08/06/2017 12:35 SAST | Updated 08/06/2017 12:36 SAST

Maimane vs Zille: It's All-Out War

Neither the DA leader nor the Western Cape premier is budging.

Pieter du Toit
The conflict between DA leader Mmusi Maiumane and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille has escalated.


The conflict between Mmusi Maiumane, leader of the Democratic Alliance, and Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape, has escalated into a full-blown war. And neither of them are willing to budge on issues they both consider matters of principle and therefore non-negotiable.

Zille on Wednesday released her submission to the party's federal executive council after James Selfe, the body's chairperson, announced that she had officially been suspended. The nine-page document – published on Google Docs and released on Twitter – details her disillusionment with the process, accuses some in the party of a "vindictive and personal campaign" against her and signals her resolute intention to fight to the end.

It drew the battle lines between the Western Cape and the rest of the party's federal structures. At the end of the document Zille refuses to submit to her suspension and says she cannot agree to recuse herself form party activities in the province as her "proactive leadership and expertise" is to the benefit of the party.

Maimane and his operatives are under no illusion as to what must happen: Zille needs to submit to the DA leader's will and tender the apology he wants. That apology includes an admission that her Singapore tweets were a defence of colonialism and that it caused the party harm. Zille won't do that, saying she has already apologised for the tweets and that it was not a defence of colonialism.

As HuffPost South Africa reported earlier, the conflict between the two bulls in the DA kraal is rooted in the growing pains of a party moving away from its historic liberal tradition to a more "progressive" form of liberal ideology.

To the new liberalists in the party – to whom Maimane represents the vanguard – Zille's liberalism borders on conservatism. One operative describes it thus: "It's the kind of liberalism that says: 'We are all equal and should not see race.' I'm happy that we are moving away from it. Maimane is moving the party to progressive liberalism, which speaks to more people and is more palatable to more people, black and white."

He explains that this form of liberalism "says we must acknowledge the past and, within a liberal framework, address past injustices while also keeping our eyes on the type of country we want to build where matters like race do not matter. Zille's form of liberalism will not take us forward. Maimane's will."

The consequences of this are dire in a political party. If the perception, or even the reality, of a difference of opinion can be used to suspend me we will shut down debate in the DA.Helen Zille in her submission to the DA's federal executive.

Zille, who for years has been walking the tightrope between the DA's hard liberalism and South African race realpolitik, made the mantra "an open opportunity society" the centrepiece of her vision. Maimane says such a society does not yet exist and that South Africa's history means opportunities aren't yet available to all.

This divide was made apparent during a meeting between the two on May 18 this year, on which Zille elaborates in her submission. She believes the differences in opinion on the DA's mission, strategy and tactics expressed during that meeting are behind her suspension. This, she says, is in conflict with the principles and values of the party's constitution and means that anyone who differs with the leader may be subjected to the same treatment she has received. "The consequences of this are dire in a political party. If the perception, or even the reality, of a difference of opinion can be used to suspend me, we will shut down debate in the DA," she writes.

But insiders say Maimane is now doubly determined to see this through and to expel Zille if need be. The party's own polling shows its support among potential black voters has taken a body blow because of Zille's tweets. One insider said on Wednesday that the issue is hampering grassroots activities: "Our people on the ground can't mobilise without being asked about this, particularly in black communities. Zille is tone-deaf and selfish."

There is agreement in the leadership that if this should be war, then a blitzkrieg would be preferable. The disciplinary hearing commences on Friday and there are rumours of one last attempt to force Zille into a climb-down.

If she doesn't, the war could go nuclear. And then an Mbeki-style recall from Leeuwenhof, the premier's residence in Cape Town, could come into play.