Politics / 13 April 2015, 04:17am / Emsie Ferreira and Gertrude Makhafolo
Johannesburg - Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille announced on Sunday that she would step down next month, leaving Mmusi Maimane as the firm favourite to succeed her as leader of the official opposition.
Zille said she was stepping down after eight years at the helm to make way for new blood to build the party’s support base as it gears up for the 2016 local government elections.
She will, however, remain the premier of the Western Cape until her term expires in 2019.
Announcing her decision, which she said she took last Thursday, Zille told reporters she had made mistakes but would leave it to history to judge her leadership record.
“I am not a saint, I am not perfect. I do make mistakes... History will judge me.”
Her decision comes four weeks before the party’s elective conference on May 9.
“I won’t be available for re-election,” Zille said at a hastily convened media briefing in Johannesburg, following an unscheduled meeting of the party’s federal executive at the weekend.
“This decision has been a long time coming, but I decided on it when the time was right.
“It goes without saying that I intend to complete my second term as Premier of the Western Cape, to which I was elected in May last year. This term is due to end in mid-2019.”
Zille said had she left the decision to the decade-mark at the helm, it would have left her successor little time to prepare for the next national elections in 2019.
She vowed to work to grow the DA’s support in the local government polls.
“We won’t sit back during the local elections, we are going to give it our all and show South Africans that we are not representatives of only one section of the population. We all know that’s a lie.”
She conceded that there had been some members of the party’s federal executive who wanted her to stay and some who wanted her to go, but believed stepping down would best serve the interests of the DA..
“It is essential for a political party in opposition to grow in every election. While I believe we would have carried on growing beyond our current four-million support base in next year’s 2016 election under my continued leadership, I am convinced our prospects will be even better under a fresh team... We cannot waste a single minute or a single vote.”
Zille took over from Tony Leon as party leader in May 2007. Under her, the DA secured a vote share of 22 percent in the last national elections but it still faces the challenge of meaningfully increasing support among black voters.
Zille has in recent years consistently responded to speculation that she might step down by saying she would only do so once the party had found somebody more suitable for the job. Criticism over her leadership style intensified last year when she became embroiled in a public spat with Lindiwe Mazibuko following the latter’s resignation as DA parliamentary leader.
University of Cape Town academic Richard Calland said Zille’s decision was “well-timed” and not “overdue” as detractors have suggested.
He said DA parliamentary leader Maimane was the clear front-runner to succeed her, and doubted that Mazibuko, who is studying at Harvard, could return to successfully contest the top post.
“His speech in the State of the Nation debate proved his leadership credentials,” Calland said in reference to Maimane’s description of Zuma as “a broken man”.
Political analyst Steven Friedman said though Zille had extended the party’s support base in new constituencies in a manner in which Leon failed to do, the last national election results showed that she may have reached her limit in this regard.
“The reality is that if you compare the last national election with the last local government election, the DA went backwards last year and this suggests that she may have reached her ceiling. So in that sense the timing of the decision may be right.”
Friedman pointed out that ultimately the outcome of the May conference would depend on party voting structures.
He said the DA would face criticism if it elected a white successor to Zille, but added: “If they elect a black leader that person will have to grow the party’s support among black voters while retaining the party’s white constituency.”
Zille making a decision so shortly before the conference, may serve to avoid a drawn-out, “debilitating” contest.
“An advantage of my late decision is that the campaign that will determine the DA’s next leader will be short and sharp, given that our elective Congress is four weeks away,” Zille said.
Maimane on Sunday paid tribute to Zille, saying: “Helen is a major contributor to the country’s democracy, she has contributed immensely and will leave behind a huge gap.”
However, he declined to show his hand.
“I think this is something I have to process, I love my role in the party as parliamentary leader. I came to this meeting as everyone else not knowing what to expect.”
The chairman of the DA’s federal executive, James Selfe, also paid warm tribute to Zille.
Selfe said she had exceeded her stated commitments to build the opposition, made it more diverse and governed effectively.
The party was poised to win more municipalities in 2016, he said, and “restore hope for a better future to millions more South Africans through clean, effective and caring government. This is arguably Helen’s greatest legacy of all.”