Opinion / 26 October 2019, 2:10pm / William Saunderson-Meyer
As the dust and confusion swirl around the trio who toppled the DA into an existential crisis, there is at least one thing we should know.
Contrary to Herman Mashaba’s explanation when resigning as Johannesburg’s mayor, it is not primarily because the return of Helen Zille - like a pesky Jill in the Box who will not tolerate having the lid closed on her - “is a victory for people who stand diametrically against my belief systems”.
It might have been infuriating that the abrasive Zille’s “retirement” was so brief and that she won election as federal council chair so effortlessly. But her return was not, as Mashaba claims, the restoration of an ideological dynasty.
While the dispute around the centrality of race in DA policy is an issue, it was primarily the DA’s organisational dysfunction and disastrous electoral performances - in May’s general election, by-elections since and potentially in the 2021 local elections - that made it impossible to continue as usual. Zille’s return was the ill-timed tap of the hammer that finally cleaved the DA along the old fault lines.
Mashaba is perhaps the greatest loss, and not only to the DA. Here was a potent vote-getting counter to the governing party’s welfarism - a black, socially conservative, unabashed capitalist who had pulled himself up by his own bootstraps.
Unfortunately, by his own admission, Mashaba got on better with his coalition partners in the EFF than his own party’s councillors.
It rankled in the DA that he was acquiescent to an EFF veto on minorities being appointed to top municipal posts.
It also caused DA consternation that the EFF was parlaying its political co-operation into lucrative city contracts.
And as a successful multimillionaire entrepreneur, Mashaba was temperamentally ill-suited to having every decision he made interrogated and challenged by a caucus, instead of being obeyed.
The resignation of Mmusi Maimane as DA leader should be no surprise. It’s been unavoidable since the May election.
A dismal election performance in May sealed his fate and the party’s post-mortem, which concluded that the primary problem was “a failure of effective leadership”, was a formality that Maimane should not have waited for.
When he went, the departure of his biggest ally, Athol Trollip, became similarly inevitable. There are almost certainly going to be further high-profile resignations and Zille’s first challenge will be to ensure that what started out as a changing of the guard does not become an irretrievable party schism.
Meanwhile, the DA’s basic problem remains unresolved - the relative prominence to be accorded to race and merit in its policies. In that regard, the DA is unfortunate in that, while it might be the first post-1994 party to founder on the issue, it is unlikely to be the last.
Finding that golden mean is not simple. The ANC’s stress on skin colour has been enormously successful at drawing into the machinery of society the hitherto deliberately excluded.
It has, however, also reached the stage, by excluding and demonising race minorities, of risking the destruction of the entire New South Africa concept.
The commentariat’s widespread schadenfreude over the DA’s plight is misplaced. At least that party is wrestling honestly with the realities, whereas the government, business and - most shamefully - academia, pretend these are not challenges that are basic to our survival as a nation.
What happens next in the DA is critical to all South Africans.
Not only does good government depend on strong opposition, it matters also where on the political spectrum the strongest opposition is sited.
For that is the direction of compromise, the ideological direction in which the government is pushed in order not to lose votes to its strongest rival.
The DA’s value is not as the government-in-waiting that it egotistically and delusionally claims to be. For the foreseeable future, its most important role at a national level is to stake out pragmatic alternatives to existing government policies - alternatives that have enough voter traction to influence the good angels of the ANC.