Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba. Picture: ALON SKUY​​
Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba. Picture: ALON SKUY​​

SA’s worst-kept secret finally came out into the open on Monday with the confirmation that Herman Mashaba will leave his position as the mayor of Johannesburg and quit the DA. And the timing can’t be worse for the beleaguered party.

Mashaba forfeits the mayoral chain only three years after the DA wrested control of the city from the ANC, with the help of opposition parties disgusted by the governing party’s moral bankruptcy under former president Jacob Zuma.

Though it won only 38% of the vote compared with 44% for the ANC, the 2016 performance was said to be potentially transformative for the party’s national ambitions. With local elections due in 2021, that dream lies in tatters.

The 2016 performance, which also saw the DA form administrations in former ANC strongholds Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape and Tshwane in Gauteng, was supposed to be a platform from which it would build on its Western Cape successes and show that it could take its self-described model of clean and efficient governance to the rest of the country.

Then the DA could set itself up as a genuine alternative that could potentially unseat the ANC in a national election.

Herman Mashaba resigned from his post as Johannesburg mayor on October 21 2019. He listed unhappiness with the direction of the DA as a major factor for his departure. This leaves an uncertain future for the coalition in the city. Sunday Times political reporter Zingisa Mvumvu reports.

Unfortunately 2016 proved to be the peak for the party and it never seemed to adapt to a post-Zuma world, and instead descended into infighting.

The dismal performance in the May elections, in which it lost support at a national poll for the first time, meant it couldn’t paper the cracks any more, putting Mmusi Maimane, the national leader, under intense scrutiny.

As soon as the easy target that was the “broken man” Zuma was gone, Maimane has looked out of his depth, and his attempt at using the same strategy against Cyril Ramaphosa backfired. He even alienated some traditional DA supporters in the business community especially, who had no appetite to see the Zuma faction regaining control of the ANC. 

Add the ideological confusion on where the DA stood on racially charged topics such as BEE, it was no surprise that the party lost support both to the Left and the Right in May. And that bleeding continued into by-elections held since then, strengthening the hand of Maimane’s internal opponents.

The return of Helen Zille to the powerful position of federal council chair all but confirmed that his grip on the party is slipping and the question for many, inside and outside, is when his time to succumb to the inevitable will come.

It is clear from Mashaba’s resignation letter that he sees Zille representing a faction of the DA opposed to his own vision of a liberal party for all. In the build-up, he was even less diplomatic, talking about a potential “right-wing” takeover.

It won’t be lost on many that while he was declaring in Johannesburg that those right-wing elements had succeeded, Maimane was there standing beside him.

It will be hard to argue against anyone who sees that as a sign that the leader endorses Mashaba’s views. And if the party has been taken over by “right-wing” elements on his watch, and in defiance of his stated vision, can Maimane really continue to lead it with a clear conscience, let alone credibility?

However this works out, it’s clear that, in the short term at least, the DA is in deep trouble and the first casualty is likely to be its hold on the Johannesburg mayorship. With the new guard of the party opposed to its partnership with the EFF, it’s debatable it can garner enough votes in council to maintain control.

In the more medium term, the party needs to act quickly to heal the rifts within its ranks if it is to have any chance of building on its performance three years ago. As things stand, only a brave person will gamble on it matching or surpassing its 2016 share of the vote in 2021.

Only the most shortsighted ANC supporters will celebrate the demise of the DA. From Nkandla to the court challenges against the state paying Zuma’s legal fees, the DA has been a force for good for our democracy in some of its darkest hours. 

Its self destruction will harm us all.