The Democratic Alliance is in flux and Helen Zille is being left behind. This week’s decision by the party’s federal executive to suspend the Western Cape premier because of her colonialism tweets has provided a glimpse into the shifting tensions in the battle for the soul of the DA.
For the DA under Mmusi Maimane’s leadership, Zille’s views on colonialism and affirmative action represent the thinking of an older era that the party is trying to move away from.
Party leaders say they have already started debating the fate of the DA without Zille and her support base, with some saying she will have to leave as premier if the party is to meet its targets in the 2019 general elections.
As leaders who support Maimane’s vision crisscross the country to strengthen DA branches, Zille’s utterances are seen as a distraction that has caused the party to deviate from its 2019 focus and look inwards to resolve its internal turmoil.
Since publishing her tweets reflecting on the positive aspects of colonialism, Zille has found herself scrambling to hold on to favour both in and outside the party. She has also faced calls for her resignation as premier.
The Economic Freedom Fighters and the ANC in the province, former DA leader Tony Leon, DA veteran Douglas Gibson and other South Africans have called on Zille to resign.
Although the colonialism tweets sparked the beginning of her unravelling, there had long been signs that Zille was steadily moving in a direction opposite to the one in which Maimane was steering the party.
Maimane’s vision and strategy ahead of the 2019 elections is clear: to increase the party’s black vote and attract more black members to take up leadership positions, an action tantamount to race quotas, which the DA has historically rejected.
In his initial statement on Zille’s suspension, Maimane said it was apparent that he and Zille, the former party leader, no longer shared the same vision for the party.
“It has become quite evident that Helen Zille and I hold fundamentally different attitudes about the mission the Democratic Alliance needs to accomplish in 2019, and the goals and priorities that flow from this,” Maimane said.
In her submissions on why she should not be suspended, Zille raised her concerns about Maimane’s leadership style.
“If a person can be suspended for simply expressing a different view, in confidential conversations, to that of the leader, the DA is on a slippery slope,” she said. “No one else will feel free to express a contrary opinion to that of the leader or if they do, they stand the risk of the same thing happening to them,” she added.
But the move towards Maimane’s vision has already begun. There has been buy-in from DA leaders who have been calling for rapid transformation.
Among them is Gauteng legislature member Makashule Gana, who is understood to have been a critic of Maimane in the past but has now lauded the plan to recruit more black leaders. Last year, Gana left his position in Parliament to grow the DA’s black support base in Gauteng.
While Zille wrote newspaper columns and conducted interviews to defend herself and her tweets, Maimane’s apparent inability to restrain her cast a shadow over his leadership ability and raised questions about who was really in charge.
A party leader, who asked to remain anonymous, said Zille’s case would be a test not only for the DA, but for Maimane in particular. “This is a very good test for him. There’s no doubt that this is a huge test for him: a test of character and a test of his leadership.”
Concerns had been raised that taking harsh action against Zille would lead to an exodus of white voters. In her submissions Zille also brought up the issue of race in the DA, accusing the federal executive of enforcing a perception that white DA members were disciplined more harshly than their black counterparts were.
A senior DA member said party members were debating over the “battle for the soul of the DA” and were weighing the cost of possibly losing white support.
“That’s the biggest question. We fight about that in every meeting. Half of people say some white people may have to go, especially the racist ones; that’s just a reality,” the member said on condition of anonymity.
“Others say: ‘No, we must keep our base as strong as possible.’ But then those are people who are happy with the status quo and who want us to be moving slowly. The rest of us are saying: ‘No. We need to grow.’ ”
The senior member said the DA needed to consider what its fate would be if it allowed Zille to survive her upcoming disciplinary hearing.
“People are only talking about what will happen if she loses. Nobody asks what will happen if she wins. She’s going to be emboldened. She’s going to win support but she’s also going to create a group of people that thinks the way she does.”
The DA will have to reach a conclusion about whether Zille represents a deviant way of thinking that is holding the party back from achieving its 2019 electoral ambitions.
If so, the party may be forced to sacrifice its former leader for the sake of its future success.