Helen Zille. Picture: REUTERS
Helen Zille. Picture: REUTERS

What is next for the DA?

The party has in the space of a week erased more than a decade of progress and its future looks decidedly bleak.

The resignation of DA leader Mmusi Maimane reinforced the perception of a white party, led by token blacks — his remarks as he announced his departure were particularly damaging.

“The DA is not the best vehicle to take forward the vision of building One SA for All,” he said. His remarks effectively confirmed perceptions of the DA among black South Africans, which ironically Helen Zille had sought to address by appointing black individuals to key leadership posts — she wrote about this in a piece titled: “My biggest mistake”, published shortly after the 2019 polls.

The question is now that Maimane has found the DA an unsuitable vehicle for his vision of one SA for all, will he go out in pursuit of such a vehicle or start one of his own?

Insiders say it is too early to tell, but cannot immediately rule out the possibility.  

But back to the DA.

The party is likely to revert to a regional one, governing in the Western Cape and perhaps retaining the Midvaal municipality in Gauteng.

The victory by former leader Zille in the race for the post of federal council chair gives a clear indication of the future policy direction of the party, one that is rooted in liberalism and blind to race.

Effectively, the DA is set to retreat to its former role as a party of and for minorities.

It is astounding that neither Zille nor her backers see this or perhaps they do and are content with a DA that will never have a shot at taking control nationally. It will mark a tragic end to an audacious shot at national power by a party bolstered by the damaging tenure of former president Jacob Zuma.

According to the DA’s review report of the 2019 election, commissioned by Maimane and presented to its federal council at the weekend, the party was polling at around 31% in October 2016 — an astounding feat indeed, given that the DA had never breached the 30% point nationally.

Senior leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that in the immediate aftermath of the polls, the party had even polled at more than 35%. But between 2016 and 2018, the numbers slipped dramatically, culminating in the party polling at between 19% and 21% by November 2018.

By the time the 2019 election came around, the DA’s generally excellent research and polling showed some disturbing results. It was polling well below 20% — as late as January 2019, just five months before the election.

The white vote nationally was the lowest ever — as indicated in the review report — and the DA’s share of the vote among blacks did not increase.

The review report identifed key issues that led to this decline in so short a period of time.

These include: “Helen Zille’s tweets about colonialism and the subsequent handling of the issue, the protracted and confusing ejection of Patricia de Lille from the party, the water crisis in Cape Town, the failure to factor in and plan for the ascendancy in December 2017 of Cyril Ramaphosa to the presidency of the ANC and the country in 2018, the many and varied disputes over race issues, from the leader’s tweet about Ashwin Willemse to the party’s handling of the Schweizer-Reneke controversy to race-based redress policy and the loss of the Nelson Mandela Bay metro.”

It was also during this period that the DA’s reputation for better governance was tested and in many ways disproved, particularly in Tshwane and the City of Johannesburg.

The review panel had made a host of recommendations on how the DA could reverse its decline, but the events of the past week have inflicted further damage on the brand and the party.

The election of Zille to the powerful post of federal council chair and the resignation of Herman Mashaba, Maimane and his key ally Athol Trollip indicates that the project to diversify the DA has failed — both Mashaba and Maimane had effectively declared this in their very public resignations.

This simply bolsters the perception of the DA as a “white party” which Zille admitted in her May writings was at the heart of why she had sought to install a black leader.

The resignations this week are unlikely to be the last.

Insiders have raised concerns about the departure of public representatives, though many may remain due to necessity and the need for a salary, they may still be disgruntled, which could affect their performance in their various roles in councils and legislatures.

Another clear signal sent by the events this week is that there is little prospect for growth for black DA members, that there will always be a ceiling unless one’s thinking aligns with the powerful core liberal grouping.

The most dire of consequence of this week’s events, however, is that it is simply bad for SA’s young democracy, in which a strong opposition is a vital ingredient.

Zille’s legacy over her seven-year tenure at the helm of the DA was incredible — she managed to swell the party’s support considerably and pushed for it to become a political home for all South Africans.

It is ironic that her return to the party four years later has reversed this legacy in one fell swoop.

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