The impending action against Western Cape Premier Helen Zille is a battle for the same support base that supports Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane — a battle that could split the party.
Zille’s fate was due to be decided as DA top brass met over the weekend to discuss the report compiled by the federal legal commission following her controversial tweets on colonialism.
A senior party leader who spoke to the Mail & Guardian before the meeting said Zille was likely to start mobilising members who have historically received her backing in their careers, in an effort to avoid being disciplined by the party.
“Traditionally she has had the power to make promises to people seeking to be elevated and this is, after all, politics. Some on the fedex [federal executive] may feel beholden to her as a result,” the leader said.
Sunday’s meeting was to be attended by representatives from multiple party structures including the nine provinces, the federal council, the federal executive, the DA Women’s Network, the DA Youth and the Association of DA Councillors.
In what is seen as the biggest test for Maimane’s leadership since he took over the party’s hot seat, the executive body has to decide whether or not to press internal charges against Zille. Maimane has long been seen as Zille’s protégé, but the controversial tweet has now placed him at odds with her.
Zille showed this week that she would not go down without a fight when she defended her tweets in the Western Cape provincial legislature — despite having apologised again earlier this week for her statements on social media that labelled colonialism as “not all bad”.
Despite rebuffs by the party, which said her tweets went against its principles of nonracialism, the explanation she gave this week was supported by DA Women’s Network leader and fedex member Denise Robinson, who said Zille had presented a well-rounded argument.
“I think if people read the speech [Zille delivered in the Western Cape legislature], they will see a different view. What premier Zille was calling for is a wider national debate on these matters,” she said. Robinson is understood to be among the fedex members who support Zille.
The decision on whether or not to charge Zille will also determine who wields the most power in the party and offers Maimane an opportunity to exert his influence.
Even though charging Zille may split the party’s fedex, taking no action is likely to raise questions about Maimane’s legitimacy as a leader.
The matter is further complicated by Maimane’s and Zille’s shared support base, which will now have to decide which side to take. He, as the leader of the party, will have to convince fedex members who are also loyal to Zille to support whatever decision he takes.
“The greatest input will come from Mmusi. And people who support Mmusi traditionally supported Helen. So he doesn’t come with a different set of supporters. It’s complex,” said another senior party leader.
But the same leader expressed confidence that the party would move to take action against Zille. “The fedex won’t say she won’t be charged. I’m confident that they will arrive at a charge.”
Although Zille may start to mobilise support within the committee, Maimane’s position as leader of the party gives him an added advantage as his predecessor is seen to have declining influence.
According to another party insider who spoke to the M&G, Zille has already started to lose favour among the provinces, who share the belief that her tweets have affected the DA’s prospects of attracting black votes ahead of the 2019 national elections.
“If it should come to Mmusi being pitted against Zille and whether Zille’s fate is determined by the nine provincial leaders, the latter is likely to suffer an embarrassing defeat because the Eastern Cape and KZN [KwaZulu-Natal] are not fond of her. And, contrary to popular belief, the Western Cape also wants her out, but the problem is fear, that’s all,” he said.
Gauteng leaders have already condemned Zille’s tweets and expressed disdain for the negative impact her statements may have on the progress the party has made in wooing black voters. Gauteng is a key focus of the DA’s 2019 election campaign, with the party hoping to unseat the ANC in the province.
It is understood that the North West is also among the provinces unhappy with Zille. The Northern Cape is believed to support her and it would appear that the positions of the party faithful in the Free State, Mpumalanga and Limpopo are still open to influence.