DA federal council chair Helen Zille addresses the media following the resignation of leaders Mmusi Maimane and Athol Trollip. File photo: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA).
South Africa’s opposition politics remain in unprecedented limbo after the DA’s intensifying rift saw its most senior leaders dramatically storming out of their posts in the past week.

The official opposition’s leader, Mmusi Maimane, who led the party from 2015 until Wednesday and helped it unexpectedly dislodge the ANC from the country’s economic hub, Johannesburg, and administrative capital,Tshwane, also terminated his party membership on Thursday.

He said the troubled party was not best placed to take the country forward.

On Monday, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba announced his departure from his position and he dumped the party.

He said the DA was dominated by people who did not believe in redress.

At the heart of the crisis engulfing the opposition is the fight over the use of race in redress policies and the comeback of former leader Helen Zille as the party’s federal council chairperson, a position which made her second only to Maimane in terms of political power.

Zille led the party from 2007 to 2015 and helped the DA make considerable inroads in black communities in terms of electoral support.

Her domineering personality and outspokenness have, however, put her on a collision course with the party’s leadership under Maimane as she plunged the party into multiple controversies over her views on race, colonialism and redress.

Zille, who also helped recruit and promote many black leaders in the DA - including Maimane - has been viewed by many as having changed her politics towards conservative liberalism in recent years, putting her on a collision course with Maimane.

His vision of “social liberalism” sought to introduce redress policies in the party’s policy posture.

The DA’s dramatic rupture was worsened as the party’s federal chairperson Athol Trollip, who was set to take over from Maimane under the party’s constitution, also quit his post in solidarity with Maimane.

Trollip, one of Maimane’s key allies, had unsuccessfully contested against Zille for the key federal council chairperson post, along with another three candidates.

While Maimane’s push for redress within the party faced opposition from conservatives who branded them race-based, it did not threaten his position within the DA until the party performed poorly in the general elections this year. It lost some of its traditional supporters to the Freedom Front Plus.

A review panel, commissioned by Maimane and headed by former DA leader Tony Leon to look into the reasons behind the party’s failure to grow in terms of voter support in the May elections, recommended that he step down, describing him as indecisive.

Maimane said he did not regret commissioning the panel probe, despite its adverse findings against him. He said he had wanted an honest assessment of the party.

In his resignation speech, Maimane said he also did not regret pushing for the DA’s transformation, despite facing attacks and decampaigning from within. 

“I fundamentally believed that if the DA was to become a party of government, it needed to look and feel like a party for all, not some. It is no secret that, for decades, the party has been seen as a party of minorities only. The majority of South Africans, mainly black, did not relate to the DA and, by extension, struggled to trust it,” he said.

Being the first black person to lead the beleaguered party, which is considered by sceptics to be fixated on protecting white privilege, his decision to dump the DA has been viewed by some as the realisation that a black leader was a mere front to attract black voters yet could not make tangible policy offers to them.

Speaking on eNCA, Unisa political expert Somadoda Fikeni attributed the DA’s internal crisis to how it was formed - it was never to represent all South Africans.

“It was white English-speaking liberals, very few, and then they decided ‘let us have Afrikaners who were taken from the New National Party in the main’,” Fikeni said. 

“Later on, they went to get the minorities, Indians and coloureds. They said they were the party of minorities. Once they had secured that base, they wanted the black majority as the latecomers.

“Now, as you bring each constituency as a group, there are certain deep structural tensions and demands within the party because it did not grow organically and naturally.”

He likened the DA to a “political abattoir” for black leaders, saying the party parachuted them into leadership only to reject them when they wanted to be independent.

“The most ironic thing about the DA is that, rhetorically, it denies the issue of identity. In its planning and execution it has the most aggressive affirmative action it has ever created. It has microwaved young leaders before they were even ready for positions.

“Once they start believing they really are in control, it becomes a political abattoir, where they are fattened, lined up and slaughtered,” he said.

The party remains without a leader as the its constitution says the federal chairperson must take over when a party leader departs in unforeseen circumstances. However, it is silent on who must take charge when both positions are left vacant.

DA national spokesperson Refiloe Nt'sekhe said the party would not select Maimane as Trollip’s replacement until it held its federal council meeting where people would be allowed to contest for the positions.

Little did she know at the time that Trollip and Maimane resigned consecutively, leaving a void in the Federal Council.

“We received the legal opinion from the Federal Legal Commission and it recommended that we go to a federal council meeting, which is going to take place within the next six weeks, and elect an interim leader,” Nt'sekhe said.

Zille has vied to be the de facto leader of the party, as her position was the most powerful among the federal leaders of the party.

Ntsekhe, who is also one of the three deputy federal chairpersons, denied this. “We are all leading. All of us are steering the ship until the federal council meeting where we will select a leader to take us to congress in April next year,” she said.

Two of the deputy federal chairpersons are Ivan Meyer and Mike Waters, while Zille as Federal Council chairperson is deputised by Thomas Walters and Natasha Mazzone.

Trollip said he could not lead with Zille and her leadership collective as they did not share the same values. He warned that the DA’s troubles would worsen if Zille were allowed to be in charge of the party again.

Zille, however, defended herself from those who accused her return of being the reason for the departure of Maimane and other leaders.

“Everybody knows the history of my support for Mmusi. And, as he says, we have disagreed at times but I don’t think there is any individual in any political party that does not disagree in some way or another, because we are a democratic organisation and have debates on policy issues,” Zille said.

DA MP John Steenhuisen, who was chief whip under Maimane, has been the first among the party’s leaders to raise his hand, indicating his intentions to vie for the position of DA leader.

Political Bureau