Former Western Cape Premier Helen Zille saw off challenges from former Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip, and MPs Mike Waters and Thomas Walters to become the Democratic Alliance (DA) federal executive chairperson.
Zille will now be responsible for the day-to-day running of the party and for preparations for both a policy conference – to be held later this year – and an early federal congress, to be held in 2020.
The victory for Zille is a blow for DA leader Mmusi Maimane, who survived a call for his resignation on the basis of a review panel report assessing its performance in the May elections.
Zille has publicly challenged the wisdom of party policies backed by Maimane which position the DA as a liberal democratic alternative to the ANC, including policies to redress the legacy of apartheid and equity clauses.
While she has promised to “stay in my lane”, Zille and her supporters are likely to take their battle to the policy conference and change the party’s stance on issues such as black economic empowerment – which they say has cost it votes – ahead of the 2021 local government elections.
Should they succeed, they are likely to try and unseat Maimane and replace him with a more politically conservative candidate at the federal congress next year.
However, Maimane and his supporters believe that despite the setbacks suffered in the May poll, they have the backing of the DA membership at branch and provincial level. Zille’s power lies with the party’s bureaucracy and with its parliamentary caucus, many of whose members are more in line with her old-school liberalism.
Zille’s successful comeback saw her replace James Selfe – who will go on to head the party’s governance unit, after spending nearly 20 years as federal chairperson.
The change came on the heels of the DA’s first-ever electoral slump. The party got 20.7% of the vote (a drop of two percent) and lost five of the 89 national assembly seats it won in 2014.
It also lost ground in a number of provincial legislatures, including KwaZulu-Natal – where it had become the official opposition in 2014. It lost out in May to the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which is now the second largest party in the legislature.
Maimane told the media briefing called after the federal council meeting that a policy conference would examine policy issues and the recommendations from the review panel report.
The party would call an early federal elective congress in 2020, at which he would stand for re-election.
Maimane said he was “not nervous” over the review, saying that it was necessary to “renew” the DA as an organisation.
“You can’t have two parties within the DA. It cannot be. We build our values on a liberal democratic alternative. We cannot have two parties. It cannot happen,” Maimane said.
Zille said that her return to the party did not contradict the agreement she struck with the DA when she announced her resignation in 2017 – as the agreement did not say that she would not come back.
She said her new role was a “background” one, which essentially meant that she had to “make sure that all the cogs mesh”.
“‘We all know what our jobs area. We all implement our jobs,” she said. “I will stay in my lane.”
The announcement of is policy review committee could be a significant defeat for Maimane.
The party is particularly split when it comes to Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).
The leader is in favour of a policy of economic redress. But Zille has put on record that she believes BEE is a negative policy that puts race above economic growth.
“[We will] undertake a comprehensive policy review of the Party’s positions on a number of key matters, most particularly on economic justice and jobs. The process followed by the Policy Review Committee must involve consultation with Party structures and should be discussed by Provincial Councils,” its statement said.
The DA is now also focussing on its 2021 local government election campaign.
Setbacks in the 2019 general election and subsequent by-elections have shown the party drop support in major metro municipalities.
Even in the City of Cape Town, where it won a two-thirds majority in the 2016 poll, the party saw a drop in support if data of the 2019 election is analysed.
“Focus [must] be given to the 2021 elections urgently in order that the Party can recruit potential candidates and immediately conduct comprehensive and certified training for such candidates,” their post-conference press statement said.
“The Party [must] undertake a campaign to interact with voters to communicate the Party’s core values that are aimed at winning the trust of voters.”
It’s unclear what the election of Zille could have on its hold of other metros its governs.
Last week, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba told Radio 702 he would leave the party depending 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.
Zille is a recent former policy fellow of the think tank.
Mashaba’s leadership of Johannesburg — which the DA governs thanks to the EFF — has been criticised by parts of his own party, with claims that the relationship has cost the DA votes across the country.
But, if Mashaba goes, that agreement between the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and other parties could crumble. The EFF is seen as largely 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 IFP. 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.
The party is also in search of a new chief executive. Former CEO Paul Boughey resigned last week, purportedly on the recommendation of the election review report.