EDITORIAL: Can the DA pull itself back from the brink?
If the party cannot heal its divisions it faces a future of factional strife, much like the ANC
The DA should go into the meeting of its federal council knowing the electorate is watching.
While the factional battles in the lead-up to this weekend’s meeting of the party’s highest decision-making body between congresses have been fraught, it could get worse if the DA does not pull itself together behind closed doors.
The meeting is set to receive the final report compiled by a review panel appointed by the party in the wake of the 2019 general elections to look at the party’s structures and processes. The federal council is also set to elect a new chair for the first time in almost two decades, as James Selfe’s resignation from arguably the most powerful position in the party kicks in.
The panel had to look at what the DA’s purpose is, what changes need to be made to the organisation if it is to succeed and, crucially, what the party is about and what it stands for. The DA has struggled with an identity crisis over the past few years. Its attempts to present itself as a broad church have led to open contestation for the soul of the party — between those looking to grow the party at all costs, and those who want it to hang on to its liberal roots.
This battle is still being fought, and the war is far from over.
Given what has been said so far on what the draft report recommends, this meeting is expected to be heated.
It is said that the panel has, among others, recommended that DA leader Mmusi Maimane and CEO Paul Boughey step down and that the party go to an early congress.
Maimane’s allies will not take the recommendation on him having to resign lying down, as the argument has already been made that two people cannot take the fall for an election outcome which saw the DA bleed votes to the Freedom Front Plus and the ANC.
The lead-up to the election was characterised by the same internal strife which played out in public in the past few weeks, as accusations of racism on the one hand and counter-allegations of racial nationalism were bandied about.
Voters have shown they do not take kindly to internal battles, whether that of the ANC or the DA.
The decision by Helen Zille to stand for the position of federal council chair, effectively coming back from what can be seen as political retirement, will signal to voters that times are desperate, as it is unheard of in SA that a former leader comes back to the top structures of the party.
Usually, they simply never leave: think Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Bantu Holomisa.
But Zille is getting back on the horse, saying that if she is elected her objective will be to support the leadership in stabilising the party and getting it back on track.
This acknowledges that the DA is indeed off track, as if evidence from the past year has not been clear enough. The party will now have to prove it can get back on track.
While it is way too soon to write the DA’s obituary — the party governs the Western Cape, is the official opposition and governs various local councils — it faces the danger of becoming like Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC: factionalised to the point of paralysis.
And while this happens the Freedom Front Plus and the ANC will be more than happy in the local government elections in 2021 to provide a home for voters who once believed that the DA wants to build “one South Africa for all”.