Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN
Illustration: KAREN MOOLMAN

On October 6, SA woke up to dramatic Sunday newspaper headline news. Tony Leon, and his long-term ally, Ryan Coetzee, were reported to be part of a delegation of senior DA power brokers tasked with requesting that leader Mmusi Maimane resign in the interest of the party.

This dramatic intervention allegedly came not long before Helen Zille announced her availability for the post of federal chair; political moves that Maimane’s supporters reportedly viewed as a resurgence of the party’s white, liberal old guard.

Political commentary of the drama has located these developments within the context of the recent pressures brought to bear on Maimane; claims that he was living in a house owned by a Durban businessman, his use of an SUV donated by the controversial former Steinhoff CEO, the growing disquiet about his leadership (or lack thereof), and most importantly, the dismal general election showing.

Maimane was cleared of the house and vehicle claims by an internal party investigation last week.

These leadership power plays, however, are not new; they are the culmination of a protracted power struggle in the DA brought about by the inability to chart a new path for the party after Zille, in the context of a post-Jacob Zuma SA.

This power struggle has reared its head in key moments, the most important being in the run-up to the 2019 general elections characterised by divisions in the party over whether “diversity” should be enshrined in its constitution, open disagreements on whether it should embrace the BEE policy, and the party’s political approach to coalitions in the metros.

Gwen Ngwenya and Jonathan Moakes’s resignation letters, before and after the election respectfully, describe a party leadership characterised by an instability of ideas in a “toxic environment” where “internal fights, breaking of trust, disunity, and inability to manage internal issues have become the norm”.

They portrayed the image of a party in deep trouble, on the brink of a major internal battle. Thus, from the point of view of these developments, in particular the experiences of Ngwenya and Moakes, Leon and Zille’s interventions are hardly surprising.

The important question is how do we make sense of these developments? Is the DA on the verge of experiencing internal factional wars akin to the ANC’s Polokwane battlefields? Are Leon and Zille’s interventions indicative of an old-guard resurgence to rescue a party that is losing its way?

One way to approach this puzzle is to accept that political parties are essentially not homogeneous political organisations that are sure of their goals and shared values, and the DA is no different. Rather, we should view political parties as coalitions of political actors and factions who pursue their individual interests and goals through co-operation and conflict, in other words through conflictive and consensus-building relations.

Intraparty politics is therefore characterised by conflict and consensus between competing groups, and it is the nature of these conflicts, and how they are managed by the party leadership, that shape the identity, organisation and internal decision-making processes of parties. Political leadership is central to party stability; the role of party leadership is to aggregate and articulate such divergent interests, and the extent to which they do so determines the stability of parties, and shapes how they perform their tasks.

Robert Harmel and Lars Svåsand are political scientists who have developed a theoretical framework on the relationship between party leadership and party institutionalisation in democratic polities. The basic assumption is that in each of the stages of a party’s life (that is identification, organisation and stabilisation), there is a need for a different type of leadership to achieve the destiny of institutionalisation.

Their argument is that parties that cannot provide leadership with the requisite skills and orientations at each phase will experience turmoil and eventually collapse, and that a party whose leader at one phase lacks the requisite skills and/or orientations for the next phase must either be replaced or complemented with others to avoid turmoil and collapse.

Thus, turmoil and collapse are a consequence of political leaders, incompatible with the changing nature of their political parties, who cannot be replaced or complemented. Harmel and Svåsand concede that in reality, few leaders have all the skills and orientations required for all three phases, meaning that replacing and complementing is more likely to occur in most cases in democracies.     

Seen from this perspective, the DA’s “leadership tribulations” are not an aberration but should be seen in terms of a larger canvas. What does this mean for the evolution of the DA as the second largest political party in light of the essential features present in all parties?

Two important trends have characterised its evolution in the past two decades. First, the party experienced 18 years of sustained electoral growth. During most of this period, the DA did have the leadership with the requisite skills that presided over and ensured this growth. Second, this leadership experienced crucial challenges; electoral growth involved the incorporation of various political formations, and the pathological pursuit for an elusive black vote, strategies that transformed the organisation in important ways and challenged its liberal principles.

The pursuit of political power through the idea of securing a black vote brought to the fore questions about its identity and values, sparking an internal debate and political contestation that has had important electoral consequences for the party. While the party’s leadership under Zille was able to negotiate the incorporation of these new political formations, Maimane’s leadership came short on how to manage the ideological implications of this growth. The party reached this crossroad in 2019.

As the intraparty conflict unfolds, it has become evident that the party leadership can no longer articulate and aggregate the interests of divergent and competing groups; the party leader has become a party to the conflict. Replacement or complementarity have become necessary to avoid turmoil and collapse.

But replacing or complementing with what? While an older generation can provide crucial guidance to Young Turks in moments of crisis, as they possess valuable experience and institutional memory, there are potential dangers when old guards present their ideas and solutions to new problems in different contexts.

The current conflict, while necessary for the survival of the party, could turn out to be a fight that its new constituencies have no interest in.

• Jolobe is the deputy head of the department of political studies at the University of Cape Town