The "political" solution that DA leaders have reached with former leader Helen Zille is one that will haunt the party in the 2019 general election.
Mmusi Maimane announced on Tuesday that in order to avoid a protracted legal battle that could extend into the campaign for the next election, a compromise had been reached in which Zille would step down from all DA political positions, refrain from commenting on general political affairs unless her communications are cleared first and stay on as Western Cape premier.
The alternative would have been to expel her from the party (and from its list), which would have resulted in her automatic removal as Western Cape premier. The DA’s federal executive, aware of Zille’s stance, then fully expected her to litigate against her expulsion.
It was Hobson’s choice. The option chosen sends the message that although Maimane is leader of the party, he is not completely in charge. It raises doubts over the status of black leaders in the DA and over the seriousness with which the DA deals with issues of race in a way that recognises fully the pain and damage of the apartheid past.
The ANC will dine out on this narrative. To DA party outsiders (especially those in the ANC) the choice amounted to protection for Zille, in the same way that the ANC has time and again closed ranks around President Jacob Zuma for what it has mistakenly believed to be for the sake of party unity.
However, the second option was also difficult and would have led to inestimable internal damage.
The party is factionalised over the Zille issue, not strictly on grounds of race so much, but on grounds of regionalism, in a bid by Western Cape DA officials to hold on to their positions, awarded to them by Zille in the first place.
As can be expected, those who owe their positions of power and influence in the Western Cape to their allegiance to Zille and a close coterie of allies, have been the section of the party most opposed to disciplinary action against her.
Conveying the "political deal" to the public, Maimane was at pains to stress that the DA’s nonracialism project and his own mission as leader – "to grow the party by bringing South Africans of all races together" – was intact.
The party is factionalised over the issue, not on grounds of race so much but regionalism
But is this really the case?
If the report carried in the Sunday Times earlier this week is accurate – notably the DA has not tried to refute it – black support for the DA has plummeted since the Zille tweets from 17% to 10%. This is according to the DA’s own polling, which is known for its accuracy.
This is at a time when the ANC and President Jacob Zuma are under a barrage of negative publicity from which there is no escape. Approval levels for Zuma dived to 2.8 out of 10, the latest eNCA/Ipsos poll shows, the lowest for any political leader since the survey began in 1993.
It is interesting to note that over the same period (April and May), Maimane’s approval levels among the public were static and he and the DA have not been able to capitalise on the ANC’s crisis.
In his comments on Tuesday, Maimane recognised that to achieve his goal as leader "to grow the party" by drawing in South Africans of all races, it is imperative to overcome "the trust deficit" between the DA and the black electorate.
The entire saga has revealed the DA to be a party that must delicately negotiate over race issues among its component parts. To overcome the trust deficit, the DA and Maimane will need to make a louder and bolder public statement of the party’s nonracial intentions and its bona fides.
With the Zille crisis unsatisfactorily resolved, another way will have to be found.