Illustration: RUBY-GAY MARTIN
Illustration: RUBY-GAY MARTIN

One cannot assess what is happening in the DA now without looking back at what has happened over the past five years or more. The key point about the crisis the party now finds itself in, which cannot be ignored, is the relevance of race in SA society in general. That includes politics, no matter how much formal commitment to nonracialism there may be in the DA.

In many ways the crisis, which some might argue was inevitable, also echoes the inherent historical weakness of white liberalism given the demographics of this country. But whichever way we look at that history, what is not in any doubt is the gravity of the current situation for the DA. With Mmusi Maimane’s announcement that he is stepping down as leader after concluding the DA is no longer the path to his vision of One SA For All, it is clear that Helen Zille’s victory over Athol Trollip for the important post of DA federal council chair has worsened, rather than alleviated, the crisis.

It is important to recognise that the DA has grown and achieved as much as it has among the black population like no previous incarnation of white liberalism ever before in the history of this country. For that it deserves recognition. But what analysts are not doing, or not doing sufficiently, is connecting this crisis to the unhappy times in the DA over the past five years in particular. There is a specific history to the current crisis, an understanding of which is necessary to grasp both its magnitude and dynamics.

I am reminded of the interview I had with DA leader Mmusi Maimane late in 2018, following allegations of the existence of a white lobby group in the DA that was either opposed to, or had serious reservations about, racial diversity in the party. Maimane did not concede the existence of such a group in the DA, but he did allude to it by saying that he was aware that some in the leadership were “challenging certain reforms’’, which is why he argued that the DA was a “microcosm of a much larger backdrop of SA history’.’ However, he insisted that while his position may seem contradictory, his job as leader of the DA was to “take people where they might not necessarily want to go”.

It does appear that there were some white leaders in the DA who were nervous about the direction the diversity discourse was taking in the party, and that they saw it as a threat to their positions in the leadership hierarchy. The question now is what effect Zille’s election as the federal council chair will have on the delicate balance of these forces within the DA leadership.  

There was speculation as far back as 2014 that the handling of the race issue was one of the factors that prompted the resignation of former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, who also clashed with Zille, then leader of the DA. Whatever the truth of that matter, it is not hard to figure out why race is a constant thorn in the side of the DA when party CEO Paul Boughey, who resigned last week, and all the contenders for the position of federal council chair over the past weekend were white (Zille, Trollip, Thomas Walters and Mike Walters).

At the time of my interview with Maimane, a war was raging in the DA between then Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille and the rest of the party leadership, and it appeared from media reports that it was largely white leaders of the DA she had issues with. But when I interviewed De Lille a few months later, she refrained from attributing those conflicts to race, which appeared to contradict what she had said in the past. She once slammed a “white cabal” in the DA leadership for “racist bully attacks” against her.

Despite this backdrop, and being in such a difficult situation himself, Maimane argued in our interview that the “future of race relations must not be binary because if it is, we are going to go on a repetitive cycle of racial nationalism; it instead has to be a collective nonracial approach for it to work. But the problem about the nonracial project that we espouse is that it has not yielded economic outcomes. Therefore, in the absence of a collective vision for the economy, people resort to race and not as common citizens, which is what greater economic equality will achieve.’’

He also argued that he did not support “race replacement in the party, of one white out, one black in; then you’ve got a problem because basically that is job reservation in a clever way, which disregards experience and skill.’’ This does not seem like a leader who is obsessed with race. On the contrary.

Maimane stepping down as leader was always going to be incomparably more detrimental to the DA’s future than Zille’s victory, whatever the reasons given. The party will suffer much more in the 2021 local government elections than it did in the 2019 national elections. His departure will almost certainly lead to a substantial loss of black support at the polls.

Regardless of any weaknesses in his leadership, there can be no doubt that he is the best black leader liberalism has ever had in this country. The DA will be hard-pressed to find an adequate replacement. The party has far more to lose than Maimane.

The key question now is what role Zille will play now that she holds the powerful position of federal council chair, especially given the fact that the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), where Zille found temporary employment as a senior policy fellow after her term as Western Cape premier ended, has been behind calls for Maimane to step down as leader and be replaced by Western Cape leader Alan Winde.

Zille came out in oblique support of the writer of the IRR article: “The point he was making, with which I agree, is that the DA cannot be a race-driven party.’’ What she didn't explain was how it is possible to remove race from politics in the DA when all the contenders for the federal council chair of the party were white in a country that is 90% black.

It is not only white liberals who play down race; white Marxists do the same. But given this country’s history and the stubborn persistence of race as an issue in our politics, Zille and those who support that view in the DA are peddling a naïve illusion. In that regard, liberal as he might otherwise be, Maimane has history on his side.   

• Harvey is a political commentator.

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