Zille is politically ill-disposed

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IOL  st file lindiwe zille INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS DA leader Helen Zille and the partys former Parliamentary chief Lindiwe Mazibuko. Picture: Leon Lestrade

Helen Zille isn’t realising how she reinforces perceptions that the DA doesn’t take black people seriously, says Eusebius McKaiser.

Johannesburg - Can someone please call emergency political services? DA leader Helen Zille is politically ill disposed and needs help. Ngoku! (Now!)

My goodness. What a Sunday Times front-page story to wake up to. Zille reportedly made it clear at a party federal executive meeting a few days before that that Lindiwe Mazibuko is nothing without her, was made by her and that her – Mazibuko’s – career successes inside the party are in no small part due to Zille often coming to her rescue, saving her, including as leader of the DA caucus in Parliament.

As if that wasn’t explosive enough, she reportedly effectively anointed Mmusi Maimane as Mazibuko’s successor by talking about the need to surround him with a good support team, a viewpoint that clearly implies she is imposing him on a new parliamentary caucus that has not even formally met yet!

But the bit of this whole saga that really made me laugh out loud while having a greasy breakfast that Tim Noakes would have approved of is the conversation stopper from Makashule Ghana, who then asked awkwardly whether there is a proxy candidate Zille has in mind because, well, he might want to be leader of the DA in Parliament too.

There are several shocking things to observe in this story. First, does Zille just not get it? You don’t alienate those you lead; you try instead to build trust, respect and loyalty.

What incentive is there now for Mazibuko to remain deeply committed to the current DA? I can’t imagine her returning after a year after this fallout and choosing to butt heads with an out-of-control Zille. Why would I, if I have talent and opportunities outside politics, return to an emotionally draining leadership tussle?

The point isn’t that politics must be smooth sailing. Nor that Mazibuko lacks an appetite to fight politically for the deeply held views she holds. That is, well, politics, of course.

It’s not for timid boys but for thick-skinned, skilled and savvy career women. I’d concede that much.

But the incentive to think of other possibilities when returning from Harvard has now increased three or fourfold directly because of what Zille has been saying about Mazibuko over the past week or so.

Does this matter? Yes. For one thing it exposes Zille’s inability to be an effective mentor. It exposes her as not thinking about how to support the career of someone she has claimed to be an asset to the party. That in turn sends a signal to an outsider looking in that unless you are Zille’s flavour of the day, you may at some point be the object of her unpredictable wrath.

Zille isn’t realising how she reinforces perceptions that the DA doesn’t take black people seriously, even the ones voting for it or inside its leadership ranks.

Here’s how. I cringed when I read Sunday’s story because she sounds, yes I will say it, like the proverbial white madam sponsoring a black child who now dares to be cheeky. That is how I read it. That is how I feel it. And even though I’m gatvol with the ANC, how can I take the DA seriously if its top leader behaves like she rents and professionalises black talent?

I’m sorry, Helen, but you’re offering floating voters and voters let down by the ANC, especially the black middle-class voter who didn’t vote ANC in the metros, reason to vote EFF or UDM, say, rather than for you.

Yes, yes, the DA grew its vote by some 6 percentage points. No, it hasn’t reached a glass ceiling – that can’t be true, given the ANC and government’s flaws. But the question is: Why not 28 percent, say, closer to the internal target initially cited, which was 30 percent?

The answer is brilliantly illustrated in this story of Zille’s response to Mazibuko exiting, and her imposing leaders on the leadership structure.

Branding and imaging matter. We voters are psychological creatures, not computers. And if your image in my head is of a maternal figure wanting young black talent to suck up to you or else, then don’t be sure you will win in my metro in 2016.

Because the 2014 elections may be over. But politics continues, and the 2016 local elections are not that far away. So the federal executive of the DA must immediately deal with Zille and push back. Otherwise you will improve again in 2016 but, again, fall short of feasible internal targets.

There is also a failure to recognise that you kill talent by putting people into positions they lack experience for, even if you do so through an open voting system and with no pressure on who the caucus should elect.

Maimane, in my view, is a very exciting prospect, but he cannot be parachuted into the position of caucus leader because he has no parliamentary experience.

Early promotion could kill a career that otherwise might have spanned several decades.

If I was Maimane, I’d immediately make it clear I’m not interested in being the parliamentary caucus leader. It isn’t in Maimane’s interest. It would be a horrible experience because many DA MPs would not respect him in that role.

Maimane is still politically young. I’d rather aim to support someone else, if I was him, and hope you back the right horse and get a prominent shadow ministerial job that you can use to gain experience in Parliament, and earn your respect by working for it in Parliament.

That would be in Maimane’s interest and in the party’s interest. The alternative is Maimane being voted for grudgingly by the DA caucus and the DA becoming a less effective opposition voice in Parliament.

By the way, that would also be bad for democracy and accountability. Parliament is already underperforming. And an official opposition caucus leader must be someone who has experience in Parliament. Maimane has none.

And being surrounded by a good team is necessary but not sufficient. You yourself need to have been in parliamentary roles before. But I’m afraid all of this can happen only if Zille is stopped. She has now become the DA’s Thabo Mbeki. It’s time to recall her!

* Eusebius McKaiser is the author of the bestselling book Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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