Can a black leader change an 'institutionally white' DA?

Helen Zille. (Skyler Reid, MG)

Helen Zille. (Skyler Reid, MG)

With the decision by Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille not to stand for re-election in the party’s next conference coming as a surprise to many, commentators feel that the organisation’s prospects are unlikely to improve even if a black leader is at its helm. 

Zille, who announced her decision in a press conference held at OR Tambo International Airport on Sunday afternoon, was mum on whether race was a consideration in choosing the party’s leader when it elects new leadership on May 9. She said the party was seeking an “excellent” leader as opposed to a black one.

In the wake of the announcement, however, pundits were unanimous in their speculation that Mmusi Maimane, who was until recently seen as Helen Zille’s close ally, would emerge as the party’s new leader. Maimane is considered to be the party’s key to making further inroads into black voters’ hearts. 

But “the DA doesn’t have an obvious candidate that can capitalise on the foundation that she had laid to grow the party,” said political analyst Eusebius McKaiser, author of the book Could I Vote DA?: A Voter’s Dilemma

“The problem with the DA is that it needs an excellent black leader,” he said. “If you were to have a poll now, probably only the EFF would have generated more votes than it had done in the last elections. So Mmusi Maimane’s biggest headache now is how to get the voters that were prevaricating whether or not to vote DA to stop prevaricating. 

“But that won’t be handed over to him on a sliver platter. He is going to have to work hard to prove that he has a deep sense of history, to prove that his analyses are based on race awareness and not just class awareness, so that it becomes harder for the ANC to accuse the party of being ahistorical.”

Conservative liberals
Soon after the announcement, ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa said the DA “remained a racist party that desperately needs a black leader to hide its true colours.” 

McKaiser said the party still has too many conservative liberals who have never left and that the party only tried to appeal to people through the use of symbols and posters. “So while [Eastern Cape DA leader] Athol Trollip can convince you that he sees class and not race and that he speaks Xhosa to his constituency, the DA is filled with people who think race is poisonous and hold morally conservative views about the treatment of sex workers on the Sea Point promenade.”

Brian Ashley, of the Alternative Information and Development Centre, said the party was likely to remain institutionally white, even with a black leader: “When Agang was formed there was a lot of media hype. Mamphela Ramphele was on every radio show, etcetera. Most of us were skeptical about what she’d do. Politics to the right of the ANC was clogged up and occupied by a whole battery of parties. The ANC itself was walking right in terms of economic policies and social politics. It was all a bit like rearranging the chairs in the Titanic.”  

Institutionalised policies
Ashley used the comparison to the Titanic reluctantly, as he was wary of creating the impression that the country is “sinking”. 

“When you focus on the DA in this situation, let’s say they put a black leader at the front of it. Institutionally, it remains a white party that guarantees the negotiated settlement, the slow pace of wealth redistribution and policies predicated on the markets, which are in crisis. That politics has very little way to go.”

Ashley said he was “more interested in what happens with [expelled Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima] Vavi and Numsa. That’s where opposition politics is more interesting and that’s light years away from the DA.” 

He added that the DA would find it difficult to play for more than the 20% it is presently  mobilising for because, among other things, “the politics of patronage were very strong in a situation with such high levels of deprivation”. The DA got 22.2% percent of the national vote in last year’s general elections, a 5.5% increase compared to 2009. 

Choosing a leader
Yesterday, Zille would not be drawn on the succession race, saying a mistake she had made in the past was to choose sides in these contests. Speaking on SAFM, analyst Somadoda Fikeni said Zille had quit because she understood the implications of being a lame duck and the possibility of being attacked from all angles. 

A Western Cape lobby was pushing for Zille to get rid of Maimane as the party felt it was being outplayed by the EFF in Parliament, partly as a result of Maimane’s bungling, including siding with deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa in his attempt to restore order in Parliament last year.  Maimane had yet to back her for re-election prior to yesterday’s meeting. He was equally evasive about what his next move would be, saying he needed time consider it.  

The suddenness of Zille’s announcement, however, may be to the advantage of the party’s old guard, Fikeni said, as the DA leader would take a back seat and not actively punt younger black leadership. He added that leaders with entrenched constituencies built over years could trump younger candidates who would have very limited opportunity to campaign with a truncated window period.  

Zille had previously groomed the party’s young leaders such as Maimane and Lindiwe Mazibuko, who is only expected back in the country later this year, months after the party’s elections.

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo


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