Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane. Mmusi Maimane has become the only DA leader to fail to grow the party’s share of the vote in a general election. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane. Mmusi Maimane has become the only DA leader to fail to grow the party’s share of the vote in a general election. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

It already feels like a lifetime ago that Business Day was calling for calm heads and proper reflection for the DA after its chastening performance in the May 8 general elections. But we didn’t count on Helen Zille. And neither did DA leader Mmusi Maimane, who has been left looking even weaker and ineffectual than he did in the wake of the poll results.

To recap. The DA remains the second-largest party in parliament with just over 20% of the votes cast. The problem for Maimane is that the party failed to take advantage of a drop in support for the ANC of about five percentage points. Instead it lost support to the right, with the Freedom Front Plus being the major beneficiary. Its ineffective message meant it couldn’t compensate for that by increasing its share of black voters, bleeding support in key townships.

All of this meant Maimane has the dubious honour of being the first DA leader to fail to increase the party’s support in a general election. This coming in the wake of a campaign that was dominated by stories of corruption involving key cadres of the governing party.

In mature democracies, Maimane would have quit. Just look at what happened in Australia in the wake of weekend election results that saw the conservative coalition snatch a surprise victory over the Labor Party opposition that had been favoured by pollsters. Even before his party’s shock defeat was confirmed, the leader, Bill Shorten, announced his resignation.

In SA, we do things differently. After the results, the top structure of the DA declared support for its leader and said there wouldn’t be a change before the party’s congress in 2021. To his credit, Maimane took responsibility for the debacle, though he gave very little away about his own future.

In his letter to party members he warned that the party couldn’t afford “to undertake a period of self-destruction” and also needed a “period of constructive change”.

And then on the weekend entered Zille, the former party leader who is also soon to vacate her role as Western Cape premier. Apparently having learnt nothing about previous controversies about the positive aspects of colonialism, she decided to spark another racially loaded distraction.

Perhaps Zille had learnt from the previous experience, because being the centre of attention seems to be her primary consideration, never mind what it does to her own reputation, her party or race relations more broadly in the country. 

What has this got to do with Maimane? It was as if she deliberately gave him a test. And he flunked it, badly.

For a while he said nothing, and then yet more cryptic messages about the DA’s “historical mission” and a call for focus. Nothing about the controversies engulfing the party.

The whole saga has left the impression of a party that is rudderless and leaderless.

This is where the crisis in the DA becomes a critical issue for the rest of us. The country needs a strong opposition that will hold the ANC to account.

This was demonstrated on Monday by the high court’s decision to set aside public protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s report on the Gupta family’s Vrede dairy farm project, declaring it unlawful, unconstitutional and invalid, after two cases brought by the Council for the Advancement of the SA Constitution and the DA.

Two years is simply too long for this crucial part of our democracy to go on rudderless and leaderless.

For the DA there’s also the small matter of local elections in 2021. In its current state, it’s hard to see the DA matching its 2016 performance when, aided by disgust at Jacob Zuma’s corrupt government, saw it form administrations in the key metros of Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay. 

In causing so much damage to Maimane and his leadership, Zille may have inadvertently done him and the party a favour. If nothing else, she’s made it clear that the need for change is more urgent than its leaders have acknowledged.