For the DA’s sake, Zille must step down

Time of article published Feb 10, 2014

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Eusebius McKaizer says Helen Zille is starting to damage her own brand and should step down for the sake of the Democratic Alliance, in this extract from Could I vote DA?

To be honest, I feel sorry for Helen Zille sometimes. Specifically as leader of the DA she must feel a bit like she’s stuck in the Hotel California: you can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave. There is no one who can currently replace her, and so even though she has been willing to step down as party leader, senior leaders would have none of it, including some of those who do not always agree with all of her strategic calls.

Let me start by being blunt about my take on Helen Zille. I think Helen Zille is a good leader. She was the perfect person to build an excellent foundation for the DA in the post-Leon years. In fact, I would go a step further and suggest that she hasn’t yet been given adequate recognition within the party and within our political landscape for her role in opposition politics.

But, she’d be the wrong person to lead the party beyond 2014. It goes without saying it is too late for her to be ditched ahead of this year’s elections. But soon after the 2014 elections the DA must search for a new leader.

Zille is starting to damage her own brand, her own legacy, and most worrying of all, the foundations she built. Not everyone who can erect an amazing building also has the ability to maintain that building or to extend it, redesign it, brand it and rebrand it over time.

She has, frankly, now overstayed her welcome in the position of party leader. It would be sensible for the party to honour her contribution, have it archived by a biographer, and then say, “Hamba kahle!”

Ideally the DA should have gone into the 2014 elections with someone else at the helm. The DA won’t, in our lifetime, become the party in government in South Africa if it isn’t led by a black South African. It probably has to be led by a black African in particular. But the DA can most definitely kiss outright electoral victory in our lifetime goodbye if it continues to be led by a white South African.

Now, let’s not pretend that this is theoretical nonsense. You have to live in cloud cuckoo land to think that race doesn’t matter in South Africa. We can make a case that race shouldn’t matter. (I think it does, but there’s a debate here to be had elsewhere.) But it does matter, and that is the starting point from which most political strategising happens. Unless, of course, winning elections is not the reason you are in politics. Which would be bizarre.

I’m not interested here in whether this is a tragic fact about our country, or whether we should challenge the electorate to think differently. The reality is that unless the DA is led by a black African, the party will not unseat the ANC.

Obviously, being led by a black African will not be enough. Many other issues, addressed throughout this book, would have to fall into place. And, of course, not just any black African leader will do. In logical language, one might say that a black African leader is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the DA to be able to beat the ANC in a general election in the next few general elections. Such is the reality of race in our country. And that is reason enough for Helen to go.

She knows this well, of course. Which is why she is perfectly comfortable with (though mistaken about) the idea of Mamphela Ramphele taking over from her. Helen knows that she will not be president of South Africa. If it was up to her, she would simply be the premier of the Western Cape, and Mamphela, or someone like her, would lead the party and challenge the dominance of the ANC among black African voters.

Colour of reality

Helen is not black enough and we are not colour-blind enough as voters.

I have no doubt that many DA hacks will fume at what I just wrote, and even quote the previous sentence as a perfect example of a writer thinking for others. I do not fear such defensiveness from party hacks. For one thing, it is the DA, and not writers about politics, who want to get into power, so they would do well to be less hard-headed about critical dialogue.

Much more important than this response, however, is that the DA itself is in agreement with me. There is no way in hell that Mmusi Maimane would have been picked as the DA’s Gauteng premier candidate over the experienced Jack Bloom if Mmusi wasn’t black. It is an open secret that Mmusi’s race was a deal-breaker in his favour.

I challenge any DA leader to look me in the eye and say, “Eusebius, if Jack Bloom was black, Mmusi would still have been elected the premier candidate for Gauteng”. I’m afraid I’d then have to resort to my native Afrikaans, “Jy’s ’n liegbek! (You’re a liar!)”

(The only trait that Mmusi has in greater abundance than Jack, and which is relevant to his candidacy, is charisma, but the wealth of technical knowledge and governance experience on Jack’s part just makes him too strong for the charisma gap to be enough for Mmusi to be the correct candidate, especially since Jack isn’t a monster, but actually known across Gauteng … But, all of this means nothing, of course, in the face of Mmusi’s beautiful black skin.)

