Mmusi Maimane. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mmusi Maimane. Picture: SUPPLIED

It’s clear DA leader Mmusi Maimane did some soul searching ahead of his opening address at the party’s first post-election federal council meeting earlier this month.

But whether that introspection went deep enough is debatable. It’s not yet clear if Maimane will be able to decisively lead the DA out of the political quicksand — and what will remain of the party afterwards.

In the wake of the election, Maimane had a target on his back: as the first DA leader to preside over a loss of electoral support for the party, it was possible he’d be toppled in an internal coup.

Instead, in the week after May 8, Maimane took responsibility for the bruising election results in an internal letter to party structures. On the same day, the DA leadership rallied around him, taking collective responsibility for the dismal outcome (support fell from 22.23% to 20.8%).

At the meeting of the federal council — the DA’s highest decision-making body between congresses — Maimane went further. In written remarks prepared for the meeting, he said he would step down if that was considered to be in the best interests of the DA.

This did not happen — and it’s unlikely to ahead of the party’s next federal congress, where it will elect new leaders. That is currently set for two years’ time, but is likely to be pushed out to 2022, because of local government elections scheduled for 2021.

In raising the issue of resignation himself, Maimane was able to frame the discussion on his own terms, rather than in response to his detractors.

It’s not yet clear if Maimane will be able to decisively lead the DA out of the political quicksand

As far as the FM has been able to establish, no-one has officially pushed for Maimane’s resignation. But this is not because he has universal support within the party; it’s because those who are unhappy with him simply have no alternative candidate.

While the party leadership remains largely intact after the election, it’s clear the DA is acknowledging the crisis it faces.

Crucially, the party has to arrest its decline in electoral support. This is most critical in Gauteng, if it is to hang on to power in the metros of Tshwane and Joburg, which it has governed in coalition since the 2016 local government elections.

The 37% vote it attracted in the province in 2016 seems no more than a pipe dream now. Unless, of course, the DA does something drastic to reverse a loss that pushed it below 2014 levels of support.

To this end, after the election it announced that it would review all its structures and processes by October. This — the party’s first review in 15 years — will be conducted by an external panel chaired by former DA CEO Ryan Coetzee.

More substantive announcements followed the federal council meeting. Important among these was Maimane’s announcement that federal executive chair James Selfe will in October step down from the position he has occupied for almost two decades.

Selfe will move to the party’s governance unit, which is tasked with supporting DA administrations to ensure better service delivery where they are in office.

The announcement — made at the end of the meeting — came as something of a surprise, given that no-one had suggested Selfe should fall on his sword for the election outcome, or be made to.

It opens up arguably the most powerful position in the party — the equivalent of the secretary-general in the ANC — and makes for the most significant leadership change in the aftermath of the election.

There is expected to be some jockeying for the position, with chief whip John Steenhuisen and national chair Athol Trollip so far named as possible contenders.

Ahead of the party’s federal congress last year, it was thought that Steenhuisen would make a run for the position. Instead, Selfe stood uncontested — thus avoiding a messy leadership battle in the run-up to the polls.

Whoever now succeeds in rallying the federal council to his or her cause will serve the remainder of the term — and will have to help implement whatever reforms arise from the party’s review process.

This will be no easy task.

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 the DA to hang on to its liberal roots.

The review will likely offer a clearer indicator of what the party’s ideological mantle should be. To this end, Maimane said it will look to answer a number of questions, including 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.

It will also consider the role DA governments play, and the feasibility of governing in coalition — a trying experience for the party since 2016.

What it means

As it enters a period of uncertainty, the DA needs steady hands to guide it — not another internal battle

The exercise is necessary if the DA is to have a coherent message for the electorate — something that was lacking in May.

But there are factors that contributed to the party’s electoral woes that are evident even without a review. These, Maimane said, include party discipline, unity of purpose, the DA’s messaging and public relations, its inability to hold errant members to account, an anti-DA media bias, and public representatives who need convincing of the product they are selling.

His first-take analysis should be a cause of great concern for the party, as local government elections are not that far off. If voters were to go to the polls tomorrow, it’s highly improbable the party would get anywhere near its 2021 target of winning the metros of Joburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.

On a straight numbers game, the DA is a fraction of the size of the ANC. But, where that party is big enough to take the body blows inflicted by its factional battles, the DA is not.

So while the party’s internal strife may be nowhere near that of the ANC, it cannot afford a gloves-off fight. It’s entering a phase of uncertainty, and it needs safe hands to steer it through — not another protracted battle for the party’s soul.