Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille embrace after a media briefing on the outcome of the election on federal council chairperson. Athol Trollip lost to Helen Zille. File photo: THULANI MBELE
Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille embrace after a media briefing on the outcome of the election on federal council chairperson. Athol Trollip lost to Helen Zille. File photo: THULANI MBELE

There is no doubt as to who emerged as the clear winner in the turmoil in the DA that saw the departure of three key figures last week. But for Helen Zille, this may turn out to have been a Pyrrhic victory.

She’s got her DA back, but at what cost to the party’s prospects of broadening its support base and emerging as a genuine alternative to the ANC government?

All indications are that the party’s return to the past will leave it as a regional organisation content with consolidating its position in the Western Cape.

In their parting shots, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba and the party’s now former leader, Mmusi Maimane, made it clear they no longer regard the DA as a party that could be a home for the millions of black South Africans desperate for an alternative to the ANC.

For our collective sakes, we can only hope they are wrong. One need not look any further than the disastrous Jacob Zuma presidency to appreciate that the country needs a strong opposition.

The DA, under the leadership of both Zille and Maimane and the dogged determination of the likes of former federal council chair James Selfe, played an important role in stemming the bleeding at a time when good people within the ANC, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, decided to stay quiet.

The country owes them a debt of gratitude for their role and determination in defending SA’s democracy in its darkest hour.

Zille’s victory in the race for
federal council chair may or may not be the end of the DA as a national force. It’s probably too early to make that judgment. For one thing, we need to wait and see what kind of leadership emerges.

An argument can be made that the political market should be seen like any other. A business that doesn’t produce goods people want to consume and pay for will, over time, be eaten up and replaced by others.

There was a time not that long ago when those who broke away from the ANC to form Cope in the wake of Zuma’s rise to the ANC were seen as the next big hope, and a potential home for black constitutionalists and economic moderates. That didn’t exactly work out, but yet its troubles didn’t spell the end for forces that could counter Zuma’s ANC.

So one could plausibly argue that the demise of the DA, if it comes to that, is neither here nor there. There will still be opposition parties in SA and someone else will take that space and become the main alternative vote.

The problem is, who that official opposition is matters. Not least because it plays a crucial role in determining how the governing party will shift on key policy issues.

A diminished DA, unless there is a replacement that has the same commitment to the broad principles of constitutionalism and the primacy of markets, would mean the opposition to the ANC would be in the extremes — from the Left to the Right.

Since there’s no prospect of a far-right party getting popular support in SA, in that scenario the only viable option left will come from the far-left, with ANC policies tilting in that direction as a way to counter them. Then the risk of the governing party adopting reckless and dangerous policies on everything from land reform to the status of the SA Reserve Bank will only increase, with disastrous consequences for the economy. One only needs to look back at the EFF’s outsize influence on the land expropriation debate.

It might be a time of self-congratulation for Zille and her supporters, but time will tell if their victory has come at too great a price for the country.