Tue, 07 Jul 2020

A case of master vs teacher for the soul of the DA

18 Oct 2019, 16:10 GMT+10

Imagine a martial arts movie in which a student becomes the teacher, only for his old master to return to reclaim the throne - but, in this very real case, it's not a throne but South Africa's second largest political party, the DA, and the battle for its soul.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane is the current student-turned-teacher who will have to fend off his former mentor, Helen Zille - seen by her critics as the master seeking to make a comeback.

The DA's two-day federal council meeting set for the weekend will deliberate over the future of the party with Zille's supporters hoping to return it to its liberal posture, while those in favour of Maimane are set on steering it on a more progressive trajectory.

EXPLAINER | What is the DA's federal council

Zille, who is backed by the so-called 1959 committee faction of the party, is vying for the position of federal council chairperson. She has argued her return to active politics is a last-ditch effort to assist the DA get back on track.

The DA has shown consistent growth since 1994, reaching new heights after she took over in 2007.

Support grew from 12% to 23%, rising from 1.9 million to four million supporters, which made her the most powerful female leader during her time in politics in the country.

Zille has also been responsible for sullying her own track record.

Beyond clashes with rising black leaders in the party, it is her use of social media after stepping down as leader that stained her legacy and fuelled the tension between her and former prodigy Maimane.

Maimane, the pastor-turned-politician became the first black leader of the DA, just after a few years of being in the party.

However, Maimane has had his hands full, managing racial outbursts and the undermining of his leadership by numerous leaders.

Even his attempts to introduce diversity and a more DA version of affirmative action were met with resistance.

Maimane's leadership will come under the microscope this weekend when a review panel report commissioned following a dismal showing in the 2019 May elections will be tabled.

For the first time, the DA failed to grow at the polls, registering a 1.5% loss. He had hoped to grow the party by 30%.

Helen versus Athol

While Zille will not face off against Maimane, she takes on what is believed to be his preferred candidate for the position of federal council chairperson - Athol Trollip. The powerful position is likened to that of the ANC's secretary general.

Trollip, who has been an ally of Maimane since the 2014 federal congress, is recognised as a stern and hardline politician.

Many believe he has the right skills and attitude to set the party straight, although some question his personal management style and whether this would alienate members who do not understand his style of leadership.

"Trollip's management skills have given us a clear indication of the man. The reality is that he may overshadow our purpose in the future, he's uncontrollable," said a federal executive committee member who also sits in the National Council of Provinces.

READ | DA leaders pulled from public debate ahead of federal council vote

The member said Maimane needed Trollip to keep the odds in his favour, warning that if Trollip lost the race for federal council chairperson, black party members might as well as leave.

Race has remained a critical issue in the DA in spite of attempts to position it as a party for all South Africans.

Constant spats around racial issues have taken place, with leaders like Phumzile van Damme and Diane Kohler-Barnard being found wanting by their own fellow democrats.

"It's never been our party. We really believed we had a chance to grow and be represented in the DA but it's clear they want their party back," said a Gauteng member of the legislature who did not want to be named.

The party insider said there was no way Zille would lose to Trollip.

Trollip has already lost twice to the former leader, first in the 2007 race to lead the party and again in 2011 to Zille's then-prodigy Lindiwe Mazibuko for parliamentary leader.

Pure liberals versus the progressive

The party, in battling to chart its way and its messaging to South Africans, has struggled to define itself, with some wanting it to remain pure and orthodox, while others argue it should be about embracing and rallying around shared values.

"It is a fight about determining the future, the posture of the DA of the future," said another party leader.

The party leader added in the former instance the DA would return to its dogma and focus on politics from that perspective, while the latter acknowledged that in the South African context, people have come from different schools of thought and it should be about common values.

This has also seen party members differing on how much the state needs to assist in creating an inclusive environment for people to thrive or intervention to be provided in order to address past imbalances.

ANALYSIS | A turbulent transition: DA faces a rocky future

These arguments have also led to two major factions, which seem to have formed various subgroups on both ends.

The 1959 committee, which has been linked to Zille and former leaders Ryan Coetzee and Tony Leon, has been accused of using outside organisations to influence the DA.

These include the controversial Institute of Race Relations, which has been opining on the state of the party and calling for Maimane's head.

Another faction, linked to Maimane, is said to be mostly made up of provincial leaders who have mostly thrown their weight behind him and Trollip.

Several provincial leaders are willing to refuse to endorse some aspects of Leon and Coetzee's review report insisting it is just laying the ground for the liberal bloc's takeover.

Among those willing to fight Zille and the liberal bloc for the party are those not interested in Maimane's fate.

Several leaders have said he had "dug his own grave" and should actually be removed.

It seems one issue many agree on is the call for the party to go for an early conference, with one source close to Maimane saying this would expose the 1959 committee's game plan.

The DA is supposed to go to federal congress in 2022 to elect its new leadership after Maimane was re-elected uncontested in 2018.

"You know what they say, beat the dog until its master shows up," said one insider.

However, younger members of the party have said an early conference would be a great opportunity for the DA to not only bring in different leaders, but new faces.

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