An internal DA war that dates back to the lead-up to the 2019 general election has been kicked up a notch.

The main opposition party’s leader, Mmusi Maimane, who has been under pressure purely on performance, or lack of grounds, after the DA lost support in the May elections, is now facing questions about his integrity.

That is not good for a leader who has built his political brand around fighting corruption and whose hounding of President Cyril Ramaphosa over the funding of the campaign that led to winning the leadership of the ANC is a cloud hanging over his presidency.

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Depending on how Ramaphosa’s fight with the public protector goes, a presidency that is seen as almost the last hope for the country after a corruption-scarred decade under Jacob Zuma, could yet be in peril. If that comes to pass, it will have been Maimane who helped bring it about.

For one who has set out his stall as a holier-than-thou figure and makes much of his religious beliefs, the whispering campaign about his relationship with the fallen Steinhoff CEO Markus Jooste is damaging.

Few would argue that there was anything untoward about Steinhoff at a time when it was perceived to be a model corporate citizen and a face of SA’s clout in global business, donating a vehicle for use by the country’s main opposition leader. But in December 2017 everything changed.

The country was rocked by the exposure of the biggest corporate fraud in its history that has cost investors about R200bn, threatening the very existence of a company in which so much of South African workers’ and pensioners’ wealth would have been tied up.

The allegation that made its way into the media over the past week is that even after this was exposed, Maimane kept using the high-end Toyota Fortune. There was also an allegation that he had misled parliament over the use of a house in Cape Town that he had initially declared as his own.  

Maimane’s reaction has been to deny anything improper, and says the news about the Steinhoff-sponsored car and the house are part of a smear campaign against him. His allies believe this is a bid to force him out as leader.

The party has been in turmoil for some time. Trends in by-elections since the May national poll show that it is still bleeding support, both on the right and left, and the situation is untenable with local elections which is set to take place in two years’ time.

The crude analysis from his supporters is that the focus on his leadership is merely the result of liberals who are unhappy with the direction the party has taken to be more diverse. The reality is probably more nuanced than that.

Hard questions need to be asked and the party is aware of that, otherwise it would not have called for its first review of structures in more than a decade. That cannot come too soon. It won’t grow unless it regains its sense of mission and direction.

The proxy battles distract from the real work at hand, and that is to be an effective opposition in a parliament filled with inexperienced and tainted ANC MPs. The more we talk about the DA, the less scrutiny there is of the likes of Mosebenzi Zwane, that the ANC has put in powerful oversight positions despite their less-than-stellar records.

Throughout the state-capture years, the DA was a force for good and can take credit for many of the wins against corrupt elements that threatened to destroy the fabric of this society. It can’t play that role if it’s fighting itself.

That’s not to let Maimane off the hook. There are questions that need answering and brushing them off is not an option. That’s the playbook from old nemesis Zuma, who he famously described as “a broken man, presiding over a broken society”.

It’s too early to say if the DA is irrevocably broken, but Maimane, for his own standing, needs to take the country into his confidence and give a full account that banishes the controversies about his own conduct.