Defend Truth


Zille’s detractors underestimate her at their peril


Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter.

Nowhere in their resignations this week did Mmusi Maimane and Herman Mashaba address the damage they had done to the Democratic Alliance. They had lost 10% of the DA vote — which in this political environment was an act of political incompetence.

Yesterday Ferial Haffajee described Helen Zille’s election within the DA as a putsch. The Oxford Dictionary definition of a putsch is “a violent attempt to overthrow a government; a coup”. So perhaps a democratic election being labelled a putsch might qualify Haffajee for an honorary degree in hyperbole.

This is a huge crisis for the DA, make no mistake. The rush to resign by Maimane, Trollip and Mashaba shone a Kleig light on a huge split within the party. But it seems to me that it is easy to ignore the central reason they resigned. Quite simply, under their leadership the DA lost votes. The health of any political party is tested with each national election, and this shocking upheaval in the leadership came about because of the party’s dismal showing in May during the national elections. Fewer votes means less power and less chance to implement your policies.

So lets back up and look at the political climate before the last election. The winds of victory should all have been blowing in the right direction for the DA before the election, but the newly resigned leadership managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

First, they were fighting the ANC, which had become the undisputed symbol of corruption and incompetence under Zuma, as the Zondo Commission, Bosasa and so on have spelt out for us in agonising detail ever since. Rolling power blackouts, ever-rising fuel costs, the second-highest murder rate in the world, an economy close to breaking point and a betrayal of the ANC’s constituents with falling rates of education, jobs, healthcare and so on. It was a no-brainer. The DA could not help but grow — yet it didn’t. The stately Cyril Ramaphosa, with a questionable history of 10 years of quiet collusion with Zuma, was presented as the “saviour” of the nation and the DA could not find a narrative to combat that.

Second, the DA had a track record of delivery where it was in government that was consistently positive and impressive. Its lowest points were Patricia de Lille’s murky separation from the party and the Day Zero water crisis in Cape Town. But the investment was pouring into Cape Town, Joburg and Tshwane, education results and job creation were soaring in the Western Cape, corruption was being rooted out and debt was dropping in every government where the DA was in power. Surely the DA couldn’t lose in those centres — but it did.

Third, the DA had grown in power in every election since 1994 (when it won just 338,000 votes) to 2014 when it won more than four million votes. It had been the official opposition for well over a decade, and had successfully engineered the coalitions needed to lead the three largest cities in the country. It obviously knew how to grow — and yet apparently it didn’t.

Fourth, it had grown from a party with a purely white English-speaking base in 1994 into a multicultural party which represented Afrikaans and English whites, a majority of coloureds, most of the Asian vote and a relatively small, but growing share of the all-important black vote. Obviously it would just keep on growing — but apparently not.

Both Maimane and Mashaba laid out a new vision for the party before the election and in their resignations this week. But nowhere in their resignations did they address the damage they had done to the party. They had lost 10% of the DA vote — which in this political environment was an act of political incompetence. None of us find it easy to realise that what we are trying to achieve is having the exact opposite effect to what was intended — but that is what Maimane and Mashaba both failed to admit to. Athol Trollip had the guts to say, “I have to take responsibility”.

But let’s be clear, this party electoral race laid bare a major and possibly fatal weakness at the core of the party. Every single candidate was white. Not only that, they were English-speaking whites. Not one Afrikaner, coloured, Asian or black South African stood for that vital position in the party. Which means at its very core, the DA has not managed to transform itself since 1994 when its voters were only English-speaking whites.

As a liberal party, its goal has been complete racial inclusivity, and for 20 years it has indeed attracted new constituencies of voters at each election, but it has not absorbed those constituencies into the body and brain of the party. These new caucuses still remain basically voiceless in the party. Who are the Afrikaans and coloured and Asian leaders within the DA? Where is their public profile? They have, or had, more black leaders now, but essentially it was Mmusi and his Debating Team of English liberals, and the two Gauteng Metro mayors (until Monday).

So the (very sensible) review which the DA instigated after the election was run by… three English white men. Which means it would not be seen as fair, no matter how zealously and objectively they ran that investigation.

The result: Helen Zille — the double-edged sword. We saw the immediate downside of her new role with these hasty resignations. And as Haffajee demonstrated, facts are not going to get in the way of the media making statements that are at best sensational, and at worst sweeping assertions such as, “Helen Zille is now a more conservative politician”. Some proof would be nice.

But the Zille sword cuts both ways. Herman Mashaba might think he did a great job leading a coalition with the EFF, but Zille has more experience at successfully leading coalitions than anyone else in the party’s history. The knife-edge story of that early Cape Town municipal transition proved that.

Maimane and Mashaba might think they were doing a great job leading the party into a future where more South Africans would flock to the party. But that didn’t happen and the lifeblood of a political party is winning votes.

Both referenced 2016 multiple times in their resignation, as if the DA grew exponentially under their leadership; but the fact is it did not increase its share of the vote in that year. The reason they were able to negotiate those coalitions was that the ANC lost votes — but it did not lose them to the DA. And neither of these men, both inspirational in their own way, copped to their failure in 2019 — it was everyone else’s fault.

Zille on the other hand, is the gold medallist of winning votes and growing the party. She did it as a grassroots activist. We should remind ourselves of how she started the Khayelitsha DA branch, driving in her beaten up old car and helping build a viable branch from nothing. And the DA’s electoral growth under her leadership still makes Julius Malema salivate with envy.

When she won the leadership in 2006, the DA had peaked at 1.93-million votes in 2004, and when she stepped down in 2015 she had more than doubled that total to 4.1-million votes — 2.2-million new votes in nine years. With the demographics of this country, that meant increased votes from every race and language group in our country. Zille knows how to do that and she has done that consistently.

And so we will watch the double-edged sword that is Helen Zille slashing both ways. She is a controversial, outspoken, tweeting goldmine for the media. Whether she is so abused because she is abrasive, or maybe she is just the easiest target — the end result is the same. She attracts vitriolic coverage. But every detractor underestimates her at their own peril. She is arguably the most successful female politician in South Africa in the post-democratic era.

She drove her party to its biggest and most diverse share of the national vote and she led her province in an arc of unprecedented economic growth, rising delivery statistics and took effective and deadly aim at corruption.

She and the federal executive now face a series of monumental tasks in the face of this earthquake. In the short term? Hold as much of the party together as possible. In the mid-term? Rehabilitate the image and efficiency of the party and so maintain or increase its share of the vote in 2021. Long term? She has to drag the party’s structure out of 1994 and into 2020. If she cares about her party and her legacy, maybe the next election for federal chair won’t be quite so veddy, veddy English.

But for everyone who is now talking about the “collapse” and “the death” of the party they should remember — this is not her first duel and the party has been mislabelled before.

For all the ink being spilt and the punditry being posited, the DA has been the second-largest party in South Africa for nearly two decades. Both Zille and the DA have successfully played a long game and they know that with every double-edged sword the opportunities are also doubled. DM


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