Helen Zille. Picture: THE TIMES
Helen Zille. Picture: THE TIMES

Often in classic Greek tragedies, the greatest strengths of the lead characters are also the source of their ultimate undoing. In this sense, their fate is sealed from the start, and the tragic narrative derives from their hopeless and futile attempts to escape a destiny that is preordained. Yet many classic tragedies also embrace the view that acceptance of fate constitutes the beginning of wisdom.

That trajectory is depressingly evident in the careers of many great, and terrible, politicians. Perhaps the most iconic example is Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher’s resolute, at times harsh, reconstitution of the British economy eventually won her grudging admiration across the world. Yet her own overweening sense of her own rightness and righteousness made her unable to appreciate the consequences of the changes she herself had wrought. Her downfall was not brought about by her enemies, but by her own friends and colleagues, whose patience was eventually worn down by serial dismissiveness.

It is hard not to see something of this same trajectory in the political career of the DA’s Western Cape premier, Helen Zille. When Zille took over leadership of the DA in 2007, the party had 38 seats in Parliament and had won in the previous election in 2004 just under 10% of the vote. In her last election as leader in 2014, the DA won 89 seats and 22.2% of the national vote. She effectively took the party from being a small thorn in the side of the ANC to being a real contestant for power. It was a magnificent effort.

Underlying this increase was a steely sense of purpose. Her policies were rooted in practical ideas, meaningful implementation and strict procedural rules. The result is a party in many ways less tolerant and more centralised than even the ANC.

Yet now, her overweening sense of her own rightness and righteousness has, it seems, made her unable to appreciate the changes she herself wrought. The party is now bigger and beyond the point of catering for the interests of minorities. To grow further, it needs to jettison the baggage of the past and embrace a broader, more wholesome appeal. Perhaps no one has recognised this more acutely than Zille herself, who voluntarily passed the baton to a young, black leader to take forward this project. But despite this, Zille has been found repeatedly to be at odds with this endeavour.

Issuing opinions through Twitter has landed her in crisis after crisis

Issuing declarations and opinions through, of all mediums, Twitter, the mass communication channel least adept at explaining complicated and nuanced messages, has landed her in crisis after crisis, and frankly, many of her supporters and opponents are sick of it.

To many DA supporters, her comment that colonialism was not all bad would be regarded as forthright, but arguable. But to others and particularly most black South Africans — precisely the voters the DA wants to attract to the party — the comment is, apart from anything else, offensive, especially when delivered with a haughty, declarative, dismissive demeanour.

The DA cannot expect to gain support while espousing dual agendas. Zille is rightly furious about the emergence of racial nationalism as a political tactic; it offends against her heartfelt sense of the liberal idea of fundamental, individual worth.

But the problem is that this argument is no longer hers to formulate. How it is approached, how it is formulated and how it is communicated is for DA leader Mmusi Maimane and his lieutenants to decide. And it is they, not she, who will accept the consequences of their decision.

Zille’s time is past and she should recognise that. If she cannot accept it, the party will be put in the difficult position of making the decision for her. As the Greeks would say, acceptance of your fate constitutes the beginning, and perhaps the essence, of wisdom. She needs that now.

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