THE Democratic Alliance (DA) leadership race, due to end at the party’s elective conference in Port Elizabeth at the weekend, is being dogged by two controversies.

Mmusi Maimane, considered by many to be the frontrunner, has endorsed a referendum on the death penalty — and the party has had to counter claims of sexual harassment targeting its leaders.

Mr Maimane said in an interview he supported a referendum to decide on the reintroduction of the death penalty. However, he said he did not support the death penalty and did not believe South Africans would vote for the return of capital punishment.

In 2008 President Jacob Zuma raised the prospect of a referendum on the death penalty after he was elected president of the African National Congress. He has since retreated from this view.

On Tuesday Mr Maimane’s opponents expressed shock at his comments on the death penalty in a Sunday Times interview and in a television debate with his opponent, Wilmot James, on Monday.

In the debate Mr Maimane said he was a "democrat" and would prefer the people to decide on the death penalty. Mr James said that Mr Maimane did not understand the Constitution "at all" and that the Bill of Rights, in which the right to life is enshrined, could not be "interrogated" or made conditional.

On Tuesday, Mr Maimane’s campaign manager Geordin Hill-Lewis said "nothing would have to change in the Constitution", as it allowed referendums to be held. "The right to life referred to is not as clear cut as it’s made out to be."

Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution secretary Lawson Naidoo said that in 1995 the Constitutional Court had made a clear ruling on the death penalty. The judgment also addressed the issue of public opinion. "We support the attitude of the Constitutional Court. The death penalty is unsuitable for SA and there is no evidence that it is a deterrent (to crime). On a referendum, certain values and principles in the Constitution are not subject to change simply through a majority view," he said.

The DA leadership race also took a sordid turn with an email alleging sexual harassment and misogyny by male DA leaders, including Mr Maimane. However, Mr Maimane dismissed the allegations saying they were "destructive". The anonymous e-mail also charged that the DA did not have a sexual harassment policy.

Chairperson of the party’s federal executive James Selfe dismissed the e-mail, saying the DA did not investigate "fanciful charges", but should specific complaints be laid, the party would investigate. He provided a copy of the party’s sexual harassment policy.

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