in a fractious family. The ruckus will most likely always be over rules and who knows them better.

If Mmusi is in interested in changing the DA, he must move to collapse this federal structure so that the organisation has one set of elected leaders to run it.

Until then, his puppet status remains intact.

Harold Meyerson, writing for the American Prospect in November 2009, said, “…federalism is more often the refuge of reactionaries than of visionaries, it has an even deeper flaw: setting an organisation at cross-purposes with itself, and never more so than during changes”.

The DA is today an organisation at cross-purposes with itself. DA


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