Former Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille looks increasingly likely to return to the party as its new federal council chairperson this weekend. But it will be a close-run race with Athol Trollip, her major rival for the post. The final winner could still be decided by DA members, who have not yet picked a favourite.
Zille’s backers believe that she will benefit from the second and third preference votes of supporters of the two other contenders — MP Mike Waters and deputy federal chairperson Thomas Walters — ahead of Trollip in her bid to replace outgoing chairperson, James Selfe.
Each of the 155 delegates voting at the federal council meeting will have to vote for all four candidates, in descending order of preference, with the second and third votes set to be the deciding factor in the election, to be held on Sunday morning.
Zille’s backers believe she is a more acceptable choice to supporters of Waters — whose bid they don’t take seriously — in particular, and those of Walters to a lesser extent.
They also believe that the backlash and fear caused by the party’s poor performance in May — it dropped to 20.7%, the worst showing since 2009 —will turn delegates towards Zille, whose term as leader saw the DA grow as a party, despite her public utterances towards the end of her term in office and since.
The contest between Zille and Trollip is not the first. The two stood against each other in 2007, to replace Tony Leon as party leader; Zille won.
“It’s going to be a very close thing,” said one Zille supporter, an MP who asked not to be named. “We think Zille has the edge. Athol is regarded as being part of the problem as national chairperson. We cannot continue on the current trajectory.”
“Councillors are looking at their seats and are fearful. They are thinking of which candidate can strengthen the party and help them keep their seats. Helen represents a DA that was growing in power.”
The MP added: “The party is in a bad place. We have to listen to the voters and adapt. We have lost traditional voters and failed to win black voters. We can’t continue as usual. Helen may be the medicine the party needs; bitter as it is.”
Although Zille appears to have the backing of the bulk of the DA’s parliamentary contingent, Trollip appears to be more popular with its provincial structures.
DA KwaZulu-Natal leader Zwakele Mncwango said he would be voting for Trollip as the former DA parliamentary leader would be a more acceptable candidate to the party’s rank and file membership than Zille.
“Athol is a tried and tested person who is decisive and capable of strengthening our internal processes. We need somebody who can centre us and who can hold the party together, who can bring everyone together,” Mncwango said.
DA Gauteng leader John Moody said that his vote would be for either Walters or Trollip.
The federal council meeting will also discuss the report of the review panel appointed by party leader Mmusi Maimane to look into the party’s performance.
An earlier investigation into Maimane’s use of a vehicle paid for by a Steinhoff-linked company, and over his home, had cleared the party leader of any wrongdoing. The review panel report was, however, less favourable.
According to DA sources, the report calls for Maimane and DA chief executive officer Paul Boughey to stand down as part of the process of stabilising the party.
An MP said: “The report makes recommendations that he stand down but it was watered down last week to become a call for an early congress. His fate hangs on his performance this weekend. The blood is in the water and the sharks are circling.”
On Thursday, Boughey resigned as chief executive, a post he has held for five years. The development is set to amplify calls for Maimane to follow suit and stand down as party leader, given that the review panel report presented to the federal executive meeting last weekend recommended that both resign.
The MP said a likely outcome would be an agreement for an early conference. People whom the Mail & Guardian spoke to — in both the Zille and Trollip camps — said that this looked increasingly like the way that the party would move forward.
Maimane’s term is due to end in 2021 before local government elections. His detractors argue that an early conference would allow new leaders to bed down ahead of the poll.
Mncwango said the party needed to stick with the policy positions and the leadership it adopted ahead of 2018. “We should be focusing on the policies adopted by delegates at our congress. A year later a few individuals are saying we don’t know what we stand for. This is an insult to the delegates who came to the conference. The members of the DA know exactly where we stand.”
A Maimane supporter, who asked not to be named, said: “We are expecting a call for Mmusi to stand down, but don’t believe it will materialise. The rational thing to do — and the constitutional thing — is to hold an early conference, failing which we should simply wait till 2021.”
Even at this late stage, several delegates whom the M&G interviewed said that they had not made up their minds about who they would vote for.
One said: “We haven’t had formal discussions as a province or a caucus, and I haven’t made up my mind. They all have strengths they bring to the party. They’re all long-standing leaders who know what they are doing. The main thing we all need to remember is that after this election we’re all still in the DA and will have to work together.”
With the contest for first-choice on the leadership ballot so close, the race could end up being about these undecided votes.Whatever their decision, the DA will emerge from this weekend’s meeting a very different party.
Fedex vote has consequences
The election of whoever is chosen as chairperson of the Democratic Alliance’s federal executive (fedex) could have far-reaching consequences — beyond filling the position left vacant by the resignation of James Selfe.
DA delegates to its federal council will on Sunday decide who will be the party’s next fedex chairperson. That job is essentially the second-in-command of the DA and is in charge of discipline, party structures and new members.
The election of the chairperson is seen by many as a proxy battle for the soul of the party.
DA members say the election will determine the future of the party. Some have said that they will decide on the future of their memberships based on its outcome.
Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba told 702 radio this week he would consider leaving the party, depending on who won.
“If the DA is taken over by the Institute of Race Relations, I would not want to be associated with such an organisation,” he told the radio station.
This is seen as a broad swipe against candidates such as Helen Zille and Mike Waters.
Mashaba’s leadership of Johannesburg — which the DA governs thanks to a deal with the Economic Freedom Fighters — has been criticised by sections of his own party, with claims that the relationship has cost the DA votes across the country.
But, if Mashaba goes, the agreement between the EFF and other parties would surely crumble. The EFF is seen as more supportive of the business tycoon-turned politician than his political party.
The country’s biggest city would then be left with a hung council, or the ANC taking over if it gets help from the Inkatha Freedom Party. It would mean the DA losing another metro, after it had to hand over power in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro when opposition parties voted out Athol Trollip as mayor, and installed the United Democratic Movement’s Mongameli Bobani.
In 2016 the DA became the largest party in the Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane metros, adding to its already stable support base in Cape Town.
But this is 2019. — Lester Kiewit