Helen Zille won control of the Democratic Alliance’s highest decision-making body by a narrow majority of seven votes.
Despite the tight margin, Zille’s election as chairperson of the party’s federal council was the final nail in the coffin of the DA’s leader, Mmusi Maimane, who on Thursday resigned from Parliament and from the party.
The previous day Maimane resigned as party leader, joining the exodus of opponents of Zille’s brand of liberalism. The flight was kicked off on Monday when Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba resigned from the party. He will vacate his mayoral office on November 27.
Athol Trollip, whom Zille beat in the race for the federal council chair, resigned as federal chairperson on Wednesday.
The departure of Zille’s opponents in the wake of a seven-vote victory has been far more rapid than would have been expected. This hints that they realised that they had lost the battle with Zille over the party’s direction before the federal council met last weekend.
Maimane had argued that the DA needed to continue with its policies based on redress of apartheid, adopted in 2018, while Zille and her backers wanted the party to dump these and return to its stance of opposing policies such as black economic empowerment and ignoring historical, racially based inequality.
Zille garnered 59 votes to Trollip’s 52 votes. Trailing them were Thomas Walters, with 17 votes, and Mike Waters, with two votes.
“I suppose it was close. I don’t want to say there are factions in the party, but there are considerable differing opinions in groups,” said one DA member who voted in the federal council.
The member added: “[The debate] was not rowdy. It was robust. There were strong opinions and people voiced their opinions, particularly as the meeting was convened to discuss the election review report.”
That report had called for the resignation of senior people in the party, including Maimane, who had overseen the slip in the party’s fortunes in this year’s national election in May from 22.23% to 20.77% — the party’s first electoral reverse.
Thenarrow margin of victory for Zille suggests the DA is divided over its policy direction.
But some members said these resignations had come as a shock.
“Some people have taken a decision that they don’t want to rally [around the party] and they want to leave. That’s their prerogative and that’s what they must do,” a party insider said.
One MP close to Zille said he believed her return to politics was a spur of the moment decision and denied there was a calculated attempt to remove Maimane.
“I asked her and she said she was approached by a senior staff member and dozens of MPs to stand, and she decided at the last minute to do so. And you know Helen — she doesn’t lie. I believe her. She made her decision based on the state that the party was in.”
Maimane, however, told a media briefing on Wednesday that he had been the target of a “consistent and co-ordinated attempt to undermine my leadership and ensure that this project failed, or I failed”.
Maimane’s resignation as a member of Parliament and as party member has saved him from a vote of no confidence.
After calling it quits as party leader on Wednesday, Maimane waited until moments before a scheduled parliamentary caucus meeting on Thursday to also announce he was fully ejecting himself from the party and resigning as a public representative.
His initial decision to still continue as parliamentary leader caught MPs off guard, with some saying he would have been unable to continue as caucus leader.
One MP said that if Maimane had attended the caucus meeting there would have been problems: “People were unhappy. There was a bus waiting for him.”
Caucus members who spoke to the Mail & Guardian suggested that Maimane had shown a lack of respect for the party.
One MP said Maimane would have had no authority to whip MPs to toe the party line. “I don’t believe it would have been possible for him to retain authority in the caucus. I was surprised by that [his decision]. I don’t see how it is possible to resign as leader and then still lead caucus.”
Another MP said Maimane’s days as parliamentary leader would have been numbered if he had stayed in the position. “It’s in the last few weeks that he has been under enormous pressure. Him resigning was not much of a surprise; him not resigning as parliamentary leadership was a big surprise. Caucus was not going to respond well to that at all.”
An MPL said Maimane had been “silly” to resign as party leader and hope to stay on in his parliamentary post. “When he resigned he said the DA was not the vehicle to take things forward, but that he wanted to stay on in Parliament. You can’t do that and think that you are going to stay.”
The resignations leave both the party’s national and parliamentary leadership seats vacant.
And the DA must still decide who will lead the party from its Johannesburg headquarters.
Another leadership race in the parliamentary caucus has been triggered by the resignation of John Steenhuisen as chief whip.
Steenhuisen said there was nothing untoward about his resignation, because his term was tied to that of the party leader and it is the party leader who appoints the chief whip.
Deputy chief whip Jacques Julius will stand in for him in the interim.
The MPL said it had been“expected” that Steenhuisen would stand as leader. “We have all been waiting for this to happen.”
The caucus will next week vote on who will lead it in Parliament if the new national leader is not an MP.
Steenhuisen has confirmed that he is considering standing for parliamentary leader.“I’ve been approached by a number of people. I will consider it and will make an announcement in due course.”
Steenhuisen said it was unlikely that Zille would return to Parliament. “It won’t be possible because the parliamentary lists remain intact for a calendar year, so the only time that amendments to the caucus can be made would be in May next year,” he said. “The person who will fill Mr Maimane’s seat will be the person next on the national list.”
Caucus chairperson Anneli Lotriet, who is currently the party’s interim parliamentary leader, said the election of the new leader would happen as soon as possible. “If the federal leader is not a member of parliament, then the DA caucus must elect from its own ranks the parliamentary leader. Caucus has asked me to write to the federal executive to ask permission that we have an election next Tuesday. We will await their decision as to whether that will happen.”
For the DA, the outcomes of these decisions will be crucial in positioning the party ahead of the local government elections in 2021.
At this stage it is not clear what the fallout from the resignations of Maimane and Trollip will be, particularly in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, where the provincial leadership backed Trollip for federal chairperson.
“I haven’t heard of anyone else [resignations] yet,’’ said one senior provincial member. “People will wait to see where the chips fall now.”