Are whites fit to run the DA?

The media has been abuzz with the story of Helen Zille's condescending attitude to Lindiwe Mazibuko in the last week. The #thingshelenmade hashtag trended over the weekend, making a mockery of the liberal madam meme that Zille has tried so hard to bat away throughout her political career. The more the party leader denied having said that she 'made' Lindiwe; the more anxious her refutations; the worse she looked.

For a politician as seasoned as Zille, it took too long for her to understand that perception is often far more powerful than reality. In this instance of course, the court of public opinion had determined that regardless of what Zille had actually said about Mazibuko, her sentiments shone through. Zille had made it publically known - in a meeting attended by a journalist, _nogal _- that she had given Mazibuko a boost and had not received the requisite gratitude in return.

As many people have noted, Zille's conduct in recent months has grown increasingly erratic and worrisome. Her attacks on journalists and social activists, her refusal to back down or cool down when she tweets faster than she thinks, and her unwillingness to choose principle over cheap politicking time after time, raise serious questions about her continued viability as a leader.

Despite Zille's lacklustre performance, the debate about merit and performance within the DA has mysteriously centred on Mmusi Maimane, Lindiwe Mazibuko and other black members of the Democratic Alliance. Instead of focusing on Helen Zille and the mainly white brains trust that seems to pull the strings within the party in the aftermath of the elections, there is a distracting preoccupation with the more junior black members of the party.

At the very least the DA should be having a conversation about the performance of its leader. It might also want to take the opportunity to discuss what to do about the high-profile members of the party who insist on publicly undermining the party and playing out factional battles that question the black leadership.

There are real questions about whether Zille should occupy the top spot. She has played an important role in guiding and shaping the strategic direction of the party. And there are even bigger questions about the conduct of the DA's old guard who chose to obstruct, challenge and question Zille at every turn during a crucial election.

Yet, because of the obsession that South Africans have with race, and because that obsession takes the form of an assumption that blacks are incompetent and whites are effective - even where there is ample evidence to the contrary - the debate about leadership and succession in the DA is focused on the wrong metrics and the wrong race group.

Zille's under-performance - she has grown the base of the party but frankly, given how weak the ANC was at various points in the campaign, the DA could have made deeper in-roads - should have consequences for her political career.

Instead of looking towards the faults of the white leader, the public conversation about the DA gravitates around the political career of Maimane and, more importantly, around his fitness for office.

Maimane has come in for considerable flack, especially amongst young black opinion-makers. He has been castigated for being a 'puppet,' a 'garden-boy' and a lackey. Many have noted that the shortcuts that he has taken and the speed of his ascent, are a sign that the boss-lady has anointed him. Furthermore, Zille's appalling treatment of Mazibuko has made the ex-parliamentarian a sudden hit amongst black people who have criticised her harshly in the past.

There is no question that Maimane is a smart politician. He has seen an opportunity - which is largely what politics is about - and decided to advance his career by bidding for the position of Parliamentary caucus leader. Is he fit for the job? I don't think so. He has yet to be tested in the most important ways. Is he ambitious and prone to over-reach like his idol, Barack Obama? Most likely. Does that make him a sell-out or a puppet? Hardly.

My biggest problem with the Democratic Alliance is that its policies are not designed to address the deep structural inequalities that exist in this country. Economically, they are a centre-right party, advocating small government in a context of overwhelming poverty and unemployment, and urging self-sufficiency without a sufficient analysis of the barriers that exist to economic advancement for black people. The DA's policy prescriptions will never work for South Africa.

Yet I respect the right of people like Lindiwe Mazibuko, Mbali Ntuli, Wilmot James and others, to belong to a party in which their race interests are subordinate to their class interests. They have decided that this aspect of their identity will determine their political choices. While this is a different choice from mine, I understand it and think it adds to the richness of a plural democracy. The existence of black people for whom race is no longer the primary factor in determining loyalty, adds to debates about economic and social policy in our young democracy.

More importantly, the fact that many of these people can make cogent arguments for belonging to the Democratic Alliance - arguments far more compelling than Zille's - is incredibly important for where we are headed in this country. Their experiment with a unique and unpopular form of post-liberation politics helps all of us to chip away at the silly idea that there is only a certain kind of black person who is legitimate, authentic and qualified to speak 'on behalf of' black people.

There is a sense amongst some black people that black members of the DA are confused race-traitors and/or careerists. While some might be precisely this - just as some members of the ANC, the EFF and other parties might be - it is offensive to suggest that DA politicians are only that. It is also bad for democracy. It reinforces the notion that 'real' blacks vote for the ANC and 'clever' traitorous blacks vote for the DA. The truth is far more complex.

It is about time our politics evolved to allow us to debate on the merits of political ideology and arguments. To be sure, race continues to matter very much in our politics, but it shouldn't become the basis upon which debates are dismissed or won. Sadly, it is likely to be the case that until the DA is able to call its white leader to account, people outside the DA will question its commitment to its black members.

This column appeared on Daily Maverick .