Senior black Democratic Alliance leaders have called for Helen Zille to be “dealt with decisively”, saying her now infamous colonialism tweets could affect the DA’s election prospects.
But some are defending her, the most staunch being the new acting Western Cape leader Bonginkosi Madikizela, who said her tweets were not made in defence of colonialism.
Zille is to appear before the DA’s federal legal commission on Saturday after she tweeted that colonialism was not all bad for South Africa.
DA national leader Mmusi Maimane shied away from questions about the tweets potentially scaring off black voters and said the matter affected all South Africans equally. He would not be drawn on whether it was time for Zille to step down to preserve the integrity of the DA.
“Whether Helen will remain premier or not, the matter has gone to disciplinary processes. An investigation is well [under way]. We are not going to stay away from that matter and I stay firmly on principle that that matter will see its own fruition as it goes,” he said.
Madikizela said he believed it was the public’s perception of Zille’s comments that was an issue, not the remarks themselves. “Politics are about perception and anything that is viewed to have any support for colonialism might drive a perception, even though she didn’t defend it. I must be very clear here: it’s the perception around it that is an issue.”
At the time of speaking to the Mail & Guardian Madikizela had just been at a meeting with members of the DA caucus in the Western Cape provincial legislature at which Zille had explained her actions. He denied reports that some leaders wanted Zille gone. “She just wanted to put this issue into context to take her caucus, as the caucus leader, into her confidence and explain exactly what happened — which is exactly what a leader would do,” he said.
But senior party leaders in Gauteng condemned Zille’s behaviour, saying it contradicted the party’s ideals for a nonracial society. Gauteng is a crucial province for the DA ahead of the 2019 national elections. The party plans to win at least one province other than the Western Cape at the polls and has set its sights on the country’s economic hub.
Part of its strategy is to groom more black leaders and to make itself appealing to black voters. For this reason, former MP Makashule Gana last year gave up his seat in the National Assembly to begin campaigning in Gauteng townships.
Zille’s controversial tweets came just days before the DA kicked off its 2019 election campaign.
Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba said he expected the party’s federal executive to take tough action against Zille. “The leaders who praise this travesty, or leaders who want us to appreciate what colonialism has left us, will be dealt with accordingly and decisively,” Mashaba said.
Gauteng DA leader John Moodey said Zille’s statements may scare off the party’s newly acquired black support base. After winning three key metros — Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay during the 2016 municipal elections — the DA expressed confidence that it could win the 2019 national elections.
“The potential is there for us to lose support among our new support base. Because it’s the type of thing that has me offended as well,” Moodey said. “I don’t take it lightly. Even there within the party, the potential does lie for us to become fractured as a result of this.”
Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga said Zille’s tweets reflected badly on the party ahead of the 2019 elections. “I’m not scared to say that [Zille’s conduct] was wrong and it goes against everything we are trying very hard to achieve. It puts us in a very bad light and gives the ANC something to whip us with,” he said.
Part of the DA’s success in reaching black voters has been to dispel ideas of it being racist and to fight the rhetoric that black leaders were being used as window dressing. The public is looking to black DA leaders to condemn Zille’s behaviour to prove the party’s ideals of nonracialism.
Though Maimane has approached the matter with caution, the incident gives him the opportunity to prove his capability as a leader and to disassociate himself from views that he is a “stooge” for white party leaders.
Gana, who has already started his crusade in the Gauteng’s townships, said Zille’s comments could potentially create distrust between the DA and its voters.