/ 19 February 2023

The USA, Maimane and the DA: How Mmusi Maimane’s plan to change the DA fell apart

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Former Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane. Photo: Supplied

In a report, seen by the Mail & Guardian, which was commissioned in 2021 — just months after Maimane resigned from the party over its poor performance in the 2019 national and provincial elections — the federal legal council found that there was a small clique of individuals who ran the party’s communication machinery with an iron fist. 

The report details how Maimane, along with then DA chief executive Paul Boughey and campaign manager Jonathan Moakes, solicited the advice of an American consultant linked to the US Democratic Party to usher in a new era for the DA which would see Maimane taking charge. 

According to evidence gathered in the report, Maimane and the two former party leaders — now dubbed the NMB trio — went to great lengths to weaken Helen Zille and Tony Leon’s perceived influence in the party. 

Maimane said he had not seen the federal legal council report, which had been commissioned after he left the party, and that he therefore could not comment.

Boughey said he had left the DA in 2019 and had no knowledge of the report.

“I can however state there was no strategy to ‘break’ with any particular group. In point of fact the intention of the party was always to add more voters to existing support to stop South Africa’s rapid decline towards a failed state under the ANC,” Boughey said.

The federal legal council report was commissioned following the Schweizer-Reneke scandal in which a teacher was accused of racially separating the learners in her class. 

While then DA youth leader Luyolo Mphithi was taken to task for his reaction to the incident, evidence from fellow DA leaders suggested that he acted on the directive of Maimane as well as the current parliamentary chief whip Siviwe Gwarube. 

The federal legal commission heard testimony from party members including DA leader John Steenhuisen and former federal council chair James Selfe

The investigation dealt in part with a so-called “white” paper which instructed the communications unit to immediately take a position on incidents of racism, without any context, in a bid to woo the black majority.

In his testimony, Selfe said US political advisor Stan Greenburg was first introduced to the party as a friend of former DA federal chairperson Wilmont James and consulted for a year. 

Greenburg had previously consulted for the Mandela-era ANC, but started doing polling work for the DA from 2013 onwards.

Selfe testified that Maimane created ad hoc decision making bodies from time to time, adding that while he was involved in some, he did not see eye-to-eye with Maimane. The ad hoc groups became bothersome, he said, adding that with Maimane being young and insecure, he liked to surround himself with people who would affirm his point of view. 

The former DA leader, who retired from active politics in 2021, said there were also talks with now-defunct British consultants Cambridge Analytica. He added that at the suggestion of former British prime minister David Cameron, Maimame  engaged the services of Lynton Crosby, a centre-right Australian political consultant, dubbed “The Wizard of Oz.”

At the time, the campaign team was adamant that it needed to duplicate Blair’s Labour Party Clause IV moment and break with its traditionally white voter base to counteract distrust of the DA by black voters. 

The Clause IV decision was a defining moment for the Labour Party as it ended the influence of trade unions over it, changing how the British public viewed the party and bringing it to power in 1997 on a “Cool Britannia” ticket.  

According to Selfe, the “search was on for a disruptive moment” as the DA had expanded as far as it could in terms of traditional markets for voters.

The report said in his evidence, Steenhuisen noted that despite being part of the national campaign team, he had been excluded from the war room. Steenhuisen described his relations with the chief executive and campaign manager as being sometimes “poor”, starting from the party’s response to the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president in 2017.

The NMB trio, Greenberg and others had decided they needed to ensure that Maimane looked like he was in charge of the DA and not a puppet of white people. This meant that Steenhuisen, Natasha Mazzone, Selfe and others “had to get their volume turned down” by being given fewer opportunities and a lower profile in the party.

Greenberg had advised Maimane to present the image of the DA having broken with its past and no longer being “a party for whites” by taking on Zille and “put a hook or spike in her head or take it off”.

The strategy centred around making a public example of cutting ties with Zille, who “had to go” for the party to convince black voters that it was breaking with its past. Responding to issues like Schweizer-Reneke was part of it.

Steenhuisen testified that he believed it was “disingenuous and uncalled for” that a small group of people could decide who should be profiled and that it was “crazy” for the volumes of those who worked hard for the party and understood its strategy to be downed. He did not appear to agree with the strategy adopted by the DA after Greenberg’s departure to “pick a fight with our white voters”.

“Greenberg said we were never going to make a breakthrough among black voters unless there is a disruptive moment that demonstrates to them that this is a party that has broken away from the Helen Zille and Tony Leon party and is now a Mmusi Maimane party; that it is a black man that is in charge and he was not led by whites,” the report quoted Steenhuisen as testifying.

“To do so you will first have to go after a high-profile white person and essentially pick a fight with your base. People saw that it was completely unauthentic and unreal and artificial and therefore they did not want to respond in numbers.”

DA spokesperson Solly Malatsi told M&G on behalf of Steenhuisen and other party members that the report was part of processes which had been dealt with at the time.

“The party concluded all internal processes related to this matter as far back as two years ago. Subsequently, the party has moved on,” Malatsi said.

Mphithi declined to comment.

Leon told the M&G that an earlier report into the election had been commissioned by the DA federal council, which had later adopted it before Maimane’s resignation.

Responding to the M&G, Zille said Greenberg had “tried to turn the DA ‘Woke’ based on race essentialism and the politics of racial division”.

“That approach is the terrain of the ANC and EFF. Not the DA. And unsurprisingly it was disastrous for us. We lost votes across the board, in every community. The report of the review committee was adopted, the DA found its roots again, and we self-corrected. We after being elected. 

“Proper political oversight is, and was, absent [and] the most basic control systems were not in place. All in direct conflict with our values and principles contained in our constitution,” it said. 

It found that there was prima facie evidence pointing to those who had the duty to politically guide the activities undertaken in the war room, failing to perform their duties and functions in a manner that was consistent with the duty or care the party entrusted to them.

In his resignation as a DA member, the City Press reported that Moakes said the party had been at a crossroads for some time with a fundamental disagreement as to “who we are, who we are fighting for and what we want to achieve”.

Moakes called to question why the party had delayed the resolution of key questions, adding that this was undoubtedly a key factor as to why it went backwards in the 2019 election, the City Press reported.

This is part 1 of a 3-part story

Read part 2 – Schweizer-Reneke saga comes back to bite DA leaders

Read part 3 – Burned by its 2019 ‘woke’ experiment, the DA is unlikely to follow the same path leading up to 2024