072 2015.04.12 DA leader Helen Zille said she has decided not to make herself available for re- election as leader next month at the Congress. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso
072 2015.04.12 DA leader Helen Zille said she has decided not to make herself available for re- election as leader next month at the Congress. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso

DA’s dilemma: in black and white

By Lebogang Seale Time of article published Apr 13, 2015

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Johannesburg - Helen Zille’s decision to step down as DA leader poses a serious political and moral dilemma of race dynamics for the party, political analysts have said.

And anyone taking over from Zille, they said, needed to do a balancing act of reaching out to the black electorate while at the same reinforcing the confidence of the white voters.

Zille dropped the bombshell on Sunday when she announced that she would not be standing for re-election when the party holds its national congress next month.

She said, though, that she would not step down from her position as Western Cape premier.

Zille said her decision not to contest the DA leadership position was motivated by the desire to have “renewal and fresh blood”, so that the party could remain “exciting and relevant, and grow its support base to build the non-racial centre of South African politics”.

“This decision has, paradoxically, been a long time coming – but when the time was right, it was taken quickly, even suddenly,” Zille said at an impromptu media conference in Joburg.

She added that her decision would afford the party to have “a short and sharp” succession race.

“This will ensure that we don’t have a debilitating and divisive leadership race… in order to save South Africa’s democracy.”

While explaining that “the overriding” reason for her decision was in the interests of the DA, Zille gave a hint of growing discontent and acrimony within the party’s leadership ranks.

“Although parties have constitutions and decision-making structures, much of the job of the leader boils down to decisions and actions informed by intuition,” she said.

Zille said she would, unlike in the past when she backed Lindiwe Mazibuko for the DA’s parliamentary leader position, not involve herself in the party’s succession race.

DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane, seen as the frontrunner to succeed Zille, was tightlipped on Sunday when asked about his political ambitions to ascend to the party’s foremost position.

The party’s deputy federal chairman, Makashule Gana, and Gauteng’s provincial leader, John Moody, were quick to confirm that they would contest the elections.

Analysts said the succession race would set in motion a test for the DA’s political and moral compass.

“If they (the DA members) were to elect another white leader, I think it would make their life very difficult. It would be said that they don’t take non-racialism seriously and yet they talk about it,” political analyst Steven Friedman said.

He added that while persisting with a white leader would “create a hell of a lot of embarrassment” for the DA, anyone who emerged as the black leader might face a rude awakening of a hostile white constituency.

“Remember that, with some exceptions, the heartland of the DA is mainly white suburbs and in the big cities. Any black leader would, as he reaches out to black voters, have to take along the confidence of white voters. We have already seen with Mmusi Maimane, who is the frontrunner at the moment, that he often gets flak from the conservative section of the DA.

“So anybody who takes over that job is going to have to do a very clever balancing act, if they want to get the support as they seek support from black people.”

Professor Somadoda Fikeni said while it was immaterial at this stage whether the next DA leader was black or white due to the party’s diverse constituency, what mattered most was how the new leader ascended to the throne.

“If the leader seems imposed, it could create problems. Secondly, if the leader seems inexperienced in the depth of the liberal philosophy, it would equally create problems,” Fikeni warned.

He pointed out that what the DA needed was a leader who was “sensitive to the fact that the DA has a fragmented constituency that needs very careful management”.

“The trick is if you move fast to get a black leader who is not convincing to the party’s range of constituencies, you risk losing the very assured white constituency. At the same time, you lose it to something you are not even assured of getting.”

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The Star

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