Western Cape Premier Helen Zille has not played a high-profile role in the DA’s 2019 election campaign but this may all backfire, says writer. Picture: Armand Hough African News Agency(ANA)

Jacob Zuma and Helen Zille. It’s hard to think of two politicians who have been so diametrically different in the influence they have exerted on the fortunes of their respective parties.

Zuma became leader of the ANC and president of South Africa when the party had a 70% majority in Parliament. Before he took charge, the economy had under his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, grown at a blistering 4% per annum. Under Zuma, it’s been less than half of that.

Zuma turned virtually everything to dross. ANC voter support plunged to alarm bell levels, triggering his party to fire him. The economy is in tatters, our social fabric is frayed, and the spirit of the country is almost universally gloomy.

Despite it all, Zuma seems to be loved, or at least widely forgiven. Roughly half of ANC branch members still support his faction and his discredited cronies are set to be in the majority on the ANC benches in the next Parliament.

Although critical of his behaviour, the media depiction of Zuma is generally of a corrupt but genial buffoon. Few present the unvarnished reality - a malignant growth on both party and nation that demands urgent and permanent excision.

Zille, on the other hand, has endured a consistently carping press, astonishing levels of personal abuse on social media and from the ANC and EFF, as well as widespread antipathy within her own party, the DA.

Some of it is understandable. Zille is combative, abrasive and often plain insufferable. Her gaffes on social media were often factually correct but politically explosive, leaving many of her colleagues reeling from the outrage.

Nevertheless, Zille’s political achievements, on behalf of her party, the City of Cape Town where she was mayor, and the Western Cape where she has been premier for a decade, are remarkable by any objective measure. And, unlike Zuma, she remains untainted by corruption.

When Zille became leader of the DA in 2007, it had control of not a single city or province. Over the two general elections that she presided, the DA vote rose nationally by 10 percentage points to 22.4%.

Almost entirely because of Zille’s drive, the DA won control of Cape Town and the Western Cape, where it now draws 60% of the vote. Under her leadership, the province has thrived economically, and in clean governance.

As a party, the DA has always had a Kleenex approach - use, discard - to its former leaders, but the disdain with which Zille is being treated by her own party must hurt. She steps out of politics in a few weeks with her party barely acknowledging her achievements, never mind celebrating them.

There is a noticeable gulf between Zille and current DA leader Mmusi Maimane, whose meteoric rise was orchestrated by her. On occasion, her protégé has rebuked her harshly in public, as if to shame a recalcitrant child.

It is under Maimane’s direction that Zille has seen her influence deliberately curtailed and her contribution downplayed. Unlike Zuma for the ANC, Zille has not played a high-profile role in the DA’s 2019 election campaign.

This may all backfire. A survey shows that 58% of DA voters were more likely to vote for the party if the election campaign had been led by her.

Zille and Maimane have downplayed the significance of the figures. However, given that this was the view of DA voters of all races, it does negate the popular argument that Zille’s old-style liberalism is distasteful to blacks, or at least those already in the DA.

Although we will only know for definite on May 9, one gets a sense that Maimane may have misplayed the DA’s hand. The party's retreat from non-racialism may be enough to offend the minorities that form the historical rump of its vote, while not being radical enough to entice disenchanted ANC voters who instead may abstain or vote for the EFF.

That would be disastrous. For a decade, the DA has been a growing into a credible successor to an ANC that after a quarter of a century, looks decidedly shop-worn. South Africa cannot afford to have the EFF usurp that role.

* Follow WSM on Twitter: @TheJaundicedEye

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