And so, as with their pragmatic choice of black Mmusi as premier candidate for Gauteng, so too in the name of pragmatism must they ditch Helen for a black leader soon after 2014.

But there is a second reason Zille has overstayed her welcome. It has nothing to do with her race, I’m afraid.

In the last two years especially, she has simply become unable to recognise when she is making disastrous leadership calls. And because she has achieved a lot as party leader, many of her peers, although otherwise confident, do not call her out on blunders that cost her, and cost the party.

When a leader has reached this kind of cult status in an organisation then it is best for them to leave. It is good to have a leader who can take decisions without being scared to do so, like her nurturing of young black talent.

But the other extreme is a charismatic leader whose mistakes go unchecked because there is a limit to how much people around her are willing to push back given that she is larger than life inside the party.

The one clear example is Helen’s disastrous intervention in the policy debate on HIV/Aids, specifically about whether to criminalise the transmission of HIV.

The usual DA loudmouths who are quick to point out political idiocy among ANC leaders simply froze when Helen referred to some of our country’s most well-respected, internationally renowned Aids activists as “Aids Gestapo”.

It was a complete strategic and communications disaster. The language, the tone, and even the content of her viewpoint were way off the mark. I interviewed her on Talk Radio 702 about it and it was clear she wasn’t even familiar with the literature on whether or not it was a good public health policy proposal to chuck people in jail for transmitting HIV.

So far off the mark was Helen that even Helen Epstein, on whose research she relied (singularly and uncritically one must add too), had to write an article saying that the other Helen was drawing the wrong conclusions from her work.

But here’s the point. Helen was arrogant, pretending to be an expert, refusing to climb down after hurling abuse at civil society experts, and unable, most important of all, to see that as opposition leader you need civil society on your side as you fight the ANC, and as you persuade the electorate to vote for you.

She just could not find it in herself to show humility, and it took forever and a day before her penchant for Twitter wars started to subside. Way too long. And where were the strong DA leaders who are so quick to go after ANC politicians when they behave stupidly on policy positions about which they know nothing?

Silent. And why? Because of the cult status around Helen. This is another reason she must go. Yes, you want a leader who is fearless. But you also want a leader who does not lack the ability to reign themselves in, the ability to sense vulnerability, and to know when their actions and utterances are beginning to damage the brand of the party.

I do not think Helen has these instincts now in the same supply as she had them before. She has become too successful for her own good. And that is hurting the party, and her own legacy.

When I see Helen continuing to be irritated with civil society (even now), I think to myself, “My God, she is no better than the ANC! She hates criticism as much as the ANC! THAT’s why Simphiwe Dana annoys her! THAT’s why she cannot stand Equal Education! And that’s why, most bizarre of all, she is even willing to defend Angie Motshekga against Equal Education!”

Is mine the kind of reaction you want from a voter? Perceiving your party leader in the Western Cape as behaving uncannily like the leaders of the ANC elsewhere? No, of course not. Because then the incentive to vote for the DA is destroyed.

If I think the ANC is horrible towards civil society movements and their leaders, why on earth would I take a chance on a party led by someone who thinks that Zackie Achmat is the Aids Gestapo? Let’s face it, that sounds like Thabo Mbeki, and we know what we think of his legacy on tolerating rational approaches to policy debate and tolerating civil society.

So an out-of-control Helen Zille, even if she were pitch-black and could not speak English to save her life, would still be a liability for the DA beyond 2014.

But she is white. And, yes, race still matters, and will for years still to come. In that context, even if her advisers could fix her communication glitches, she must still step down because the party needs to be led by a black leader if it is to make a serious attempt at challenging the ANC.

Who should replace her? I haven’t a clue! But that doesn’t change the problem that her staying on represents. She had a great innings, but it’s time to retire as party leader.

* This is an extract from Could I Vote DA? by Eusebius McKaiser, published by Bookstorm at a recommended retail price of R220.

Independent on Saturday

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