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MBALI NTULI: The politicisation of Democratic Alliance disciplinary processes

MBALI NTULI INTERNAL MEMO

There has been much analysis of the DA’s problems over the last few years. Much of it has only been able to produce half-truths. This is mostly due to the party’s preoccupation with feigning unity at the expense of having the difficult conversations that must be had.

Much of the most recent analysis paints a picture of a purging of senior black members. Most who leave speak of disunity and a toxic atmosphere that has become intolerable; internal squabbles fuelled by egos; personality clashes becoming commonplace, often in public. All of this coupled with a declining vote share, a disillusioned electorate watching the party self-cannibalise, and a dedicated activist base that is burnt out and frustrated by the constant threat of their hard work being wiped out over silly tweets.

Months after the 2019 national elections, the DA called for a review which would help restore some unity and cohesion to the party. The published panel findings were damning and illustrative of the diminished trust that members had in party systems and processes. I, myself, flew up to Johannesburg and gave a frank assessment about the failings of the party. I did not hold anything back in my assessments that ranged from leadership failures, to weaponisation of disciplinary processes and concerning selection panel processes. Most worrying to me was the culture of insiders and outsiders that had developed in the party and how many people who differed in views from the “insider clique” were deemed rebellious, errant and divisive. A strange phenomenon in a party that prides itself in being liberal and open to a contestation of ideas and debate.

It has been clear to me since, at least, 2014 that there exists an insider and outsider clique in our party. This is not uncommon in many organisations, but in a political party the size of the DA, with as many members and moving parts, it is crucial to not allow that cult-like mentality to settle and find a home. What any smart and self-assured leader should want is a party that gives everybody the opportunity to play to their strengths, to question and constantly innovate and, most importantly, to see themselves as valued and equal members of an organisation with a shared vision for South Africa.

Instead, what we have seen is cult-like behaviour associated with big personalities. Past leaders have been known to surround themselves with a small grouping of advisors, some with no on-the-ground community building experience. Some being ideologues, while others being only too happy to leverage their proximity to power to further their own ambitions. When there is a situation like that in a political party, a culture of top-down management becomes dominant, compelling many to either fall in line or risk being either isolated, purged or frustrated into resigning.

This phenomenon is what is destroying the DA. Not race, not ideology, not young versus old, but plain old-fashioned power grabs led often by individuals who seem to believe ruling by fear is the only way to instil discipline and be unchallenged. The opposite is of course true and anybody who has a degree of self-awareness will understand that empathy, kindness and appreciation are what create discipline and unity amongst a team and a strong unity that will hold firm even in the most difficult times. Leaders who care about their teams are always open to opposing views and take responsibility in fixing what may be broken.

That is not what we have seen of past or current leadership.

Our party hasn’t even begun to do the internal healing of the damage that has been inflicted over the past few years. There is no way we can expect South Africans to vote for us until we have cleaned up our own house. I have said it before and I am saying it again, I do not believe our current leadership can lead this process having been at the centre of decay in the first place. COVID-19 only helped to focus us on one thing momentarily. As lockdown began to ease, we saw the same all-too-familiar crises emerge once more in our party, a sign that the party has yet to heal from old wounds.

As leader, I would immediately embark on critical reforms that would allow our healing to begin. Chief amongst these reforms is bringing an end to the politicisation of the DA’s Federal Legal Commission (FLC) - the party’s judiciary.

I have no doubt that many of our colleagues on the FLC do a thankless job to the best of their ability. However, no ‘firewall’ exists between FLC and political structures, as claimed by the current leadership. Once investigations are concluded, they must be tabled before PECs or FEDEX, and herein lies our problem. The FLC will often find no further need to continue with an investigation, only to be circumvented by politicians with vested interests on these bodies.

These politicians will then weaponise the process in order to make sure that their political opponents under investigation are pursued, convicted, punished, excommunicated or have their name dragged through the mud in order to diminish their political capital. This is abhorrent behaviour.

