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Raenette Taljaard: Why I left the DA

Glynnis Underhill

A new book by former Democratic Alliance MP Raenette Taljaard's reveals how she went from being Tony Leon's preferred candidate to exiting the party.

Raenette Taljaard appeared to have it all. People saw a bright political star. Little did they know that she was battling to do what she felt was expected of her, when she entered Parliament in 2004 as the Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon’s “preferred candidate”.

“It would mean unquestioning loyalty and assumed support for his positions in debates and internal caucus votes—something I was not able to give at all times,” she writes in her book Up in Arms: Pursuing Accountability for the Arms Deal in Parliament.

In fact, the former DA member of Parliament now reveals she grew increasingly restless, and doubted the sincerity of Leon’s commitment to transform the opposition party because, she said, “every single strategy meeting continued to be held in the same cloistered confines of white male comfort.”

Even after resigning, she said she felt she could not be candid with the media. Instead, she had to shoulder the inaccurate public perception that she remained loyal to the party, when she actually left the DA first and then Parliament, in that order, she writes.

Taljaard unpacks the serious tensions that arose with the issues of oversight and accountability during the explosive arms deal probe, but on a more personal note she also gives fascinating insight into her feelings of anger and humiliation at being placed low on the Democratic Alliance’s election list in 2004. Leon had to step in to bump her up.

Unelectable position
Both Taljaard, who studied politics and constitutional law at Rand Afrikaans University and later did her master’s degree in public administration and public policy at the London School of Economics, and another DA candidate, Francine Antoine, were nominated by veteran activist Helen Suzman.

“Despite Helen’s recommendation on our behalf, we were both aghast when the Electoral College placed the two of us in unelectable positions—a bizarre fate for people who had the full support of the doyenne of the party.”

After the news broke that she was low down on the candidate’s list, she had a call from Leon to “tell me to stay calm”. At his urging, Taljaard had returned home from Yale University, where she holds the prestigious title of Yale World Fellow.

“He assured me that he would use his power as leader to return me to Parliament,” she writes. “I could not sleep that night and asked myself countless times why I had decided to return home from Yale, only to be disappointed in this way. I was angry with Tony for having been so persistent.”

The next morning she tried to get hold of Leon, and found him unavailable, so she settled for a coffee with his wife Michal.

Fighting for diversity in DA
“Michal’s advice was that I leave not at a time chosen for me by the Electoral College, but one of my choosing,” she said.

Taljaard was humiliated that she would need help getting back into Parliament. After all, in 1999, at the age of 25, she had been the youngest woman to have been elected to the South African Parliament. But she threw herself into her work, and she soon found herself caught up in the “cut and thrust” of debates.

“After a few weeks, I made an appointment to see Tony. Now I was one of the people who appeared to annoy him every time I raised the issue of racial and gender diversity in the DA or questioned a strategic decision of the party.”

After Leon had returned from the Free State, where he had been “reluctantly drawn to declare his support for the death penalty again,” she ignored his foul mood and told him about her dismay that so few women, and what were euphemistically called “non-traditional DA supporters,” were involved in the strategy and tactics of the election campaign.

Leon had appeared patient, and promised he would use his influence to influence the composition of the candidates’ list and he would act against “gatekeepers” and, in his words, “blacken the list” in order to alter the racial composition of the opposition benches.

Ill at ease
All she needed to do was wait for the influx of new MPs to transform the complexion of the party’s team.

“I left feeling somewhat uneasy about his defensive tone and his choice of words,” she said.

As the party’s campaign got under way, she threw herself into it.

“But my heart was not in the campaign at all,” she said. “It was not only that the tone of South African politics had altered and become ever more acrimonious, but that I could not ignore how ill at ease I felt in representing the DA. I regretted my decision to go along with Tony’s preferment on the party list, instead of simply walking away. But it was my decision, after having listened to Michal, and I only had myself to blame.”

After the election, Taljaard slowly settled into life in the finance committee and the debates in Parliament. “As the months went by, I felt growing frustration within the party,” writes Taljaard. “It seemed to me that Tony was becoming more and more isolated and cloistered in a bubble with his male entourage, who acted as echo chambers for each other’s belief systems, and world outlooks. I observed these developments with dismay, and an every-growing sense of unease.”

War-like posturing
She became increasingly concerned at the tone that marked exchanges between Leon and then President Thabo Mbeki.

“I was deeply averse to engaging in war-like posturing with ANC colleagues whose intentions and motivations were similar to my mine—although we held widely divergent views on how best to achieve our common goals,” she said. “They were my compatriots, not my arch-rivals.”

Taljaard said she did “catch sight of a unique principled person” when Helen Zille moved from provincial politics to the national Parliament and became her corridor colleague, as she puts it.

Charting the increasing attacks in the media on Leon, she said she had told him he should not be surprised that Business Day editor Peter Bruce had launched a heavy critique of his leadership. Taljaard said she pointed out to him that the question of economic policy had largely been marginalised in the election campaign, and that he should take responsibility for the attitude of many newspaper editors towards him. Leon had been “livid” by her attitude. “I understood that the tone between us had changed irretrievably,” she writes in her book.

Later she asked for another meeting with him to speak to him “as a friend” about his leadership and what she saw as party problem areas.

Reasons for leaving
“On the surface, ours was an amicable conversation, but I could feel the latent anger in his seven-page hand-written letter that followed.”

Finally Taljaard resigned, and in her letter said that the dominance of the ANC and its behaviour in Parliament, was not her reason for quitting.

“Allow me to clarify again: my reasons for departing relate primarily to the DA, key personalities within it and their respective roles, and not to the ANC,” she wrote in her letter of resignation.

When she gave her swan-song speech on November 9 2004 during an economic policy debate, she felt emotional and at a loss. Letters of support and kindness followed from many ANC veteran politicians, like Kadar Asmal, Barbara Hogan and Rob Davies.

“It was as if I did not belong anywhere else, but right in the middle of the floor of the House—between the DA and the ANC—where my own beliefs and feelings intermingled: the ideological, pragmatic middle ground, which neither party would ever concede as existing in our complex society.”

In 2006 Taljaard became director of the Helen Suzman Foundation, a liberal democratic think tank. She is now an independent analyst and adjunct senior lecturer in the political studies department of the University of Cape Town, where she teaches public policy.


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