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JUDITH FEBRUARY: Maimane the casualty of a DA with no core identity

OPINION

Such drama. Such melodrama. How else to describe Helen Zille’s return to politics? This past weekend, Zille won the contest to become chair of the Democratic Alliance’s Federal Council. Zille barnstormed and won yet another leadership position. It came across as a little tone deaf. Did South Africans really need more of Zille on their Twitter feed and in the media, relentlessly trying to set the world to rights and in so doing, always actually trying to prove herself right?

What has now become clear is that she did not think through the consequences of her actions carefully enough. Neither did her supporters. Her return has laid bare the divisions within the DA and will have a ripple effect on opposition politics in South Africa.

The ANC must be looking on, slightly bemused. Factionalism is the new normal when South Africa is in desperate need of an opposition, which is truly able to hold the ANC to account for its multiple governance failures.

At the start, Zille was clear to say she would ‘stay in her lane’ and be the party’s ‘toilet cleaner’ while beleaguered Mmusi Maimane remained the party leader.

Only the most naïve would have believed that. Even a casual observer of South African politics would have been able to predict that Zille would never be able to ‘stay in her lane’. She is simply not that kind of politician.

Then came Herman Mashaba’s resignation as Mayor of Johannesburg. Mashaba was never really a convincing politician, seemed to suffer from ‘foot in mouth’ disease and peddled a largely conservative discourse. One never got the sense that he had the political nous to deal with the deep challenges Johannesburg faces.

Zille, true to form, immediately took to Twitter to berate Mashaba. After all, she said Mashaba had only recently praised her yet was now claiming to resign because of her return. True, Mashaba was being disingenuous.

This was soap opera politics of a special kind.

But the optics were already poor - black leader departs as Zille returns. Ouch. Zille and the core faithful remained undeterred. Then the reality of Maimane’s resignation set in.

Maimane’s resignation gave effect to the external review, which he himself commissioned. It recommended that he step down.

Wednesday’s on again-off again DA press conference was something worthy of the ANC in disarray. Maimane has now ‘exited stage left’ and the question is, who will lead the DA now?

When she took over as chair of the Federal Council, Zille said, “I can't let the DA simply unravel without putting in a huge and final effort to help stop it.” So, like a latter day Joan of Arc, Zille seems to believe she is ordained to save the party almost akin to Donald Trump’s “I alone can fix it”.

To be clear, the DA’s showing at the May election was, no matter how they tried to ‘spin’ matters, pretty poor. Given the allegations of corruption and state capture that swirled around the ANC, it was surprising that the DA could not capitalise on the ANC’s weaknesses. It was as if the party had no real strategy to deal with an ANC devoid of Jacob Zuma.

Maimane had garnered considerable headlines for his ‘broken man, broken country’ speech in February 2015 in Parliament. It was a good speech, but unfortunately Maimane never had the political heft or the strategic vision to really make the DA a force to be reckoned with in South Africa politics. He seemed all style, no substance, while many referred to him as ‘Obama lite’.

This analogy could not be further from the truth. Barack Obama was a serious politician, in the words of his advisor David Axelrod, ‘always the smartest guy in the room’, a cerebral intellectual whose oratory always came from a place of deep knowledge. Maimane was none of those things and sadly, it showed.

If there was any consistency in his approach, it was to target the corrupt head of state. To a certain extent, it worked and to a certain extent, it was the most obvious tactic to use against a president as corrupt as Zuma.

But then along came Ramaphosa and Maimane and the DA seemed to have no real strategy for dealing with a president who actually understands how government works and who is able to articulate what South Africa needs, even if he can’t always get it done. After a disappointing showing at the May elections, Maimane made his main target Ramaphosa himself. How very odd and unstrategic. Yet, Maimane persisted.

Ramaphosa has inherited a corrupt party riven with factionalism and yet, always looked the better politician during parliamentary sparring. Most of Maimane’s questions were geared towards embarrassing Ramaphosa about political donations to his campaign. Strange that, since Maimane himself did not reveal his sources of funding during his intra-party contest with Wilmot James. James, incidentally, did disclose his donors in 2015.

Has Maimane ever looked as weak as when he waved that “thank you” letter around during Presidential Question time in late August? The letter was dated 31 March 2014 and addressed to Bosasa’s now-deceased CEO, Gavin Watson, by former ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, thanking him for the R3 million donation to the ANC. Maimane sought to pin this fundraising onto Ramaphosa himself.

Since the CR17 campaign leaks gripped the public imagination, we all knew where Maimane was headed with the letter waving. After all, it was Maimane who lodged the complaint with the Public Protector, Busisiwe Mkhwebane, regarding the R500,000 Bosasa donation to the CR17 campaign. Ironically, it’s the same Mkhwebane that Maimane’s party was trying to urgently remove from her position.

So, the strategic dissonance is apparent. Why pursue Ramaphosa in such a relentless manner, as if he is at the heart of our challenges? Where would this head if Ramaphosa were to be relieved of his duties as head of state? Of all the places to put one’s energies as opposition, this seemed strategically and fatally flawed. One would also then be aligning oneself with a Public Protector who has weaponised her office squarely against Ramaphosa’s reform project. Still, Maimane persisted.

After the May elections there was much talk of replacing Maimane, but then the question was, who would be a viable replacement in these fraught times? One might say the same now. And this brings us to the optics again: two senior black leaders have resigned. What message does this send to the electorate?

This follows the Patricia de Lille saga, which was so poorly handled and is proving costly for the DA. People are connecting dots and the picture is a little shambolic. Remember too the departures of Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mamphele Ramphele? Zille needs to be alone on the stage, history seems to suggest.

Others believe this too or they would not have voted for her return. Maimane is the casualty – the nice guy who couldn’t make the grade in the end.

The 2021 local government elections are around the corner and the DA will need to deal with its demons by then. What is its core identity? It has veered from social democratic on one day to neo-liberal on another, and then to its liberal roots on yet another day. To the public there seems to be little coherence and little comfort to be drawn from the rather nebulous ‘One South Africa for all’ slogan. Saccharine does not always sell. Whoever leads the party next must provide clarity of vision, which reconciles the DA’s past, its roots and its future in a way which captures the imagination of South Africans. If it wants to do the latter, it will need to deal with its ideological incoherence on race and redress. Does it want to? Can it?

The May elections indicated that the majority of those who voted find themselves somewhere occupying the centre ground of South African politics. So, can we then imagine the ‘reformist’ part of the ANC breaking away and coalescing with the more social democratic rump of the DA? Might that work as the ultimate realignment of South African politics at this moment?

This could be possible if we thought beyond the current malaise and imagined a different politics which is not hamstrung by the political baggage of the past and which can move us all forward in a nimble way? It would leave the remnants of the DA as a small liberal party - effective and challenging power - and importantly, would leave the corrupt part of the ANC under Ace Magashule and others to actually fight for positions. It could be a tantalising prospect and a moment of renewal. But who in either party would be brave enough to take this first step to break with the past?

And therein lies the rub, not only for the DA, but for the ANC as well. For in a sense, this moment forces us to ask broader questions about the direction of South African politics and how political parties truly become ‘fit for purpose’ in these challenging times.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is also a Visiting Fellow at the Wits School of Governance. She is the author of 'Turning and turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa’s democracy' which is available. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february

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