Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane is caught in a double-bind concerning the fate of Helen Zille in the DA as Maimane directs focus towards winning the 2019 election, political analyst Ebrahim Fakir said.
Zille's party membership hangs in the balance after Maimane announced her suspension in a press conference on Saturday over a set of controversial tweets on the impacts of colonialism. The Western Cape Premier and former leader of the DA, however, alerted the leadership of the party's constitution, which requires her to first argue for why she shouldn't face suspension. The party then gave her 72 hours in which to make representations.
"Maimane is stuck in a bind in which he knows the party cannot boost its black electorate if it is seen as hesitant to act on Zille while also concerned about the impact of a Zille departure on the party's core suburban and significantly white voter base," Fakir told HuffPost SA.
A massive concern for Maimane, leader of the DA since May 2015, is the "perception that Zille has been critical to the substantial growth of the party's voter base over multiple successive elections and that her removal might reduce its [traditional] constituency," Fakir said.
Zille's tweets on colonialism, which eventually led to Maimane's pronouncement of her suspension on Saturday, are "unpalatable and factually wrong, but this is not about facts", Fakir said, "it's about ideology and belief".
Maimane knows Zille is entitled to her opinion, but he also knows these views on colonialism and other issues alienate a huge constituency of voters at a time when the DA is looking towards governing the country, he said.
The 2016 elections revealed two indications about the DA's past electoral growth, Fakir said. "Firstly, growth in support from black voters is on the increase but it remains incremental. Secondly, it is core suburban areas that keep the DA's votes high while townships still return relatively low numbers," he said. Most notably, he said, is the impact of "stayaway" ANC voters whose refrain has bolstered the DA's standing in the electoral system of proportional representation.
The challenge for Maimane, then, is to substantially grow the number of black voters while retaining its traditional electorate, which includes many white voters who may be sympathetic to Zille, he said.
'Divisions in the DA'
A "clear shift" has taken place within the DA under the leadership of Maimane, Fakir said, adding that there are "genuine differences in ideas between the two that are clearly identifiable".
"One section in the party is enabling a shift away from its 'neoliberal' approach towards a more social democratic model while another section of the party is saying 'this is not who we are'," he said. "Far from repudiating social grants, or key principles of affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment, the party is showing a clear shift towards a more social democratic approach to various issues."
The party, now governing in several metros around the country, has been at the forefront of reversing the unbundling of municipal entities and bringing them back under state control, in "ironic" contrast to the ANC's approach to municipal governance, he said. "You wouldn't expect the DA to do this, but they are," he said.
Professor Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy, told HuffPost SA that the "divide in the DA is not about economic policy or whether they are social democratic or libertarian. The DA has, for example, supported social grants for a long time, albeit with disagreements on the types of grants, but there's nothing new about this."
While the DA's approach to governance in some cities may in part appear even more social democratic than the ANC at times, divisions inside the DA relate more directly to questions of race, affirmative action and colonialism, he said. A key issue, he said, is whether the party will "move closer to the concerns of black Africans or stay within their traditional limits as well as convincing the black electorate that the party's leader is not a 'puppet' as many perceive" him to be.
"It is not uncommon in liberal politics in South Africa to find people supporting social democratic principles while unsympathetic towards black experiences in the country. It's the latter that is crucial here," he said.
A Zille ousting: Impact on funding?
On whether Maimane may be concerned over the consequences of a potential Zille expulsion for party funding, Fakir said that although donors are undeclared it can be assumed "they are most interested in unseating the ANC and are less concerned about principles".
"Donors do influence what happens in the DA, but should they be worried about the impact of Zille's removal? Not as long as they dislodge the ANC, the donors are likely to stay," he said.
Friedman told HuffPost SA it is impossible to speculate on the potential impact as "we simply don't know about them [donors]". Nevertheless, he said it is unlikely donors would walk away from the DA as there are few alternative political parties towards which those donors would strategically gravitate.
"The governing party is in trouble and for the first time in our democratic history, the outcome of our next general election is not certain. Donors in this context are unlikely to shift support towards parties like the FF+ or new ventures," he said.
"If there is tough action against Zille, it is likely funders and some voters may grumble for a day or two and then continue to vote for the DA," Friedman said.
'Party growth comes with significant challenges'
In light of accusations brought against DA representatives at various levels - including Dianne Kohler Barnard, KZN MPL Mbali Ntuli and most recently Helen Zille - Fakir says the the DA is often guilty of the impunity of which it accuses the ANC.
"The DA accuses the ANC of behaving with impunity because of inconsistent application of its own party rules. The DA, however, has also demonstrated inconsistency in the application of its own rules, including in the issue of the charges laid against KZN MPL Mbali Ntuli."
"As the DA grows in influence and power, they are clearly facing similar challenges to the ANC and one of Maimane's key challenges is to ensure consistent application of their own rules if they wish to win elections".
Also concerning the party's growth, Friedman said it is important for the DA to bear in mind that black voters most likely have more political parties that are appealing to them from which to choose than white voters. "The strategic option for the DA now is to throw the book at Helen, even if this causes some anger among traditional constituents," he said.