Feeling under siege in her third term, unable to control an unstable party and facing a belligerent caucus, Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Helen Zille believes her enemies want to topple her and hijack the party.
She has managed to grow the party and has tightened her grip on its parliamentary caucus from her provincial office.
She also told the Mail & Guardian that after an assessment in a year’s time and if the need arises, she will move to the National Assembly.
But that power seems to be waning as criticism of her management of the party begins to overshadow her success.
The party seems to be imploding, descending into fierce factional power battles on her watch.
‘Issue in the DA’
In an interview with the M&G this week, she said: “Yes, there is an issue in the DA; it’s about who will become the next parliamentary leader and about who will become the next party leader.”
Zille said there are people in the party’s federal executive who want to see her “destroyed in the party so that their chosen people can succeed”.
She believes there are some in the party who would remove her and take control of the DA, and are using her falling out with former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko to further their agenda.
She claims they are working with journalists, spearheaded by former DA staff member and now Business Day columnist Gareth van Onselen, whose job “is to destroy Mmusi Maimane and Zille”.
She swore never to campaign for another parliamentary leader after the damage caused by her support for Mazibuko. She also issued a warning to Mazibuko’s successor: “I don’t know who it is going to be but I hope that their office will work well, openly and maturely with me. If they don’t, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
Van Onselen recently wrote a column for the paper in which he said the reason for Mazibuko’s departure had been Zille’s “dominant authoritarian personality”.
Zille was thought to be grooming Maimane, the party’s national spokesperson and election candidate for Gauteng premier, to take over from Mazibuko after she and Zille fell out. Maimane accepted a nomination for the position on Thursday.
Van Onselen told the M&G that he is on holiday and does not want to comment.
Zille said in the interview she would not support another parliamentary leader candidate, saying it had been a mistake and one of the root causes in the breakdown of her relationship with Mazibuko.
“I am not pushing Mmusi,” said Zille. “I will never make the same mistake again, ever. I supported Lindiwe in the very best of faith … What I didn’t understand was the extent of the resistance she would face when people saw that I was helping and supporting her.”
A party insider said this week it would be impossible for Zille not to influence the choice for Mazibuko’s replacement as her preference for Maimane is well known and will inevitably influence voting MPs.
Zille has put Mazibuko’s abrupt departure down to her unpopularity within the caucus because of the “big” and “serious” mistakes her protégée began making once she cut Zille out.
As previously reported, Mazibuko lost the support of some of her key allies who backed her against Athol Trollip for parliamentary leader in 2011.
Although Zille claimed Mazibuko erected a “Berlin Wall” between their respective offices and cut off all formal communication, Mazibuko has refused to be drawn into the row. She previously revealed how the two met every Tuesday morning for breakfast at a Cape Town coffee shop.
The party’s federal chairperson and former chair of its parliamentary caucus, Wilmot James, also refuted the idea of a total breakdown in communication, confirming the two had held weekly breakfast meetings as well as high-level biweekly meetings at which he was present.
But Zille has painted a picture of Mazibuko as a lone leader who tried hard not to be viewed as her puppet and in the process alienated Zille, which led to several serious mistakes by the DA caucus in Parliament.
Zille has said Mazibuko knew she would lose the battle to keep her position because of the mistakes.
“Mistakes inevitably started happening and, because there were so many people in that caucus who were resentful about the way she had been elected, they started using the mistakes that she and her leadership team made as a reason to try and undermine her,” Zille said.
She said Mazibuko’s mistakes as parliamentary leader included her initial shadow cabinet reshuffle, “where people were put into positions for which they were not prepared and had to face very serious and complex issues”. Zille said a second reshuffle had then taken place, and the same thing had happened.
She said the party had incorrectly analysed Bills, with researchers confusing insertions for deletions and vice versa, and that policies were unilaterally changed on the party’s website without any consultation.
Shadow cabinet reshuffle
Mazibuko refused to respond to Zille’s allegations but James came to her defence. He said the shadow cabinet reshuffle was the prerogative of the parliamentary leader. “Lindiwe presented her choices at one of our key meetings [and] received a number of objections, to which she appropriately responded.”
He said the second cabinet reshuffle had taken place to fill vacancies left by the resignation of MPs and “there was no wholesale reshuffle at all”.
Referring to Bills being incorrectly analysed, James said there had been only one instance of confusion, following the appointment of a new researcher. “The mistake was picked up early on and corrected before the Bill was considered by the committee. The MPs were therefore fully and accurately briefed by the staff ahead of deliberations.”
He said policy was not the parliamentary leader’s responsibility. “Accordingly, Ms Mazibuko did not change anything on the DA website. I can confirm, as having responsibility for policy, that all editorial changes to policy were made according to normal processes.”
James’s response is part of a growing chorus who believe Mazibuko tried to act in the best interests of the party.
“This is the very reason she agonisingly waited until after the elections to inform the party of her move because she wanted no negative impact on our performance. I respect her greatly for this,” he said.
James, one of the party’s most senior leaders, has maintained a distance from the fracas and did not put himself forward as parliamentary leader.
But he has disagreed with Zille about splitting the position of party and parliamentary leader, saying previously it would lead to two centres of power and, inevitably, factionalism.