The return of Zille to the leadership structures of the party was no coincidence but a well-thought out and a meticulously implemented plan. Picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi/African News Agency (ANA)
The DA has been forced to look at itself in the mirror and ask two monumental questions: Who are we, and what is our role in South African politics?

It is in crafting the replies that the DA will answer the questions and the source of the schisms that have divided the party right down the middle.

The resignation this week of leader Mmusi Maimane - the party’s first black leader - proved that the erstwhile experiment to create a new non- racial South Africa party exploded in the face of its creators, leaving them ash-faced and unable to look at each other, let alone continue to work with each other.

So, the poster boy of the South African liberal politics threw in the towel and confessed that the experiment had failed. Maimane felt isolated, undermined and belittled by members of his leadership core. He found himself stranded up the political stream without a paddle.

The developments of this week were not unexpected. The political drama did not come out of the blue. It was preceded by a call from a senior staff member at the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) who said Maimane’s time was up, that he should be replaced by Alan Winde, the man who recently rose to be premier of the Western Cape, the DA’s prized political possession.

It is interesting to note that Helen Zille, the former DA leader who hand-picked Maimane as her successor, worked for the SAIRR.

Interesting, too, to note, that a former leader of the DA, Tony Leon, led a special delegation that went and asked Maimane to step down.

All of these activities took place amid corridor talk within the DA, that it was time to take the party back to its rightful owners. The experiment had failed, dismally.

Then came the disclosure that the former leader of the DA, Zille, was standing for the powerful post of chairperson of the party’s federal council. Then the political mud turned to clear water. It was clear, at this point, what the game plan was.

The return of Zille to the leadership structures of the party was no coincidence but a well-thought out and a meticulously implemented plan.

It left many DA members puzzled, paralysed and angry.

The question, as things stand, is, who is the DA and who does the party represent?

Right now, it’s a party in tatters and the leadership grappling with a number of crucial questions which include, how does the DA recover from the loss of its leader and Herman Mashaba, who has stepped down from his successful role as the mayor of Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic hub?

The first step to recovery is to appoint a strong and credible leader. Who will the DA appoint while it waits for the date for its congress to arrive so that a new leader can, in terms of the party constitution, be elected?

Zille is the next best choice following the resignation of Athol Trollip, the chairperson of the party.

If Zille doesn’t want the leadership, because it will show her true hand, will the party then go for Winde, the elderly white man to replace a young, vibrant black leader? Or will the DA be able to find another black leader from among its ranks who would not fear that he or she will be used and then dumped like the man from Dobsonville, Soweto?

The black caucus within the DA also has some questions that it needs to confront. Among the people who Maimane said undermined and decampaigned against him would be senior black leaders within the DA.

How will the black caucus deal with such people? Or are there some, within the caucus, who are blinded by their desire for high political positions that it does not matter what happens in-between?

The DA has, in the past 25 years, gone through a number of big political changes, struck interesting and dubious political marriages, all in the quest to become a force powerful enough to keep the ANC on its toes.

A few years ago, it went to bed with the National Party, the party of apartheid and one that its predecessor, the Progressive Federal Party, had opposed for decades. The marriage between the DA and NP enabled the DA to become a force in the Western Cape, a province that has become the last bastion of white rule.

In merging with the NP, the DA inherited conservative and right-wing elements from the former ruling party in apartheid South Africa.

This influence of this element was reflected in the party’s outlook and its contribution to policy and politics.

It is undisputed that Zille, who replaced Leon as the leader, did exceedingly well, leading the DA to increase its strength as the second biggest party in South Africa. The election number - 27% of the electorate - was the highest the DA had polled in the past 25 years.

The election of Maimane as the first black leader was the strongest message, yet, that the DA was repositioning itself from a white liberal party into a political home for all South Africans.

This move paid off handsomely as black South Africans swelled the ranks of the DA in numbers never seen before.

Their biggest challenge was to be the EFF, a party formed by ex-ANC members led by Julius Malema. The EFF’s popularity eclipsed the influence that the DA was supposed to have as the official opposition party in South Africa.

In fact, in many ways, the EFF played the role of and was the face of parties opposed to the ANC in Parliament.

Maimane attack on President Cyril Ramaphosa, which landed the president and the ANC in the Bosasa scandal, stood out as the rare occasion when the DA played its role as expected.

As it gazes at the mirror and analyses the image reflected, the DA needs to decide whether it will prove Maimane right and risk losing more black leaders and members in a move that will see it return to the 15% party that whispers into the political echo chamber.

The local government elections are not far away. Time is not on the side of the DA.