There is no consistency to how matters of discipline are handled because of this politicisation. For example, I’ve sat on FEDEX where many members have had their memberships terminated for something like failing to pay their tithes after three months as per our party constitution (this used to concern me, and as a result, I would council young new public representatives on these rules so they could avoid suffering this fate). However, over the years, I have seen Chief Whips, Members of Parliament and other senior leaders avoid such sanction for the very same infractions. This is grossly unfair.

As leader I would propose that a PEC or FEDEX decision on an FLC matter must be made in conjunction with at least 7 other randomly selected members of the party, on a rotational basis. A jury if you will. Only then, can fairness be restored in internal disciplinary processes.

In March of 2017, at the same time Zille got charged for her infamous “Colonialism” tweets made that past December, I too received charges relating to a Facebook post, posted three months earlier. My charge was for allegedly liking a comment by Pearl Pillay, who was having an argument with another person on my Facebook wall. It is now well known that I have disagreed with Zille on various matters but have, as a supporter of free speech, always supported her right not only to share her views, but also the right for others to robustly oppose them. I also believe, however, that in a political party context, her views did however also bring the party into disrepute.

Unlike charges levelled against her, which led to her conviction, mine were entirely bogus and driven by some in the party in a feeble attempt to expel me from the DA.

In February 2017 the then deputy provincial leader of the Western Cape, Bonginkosi Madikizela, took myself and several other colleagues for lunch after a Federal Council meeting in Cape Town. During the lunch he told myself and the other lunch attendees that he had been asked to charge me by senior leaders in the party. They had assured him of their full support against Patricia De Lille at the upcoming provincial congress if he agreed to do so. I warned him at the time that the entire charge was bogus and that he would be the fall guy when it later emerged that a conspiracy to level bogus charges against me did in fact happen. It was agreed to at that meeting that Madikizela would not pursue the matter further.

I was later surprised to then receive the charges just as the Zille tweets scandal was unfolding. It would eventually emerge that there was no case against me and the FLC recommended dropping the matter. It would come as no surprise to many that despite the FLC recommending one thing, the politicisation of the matter resulted in further investigations and great personal financial cost in legal fees, all to answer to these bogus charges.

Eventually, with all avenues to try and terminate my party membership exhausted, the party opted to go the mediation route. During the mediation I again explained, taped and on record, exactly what had happened and how these charges came to be levelled against me. Madikizela confirmed my version of events, mainly because I had several witnesses to corroborate, leaving him with no grounds for dispute. At the conclusion of the mediation, the party recommended a shaking of hands in lieu of a formal apology, which I vehemently rejected. To this day, I have yet to receive a formal apology.

In the end, Madikizela was rewarded with the support that he had been promised in his bid for Western Cape DA Leader, while I was left with legal costs and no attempt by the party to correct the damage to my reputation created by these bogus charges.

I have wanted to be in politics my entire life. I genuinely believe it is my calling. When I began my race for leader, I was very clear that bringing fairness back to the party and leading in a new way would be at the center of my offer to delegates and to the party. I want to assure you that I will put an end to the culture of insiders and outsiders. I will always be available and everybody will have my ear. I will treat everyone fairly, while fostering this culture within the party. I understand the enormous sacrifice many of us make to serve the party and the country. I know the burnout, the stress, the depression we all go through. Our party environment should be one of empowerment, debate and learning, not one of fear and low morale.

As leader, I will ensure that fairness will be at the center of all that we do, especially in our disciplinary processes. Every single case will be dealt with as efficiently and as promptly as others. There will be no favouritism. Our internal processes will once again serve their intended purpose and not be used as a vehicle to settle political scores, unduly target hard-working members and activists and cultivate fear. Our party will once again be the epicentre of great ideas, robust debate, and collegiality rooted in the service of all South Africans.

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Mbali Ntuli is a Democratic Alliance member, and is the party's spokesperson for Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs in KwaZulu-Natal. She is also a KZN legislature MPL. You can follow her on Twitter @mbalimcdust.