Natasha Marrian Political editor: Business Day
Picture: ELIJAR MUSHIANA
Picture: ELIJAR MUSHIANA

The Democratic Alliance has averted a potentially lengthy legal battle with its former leader, Helen Zille, opting for a political solution to the impasse over her damaging tweets on colonialism.

The party suspended Zille last week pending the outcome of the disciplinary action against her, but days later emerged with an announcement that ended the logjam between her and current party boss Mmusi Maimane.

The settlement allows Zille to keep her post as premier and keep her party membership. But it does neuter her influence within leadership structures and prevents her from attempting to "run the DA from the grave". The party also recognised the difficulty involved in removing Zille as premier without facing legal repercussions.

Insiders used the example of a DA member removed from her post in the North West over allegations of corruption. The party has been embroiled, for the past six years, in a legal process with former MPL Juanita Terblanche.

Maimane brokered the deal with Zille, fearing a lengthy legal challenge could derail the DA’s 2019 election campaign

The change of tack by the party in dealing with Zille was based on internal polling that indicated the matter was damaging the party’s image. According to insiders, Maimane recognised that the potential legal challenge could drag on well into 2019, when SA holds its sixth national election — set to be the country’s most hotly contested yet.

Maimane cleverly spun the deal, using it as a sign of the kind of reconciliation Nelson Mandela would have approved of. He said while difficult, it is important to continue grappling with the reconciliation process started by the former president, in all spaces.

"This is the kind of SA I want to build," he said. "As difficult as this decision has been ... I do not want us to ever lose track of reconciliation."

He was adamant, however, that the difference with Zille was not about race groups fighting each other in the DA. Leaders who supported Maimane’s decision for a political settlement argued that even older, more conservative members agreed that Zille should step down from her post as premier. Former DA leader Tony Leon called on her to do so and former heavyweights Douglas Gibson and Sandra Botha were also said to back this position.

A lengthy disciplinary process and subsequent legal challenge would have shifted the focus of the DA — and the electorate — off its election campaign and trained it at the bitter fight with Zille, a risk leaders sought to avert by negotiating a settlement with her.

The political settlement means Zille will keep her job as premier, but she cannot participate in national and provincial party structures – this waters down her attempts to critique the direction of the party under Maimane’s leadership. While Zille is not a member of its federal executive committee, she was co-opted to the structure due to her role as Western Cape premier.

"We have got a big project to run in this country," she said. "If it [the DA] fails, SA fails ... I don’t want to be part of helping it to fail, I want it to succeed."

As part of the deal, Zille publicly apologised "unreservedly" for her comments on colonialism, saying she was "genuinely sorry". She is also barred from commenting on party matters unless she does so with the prior approval of the proper party structures. Her public comments have to be limited to her role as Western Cape premier. She is not prohibited from participating in the party caucus in the province.

Maimane is understood to have brokered the deal with Zille in a string of meetings held with her, with the agreement finally being signed late on Monday. The negotiations included asking her to step down of her own volition, which she was not willing to do. Essentially, Zille was let off with a slap on the wrist. But Maimane and the party leaders who wanted her expelled over her tweets and subsequent justification of them, feel they have averted the potential derailment of its 2019 project.

However, it will not be spared from the negative perceptions created by yet another party leader getting off lightly for damaging and prejudicial comments, after the about-turn it made on the expulsion of MP Dianne Kohler Barnard.

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