POLITICS
06/06/2017 14:30 SAST | Updated 06/06/2017 15:05 SAST

Maimane's Moment: Inside The Battle For The DA's Future

The DA is changing rapidly as the party looks to shed the past, say insiders.

Happier days . . . Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane at a Gauteng provincial congress in Boksburg in 2014.
Gallo Images
Happier days . . . Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane at a Gauteng provincial congress in Boksburg in 2014.

ANALYSIS

The conflict between Mmusi Maimane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, and his predecessor, Helen Zille, premier of the Western Cape, represents a contest between the new and the old.

At the heart of the battle is the direction the party should take and what it must do to wrest power away from the governing African National Congress in 2019. This is according to party insiders privy to the inner workings and machinations around the skirmish between the Marks Building, where Maimane has his parliamentary office, and Wale Street, where the premier's office in Cape Town is located.

Helen says: "The DA doesn't see the colour of your skin, we've moved beyond race.'" Mmusi says: "If you don't see my colour, if you don't see my race, you don't see me."A DA insider on the fundamental difference between Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane.

Maimane notified Zille of the DA's intention to suspend her from the party pending the outcome of her disciplinary hearing into her tweets apparently supporting some aspects on colonialism, a process which starts on Friday in Cape Town when the parties will agree on a timeline.

The expectation is that Zille will fight to the end. She has "lawyered up" say those in the know, making it clear that she feels victimised and that there is an abuse of process. "You can't find somebody guilty before they've had a chance to state their case," Zille told HuffPost South Africa.

But even though she might score a Pyrrhic victory -- and allies of Maimane concede that there's a more than even chance that she might -- the bigger issue is how the party is changing and how its approach and face is changing with it.

"Helen says: 'The DA doesn't see the colour of your skin, we've moved beyond race.' Mmusi says: 'If you don't see my colour, if you don't see my race, you don't see me'," was how one senior public representative, who knows both well, summarises the differences between the two.

More and more young, empowered black people are joining and they want to use their voices. They don't have the stomach for the DA's historic double-dealing about race."A young up and coming DA leader.

HuffPost SA spoke to five sources in the national leadership, parliamentary leadership and provincial structures. All of them agree the stalemate between Maimane and Zille will be decisive for the future of the party and that it has and will cause major damage to its electoral prospects.

One DA luminary, considered a young an upcoming (black) leader, says progressives are excited about the rapid change the party is experiencing. "More and more young, empowered black people are joining and they want to use their voices. They don't have the stomach for the DA's historic double-dealing about race and they aren't going to sit in meetings and keep quiet, like in the past."

Zille was acutely aware that if the DA had to break through from being a strong regional party to becoming a national, mass-based party it would have to change and so would the face of the party. She recruited Lindiwe Mazibuko from the ranks of the DA's parliamentary staff and mentored her into the leadership position in the National Assembly. She tried to reach a deal with Mamphela Ramphele so that the face of the party in the 2014 elections wouldn't be hers and she supported Maimane in the party leadership contest of 2015.

She recognises the importance of having a black leader, but she's also committed to her vision of non-racialism, or post-racialism. Maimane's vision however diverges from his predecessor's.

She recognises the importance of having a black leader, but she's also committed to her vision of non-racialism, or post-racialism. Maimane's vision however diverges from his predecessor's. He believes that race still plays a role in society and that the DA needs to acknowledge that there are still structural and institutional racial prejudices.

"Helen's mantra was 'the open opportunity society'. But Mmusi argues that yes, we need merit-based advancement, but we don't have a level playing field yet. And the party needs to acknowledge that and adapt its policies accordingly," a DA MP told HuffPost SA.

A provincial office bearer in KwaZulu-Natal says race can no longer be a hypothetical agenda point and even though Maimane seems to be committed in distancing the party from Zille's views on colonialism -- and the accompanying racial implications -- the jury is still out on his true convictions. "He announced that members will have to take a pledge against racism and that the DA will pursue what is tantamount to quotas for public representatives. It caused a huge ruckus in the party. But what's happened since? Not a lot."

The party needs to get its act together . . . people are thirsty, praying, yearning for changeFormer DA leader Tony Leon

This person says the rapid evolvement of the DA's position on race would not have happened organically but that Zille has now given Maimane the opportunity "to knuckle down" and change the party's trajectory.

"It's extremely complicated and nuanced, but we simply cannot be seen to be a party that only protects the interests of white people," the MP said. "Yes, we do expect to shed some conservatives, some Zille supporters. They will likely vote for the Freedom Front Plus. But that's okay."

Tony Leon, Zille's predecessor, says if the DA is unable to take full advantage of an ANC tearing itself apart "history will judge the party harshly".

"The party needs to get its act together. The ANC are imploding and another split could cost them 7%, 8% in the next election. If the DA can breach 30% support they absolutely must do a coalition deal, even if it's a minimum, bare-bones deal. People are thirsty, praying, yearning for change," he told HuffPost SA.

Polls Show Tweets Have Hurt The Party

The DA's internal polls have revealed that Western Cape premier Helen Zille's tweets on colonialism tanked the party's favourability among potential black voters, say insiders.

This has imperilled the party's strategy to be able to govern four provinces in 2019, two in toto and two in alliance with other opposition parties. The DA is in a concerted push to govern after the 2019 national election and it is polling potential new voters.

A jewel in the crown will be Gauteng which the DA believes it can win outright. The city-based province is home to three metro councils and the party already governs two of these in coalition.

Party polls show that until Zille's tweets, the DA was on track. But the tweets have derailed the growth trajectory. This explains why the DA is in a rush to get Zille out of the way and why party leader Mmusi Maimane is trying to separate the party from the premier.

"There has been regression in the DA's favourability among black voters," confirmed a member who had seen the polls. He said potential voters did not understand the sophistry about Zille's arguments with regard to colonialism's legacy but only understood the tweets as a justification for colonialism and, by extension, for apartheid. -- Ferial Haffajee

Leon's philosophy seems closer to Maimane's than Zille's and he says to achieve political change you must first achieve political power. "We decided, under my leadership, that we mustn't simply be progressive, as noble a cause as it might be, because we were nothing but an ineffectual pressure group. You need to prepare for government and you need to adapt accordingly."

The KZN office bearer says this is Maimane's moment of truth: "He mustn't show any weakness now. Nobody wants to follow a weak leader."

Maimane, before he was elected DA leader in May 2015, said he admired Zille for sticking to her principles and that he wanted to emulate her. There are moments where leaders need to be able to stick to those principles, he said, regardless of public opinion and regardless of the outcome.

This is such a moment.