/ 19 May 2014

DA’s disagreements necessary – but it needs to self-assess

DA leader Helen Zille with the party's former parliamentary leader
DA leader Helen Zille with the party's former parliamentary leader

Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille on Sunday in a strongly worded statement accused the media of taking sides in the succession battle playing out within the party, following an article over the weekend alleging that Zille said she “made” Lindiwe Mazibuko. But this is just the beginning of the party’s disagreements as it becomes stronger and wields more power, say experts.

Mazibuko resigned as parliamentary leader soon after the May 7 elections, saying she was going to study at Harvard University – a decision that took many, including Zille, according to her statement, by surprise.

Zille, accusing some members of the media of being “embedded” with certain factions, was responding to a column by former DA policy analyst and development head Gareth Van Onselen who said Zille ruled the party with an iron fist, and an article in the Sunday Times alleging that Zille told a meeting of the party’s federal executive committee that she “made” Mazibuko and “saved” her many times in Parliament.

Zille denied that she used either statement and said the article was written to suggest that she launched an attack against Mazibuko, which was not true.

But Zille does say in her statement that she “had repeatedly taken responsibility for mistakes made in Parliament, in an attempt to protect her and the Parliamentary team”, and that Mazibuko erected a “Berlin-wall” between her office and Zille’s, making a number of decisions on her own.

‘Misled’ on employment equity
One such decision was the about-turn on the Employment Equity Amendment Bill. The party approved it on October 24, only to withdraw it on November 7. Zille apologised, saying the party had been “misled”.

Zille said on Sunday that she was answering questions posed to her by DA Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip during the federal executive meeting when she conceded that Mazibuko was not her first choice, and that when it became clear that she wanted to run for Parliamentary leader, “I backed her because in trying to diversify the party, I felt it was important for her to win.”

Zille said decisions made by Mazibuko’s “without discussion [resulted in] serious mistakes for which I stepped forward and took responsibility … because of this, resistance to her leadership emerged in the Parliamentary caucus, which became divided”, she said.

“It became clear that many people were determined to vote for a change of leadership after the election.”

Mazibuko replaced Trollip in Parliament, whose appointment over Ryan Coetzee was also not without its drama.

In her statement, Zille challenged media houses to protect their credibility and take action against journalists who were being used to “drive a factional agenda in the DA’s succession battle”, adding that she would request meetings with the editors of two national newspapers, the Sunday Times and Business Day, to “discuss the way forward”.

Giving leaders agency
Ebrahim Fakir head of governance at the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA), said the reasons comments attributed to Zille are harmful is that the party, despite its 6% gain, is still struggling to move away from its Progressive Party roots and its image of paternalism.

He said South Africa’s political culture is shaped by identity politics, so it would not be sufficient to have black leaders and members to gain legitimacy and support. It would need to give these leaders “agency” – real power.

Fakir said there were a lot of questions raised about the DA’s endorsement of Mazibuko as parliamentary leader.

 “Where had she come from, she seemed to have no original ideas, she had no political pedigree or experience in politics. She was a completely unknown entity,” Fakir said.   “One thing that cannot be ignored, however,” he said, “is that for Mazibuko to have [initially] voted in favour of the Employment Equity Amendment Bill, there must have been support within the caucus, which suggests there are still differences of opinion on policy there.”

That being said, Fakir, like author of Could I Vote DA Eusebius McKaiser, believes that with growth comes the emergence of different viewpoints and policy disagreements, which neither believes are a bad thing.

“I have been saying this for a long time: the more the DA amasses formal power – greater responsibility in government – and as they extend their influence, they will start to mirror the problems of other political parties, such as the African National Congress [ANC],” said Fakir.

“When a party becomes bigger, it attracts different types of people who might think alike or might find they think largely like the party but differ in some aspects. And [there are] others who could well fit in with any party, which makes for a variety of views.”

‘Another important job to do’
McKaiser said the DA’s biggest problem was its general resistance to self-examination.

On Sunday, DA federal chairperson James Selfe confirmed that he declined a request to stand as the party’s caucus leader in Parliament, saying he had “another important job to do”.

Mmusi Maimane, who was the party’s Gauteng premiership candidate is tipped to replace Mazibuko. Zille said that Maimane has indicated he wanted to serve the DA in Parliament. But Maimane is thought to have been groomed for the parliamentary position after a widening gap between the Mazibuko and Zille

Fakir said Maimane also had yet to prove himself. While Maimane holds a masters degree in theology, and is studying towards a second masters degree in public administration, he has no experience in the National Assembly.