Helen Zille and the age of unpredictable volatility

By Ebrahim Harvey

I am confident that most historians who reflect in the future over the past week’s dramatic events in the Democratic Alliance will show that the primary reason for the resignations of the leader, Mmusi Maimane, and Athol Trollip, past federal chair, was Helen Zille.

Her late decision to enter the race for the election of a new Federal Executive chair of the DA – just a few weeks before it took place – is what analysts need to turn their attention to in order to understand the mind of Zille and her supporters in the leadership of the DA. Why did she decide to do that?

Zille, probably in consultation with a few senior white leaders in the DA, decided that it was strategically necessary to do so because the party under Maimane’s leadership was drifting in a direction they felt had to not only be stopped but reversed. That direction was a greater influx of black people into the party and the accompanying stress on racial diversity in its structures.

There is an inverse relationship between race, power and control and an abundant literature on those interrelated themes. Zille has all along shown a huge appetite for the power which comes with leadership. There is an inner compulsion for her to be in the senior leadership, not for its own sake however, but rather as a means to an end, which in this case was to stop and hopefully reverse the racial diversity processes Maimane had set into motion as party leader.

Zille reckoned that by winning the powerful federal chair post she would be in a key position to carry out that mission. Her strategy would have been to subtly but steadily encroach upon the territory of Maimane’s leadership in order to bend the DA away from race and diversity issues and towards a race-free liberal democratic space, which she and other mainly white leaders in the DA believed was the traditional mandate of the DA. This mandate she believed Maimane and a few other black leaders in the party who stress racial diversity and redress were subverting.

What the group who backed Zille for the Federal chair post opportunistically did was to utilise a party report on the 2019 elections results which suggested that Maimane step down. This they did together with exploiting adverse publicity which emerged around Maimane using a car which belonged to Steinhof’s Markus Jooste, even after it was meant to be returned, a version of events which Maimane disputed the accuracy of. This adverse publicity included controversy over a R4 million home in Claremont, in Cape Town, which he had rented, but which the DA’s finance committee, upon investigation, cleared him of any wrongdoing.

But Maimane repeatedly claimed that the idea of all this adverse publicity was to smear him in order to reflect negatively on his leadership of the DA, especially after its poor performance in the May 2019 elections, for which he was also held responsible.

The question that needs to be addressed in the light of the fact that the DA’s own internal investigation showed that there was nothing illegal or no wrongdoing by Maimane in the case of both the car he drove and the house he rented in Cape Town, is whether the adverse publicity was not calculated to inflict damage on his reputation in order to affect his leadership of the DA.

That appears indeed to be the case. Note in this regard that Trollop himself stated that the DA has not treated Maimane fairly.

But there are overarching themes which emerge from this unprecedented crisis in the DA, the magnitude of which probably exceeds anything experienced earlier in the party and in fact in the history of liberal mainstream politics in South Africa.

The first thing that is striking is how liberalism in this country had shifted from its historical white English character to a more open and ‘non-racial’ one, except that the racial cleavages which the current crisis has opened up shows that ultimately race is so powerful a factor that even in a putatively ‘non-racial’ DA it came to explode the party in this crisis.

In this regard it is very important to look at the resignation a few days earlier of Herman Mashaba, the former DA Johannesburg mayor. While he stopped short of stating so openly the ‘right-wing’ shift in the DA he referred to as the reason for his own resignation was clearly about white leaders in the party who supported Zille for the Executive chair post.

The DA crisis not only shows how deeply embedded race is in this country but that we are in fact reliving our history today. There are several key lessons that emerges from this crisis in the DA.

The crisis in the DA was produced by that same history of ours, in which a powerful white racist elite (not ‘’white people’’ as such) were for a very long period the rulers of black (African, Coloured, Indian) people and which did not substantially change after the political transition of the 1990s.

But there is in fact a convergence of the crisis in the DA with the crisis in ANC itself in the specific sense that both are produced by the underlying unprecedented socioeconomic crisis, which is in fact of even greater proportion than the political crisis in both parties. It is this subterranean soil which catalysed the political crisis in both parties but in very different ways.

My argument is that due to the marked switch to the essentially neoliberal policy trajectory of the ANC since it came to office in 1994 it has been reduced to a typical liberal party and that in fact it is the merger of the DA with the ANC that might occur as a realignment of mainstream politics in the future. In other words, what the ANC has become is more in line with what the DA was and is.

Rather than a merger between the ANC and the Economic Freedom Fighters in the future I think it is a merger between the DA and the ANC, unlikely as many might argue that is now, that we might see over the next decade. Such is the age of unpredictable volatility we live in.

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Helen Zille and the age of unpredictable volatility

By Ebrahim Harvey

Her late decision to enter the race for the election of a new Federal Executive chair of the DA – just a few weeks before it took place – is what analysts need to turn their attention to in order to understand the mind of Zille and her supporters in the leadership of the DA. […]

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Contributors

Ebrahim Harvey

Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer, analyst and author.

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