Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

The DA has a leadership crisis. The problem is it did not start with Mmusi Maimane, and it will not end with him. This is clear from the manner in which leaders were appointed, from Helen Zille’s ill-fated smooch with then politician and former activist Dr Mamphela Ramphele to Lindiwe Mazibuko, Patricia de Lille and Maimane.

This underscores the DA’s reputation for propelling individuals into leadership posts and then discarding them like old socks.

At the forefront of the propelling for many years was Zille, who has thrown her hat into the ring for the powerful post of Chairperson of the Federal Council, who effectively oversees the day-to-day running of the party. Penning a mea culpa after her exit from the Western Cape premiership in May this year, titled "My biggest mistake", Zille explained the rationale behind her pushing promising black supporters into leadership posts.

She said that when she became leader, she recognised that it was crucial to diversify the DA and "change its style". The party had to "cross boundaries" and it had to convince the electorate that its policies and principles would further the interests of all in society, especially the poor.

She wrote that the more she worked to diversify the DA, the more its opponents accused it of being a "white party", which led her to conclude that if it was led by a black person backed by a significant number of black provincial leaders, it would finally rid itself of this tag — and, essentially, win black votes.

This in part explains why the DA has leapt from crisis to crisis over leaders — its attempt at transformation seems to have been more window-dressing than anything.

There are, of course, black leaders in the DA who have risen in its ranks, but they are not the kind of leaders Zille and a core group of powerful leaders believed would bolster the party’s image among the electorate.

Enter Maimane, who by all accounts fitted the mould for the DA’s old boys’ club. The attempt was transparent and crass, since Maimane stood for two key positions before he was elected party leader — his 2011 election campaign for the post of Johannesburg mayor failed, as did his 2014 campaign for the Gauteng premiership.

While the electoral margin between the DA and the ANC narrowed significantly in 2014, this could not be attributed to Maimane but more to unhappiness in Gauteng over e-tolls and the backlash against Jacob Zuma’s presidency.

Maimane had not yet proved his worth when he was elected DA leader in 2015, and despite being hailed for the DA’s coup in three metros in 2016, it was again not about him.

But it was the DA’s 2019 election results that showed the real folly of its superficial attempts at diversifying the party; core voters began abandoning the party and black middle-class voters moved back to the governing party, now led by the more palatable Cyril Ramaphosa.

Maimane now claims that he is being targeted by antitransformation forces in the DA, but he himself not just stood by but actively helped sideline and remove black leaders.

What is clear is that the DA is now back at square one. It has to decide whether to remain an opposition party and forget about winning votes outside its core white, coloured and liberal base, or make a genuine attempt at transforming itself, involving the long, hard slog of building trust among black communities and allowing for leaders to organically emerge from its structures.

Opting for either route could culminate in a split in the party, but opting for neither could see it devastated in elections to come.