Helen Zille's DA and the high price of personalised political pride

In South Africa's complex political playing field, conflicting miscalculations associated with ideals of progressiveness and staunch personal principles have the power to confound constituencies.


This is especially true for South Africa's opposition parties, which cannot rely on the historic support afforded, almost blindly, to the African National Congress (ANC). Despite the ruling party's long list of failures, the opposition has a harder task of attracting practical support by offering an arguable alternative to the familiar status quo. Better the devil you know…


The Democratic Alliance (DA), which, in its varied forms, enjoyed a rising tide of support since the dawn of democracy, finds itself in an unfamiliar position. The official opposition party's predicament, compounded by a dismal 2019 ballot and a subsequent exodus of executives, has been made infinitely more complicated by the return of former leader; Helen Zille.

Helen Zille holds the power


Zille, who is credited with pulling the official opposition party to electoral success during her eight-year tenure as leader, has enjoyed an illustrious political career. Zille's term as Mayor of Cape Town and Premier of the Western Cape produced good results for the DA and offered the party a strong foothold from which to launch its quest for national domination.


For more than a decade, starting in 2007, Zille enjoyed and sustained the opposition party's golden era; speaking to the hearts of voters and laying the groundwork for a diversified DA. With a keen understanding that the DA could not rely almost exclusively on the liberal white vote alone, Zille ceded the throne to Mmusi Maimane.


By all accounts, Maimane and Zille enjoyed an amicable relationship, one sometimes referred to as a student and mentor setup. For the first years, while Zille enjoyed her second term as Premier of the Western Cape, things were going according to plan, with the DA making major inroads in Gauteng.


Things started to go awry in 2017, when Zille took to social media — a trend which would come to define future controversies — and argued that colonialism had made positive contributions to South Africa.


As a foreboding forecast of things to come, Zille's social media musings were met with fierce criticism; Maimane was immediately called to discipline his mentor and former leader. From that point onwards, divisions within the official opposition party would ultimately continue to grow into a gaping fissure of mistrust and isolation.


Fast-forward two years and, with Zille largely out of the political limelight, the DA records a dire drop in support at the polls; in many cases due to conservative campaigning by the Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus) which targeted disillusioned white voters. The blame was placed on Maimane and, amid the enquires and investigations as to why the party had lost support, Zille re-entered the fray in a blaze of glory; elected as Federal Council Chairperson of the DA in October.

Out of touch


But times had changed and the political climate which dominated Zille's tenure as leader in 2007 had shifted. The goal posts were no longer fixed in place and relying solely on ANC-bashing had already lost its gravitas when Jacob Zuma was given the boot. Fresh off of an electoral blow, the DA needed to reinvent itself.


In one fell swoop, DA leader Maimane, Federal Chairperson, Athol Trollip, and Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, announced their resignations, citing Zille's appointment as the primary reason. In true fashion, Zille hit back, inferring that leaders who had resigned had jumped before being pushed.  


Maimane was promptly replaced by John Steenhuisen and the mission to win back voters commenced.


The problem faced by the DA, in winning back favour with the constituencies, is that support lost in 2019 was largely represented by white voters who felt that the official opposition party, under Maimane, had failed to uphold ideals of non-racialism. In addition, some DA voters realigned with the ANC due to the appointment of President Cyril Ramaphosa.


While Steenhuisen holds the title of DA leader, it's argued that Zille, in her role as Federal Council Chairperson, effectively pulls the strings. Zille has argued that she would 'stay in her lane' and Steenhuisen has asserted that the Federal Council Chairperson would be kept in check; but, really, it's Zille's influence which holds power of the DA's destiny.


Power and influence will ultimately be judged on impact and, as such, reasons for the exodus of party leaders and the ensuing political 'rebranding' make Zille the shot-caller — not exclusively in her role as Federal Council Chairperson — but as Helen Zille, once-leader of the opposition during a time of success and prosperity.

Minority playbook for majority goals: A losing formula


However, those shifting political goalposts have moved too far and too fast for Zille and, ultimately, it's the DA, as a whole, which will suffer the long-lasting consequences of dogmatic expediency. In short, while Zille may remain in touch with the constituency of old, political progress is attached to an element of populism.


Amid the ongoing Twitter rants — the latest of which claim that there are more racist laws in South Africa today than there were under apartheid — Zille rejects competing in popularity contests and prides herself on poking the hornet's nest of collective sensitivity. While this may be considered noble and brave in some circles, it's not a particularly good model for the official opposition; especially when the rhetoric is almost exclusively aimed at resuscitating the minority vote.


And as was the case during Zuma's tenure as head of the ANC, public perception is keenly attached to leadership rather than longwinded political doctrines. The proof is in the political pudding.


In a cruel twist of irony, Zille's penchant for confrontation and unapologetic manner has done little to lure former DA voters back. While Zille's controversial comments on race and culture may resonate with centrist or right-wing South Africans, the DA, as a political party, is still considered too liberal by those who voted for the FF Plus.


This puts the DA in a volatile holding pattern which, without remedy, will likely result in further resignations and a decline in support come next year's municipal ballot.  


Zille will argue that her party has actually increased its support base and is back on track to 'making the DA great again'.


The reality of the situation is, however, that internal factional battles — as a direct result of Zille's appointment and confrontational persona — threaten to tear the DA apart. While those in support of Zille may cry "let the detractors fall"; the mass exodus will be made up of young, black politicians, who, like Maimane, argue that the party has lost its moral compass and that despite claiming non-racialism as its core principal has, in fact, issued a tone deaf response during a time where decisiveness is held in high regard.


While resilience is a strong characteristic, particularly powerful within the political realm, Zille's stubbornness, which served both her and the DA well during the party's ascension, has now become an Achilles heel.

"Helen should be thanked for her service and retire now, no?"


Even Steenhuisen — who is renowned for his feisty outspokenness — is beginning to feel uncomfortable and, undoubtedly, threatened. Commenting on Zille's recent remarks, Steenhuisen said:


"Helen made the comment that there are more racist laws now than there were under apartheid. This is not true, and I can't see any evidence for it."
Steenhuisen added that Zille's social media outburst had been referred to "party structures to determine whether she has breached any rules or regulations of the party".


And while Steenhuisen's distancing may be telling, it's the concerns raised by up and coming DA heavyweights which are truly damning.


The DA Shadow Minister of Communications and Digital Technologies, Phumzile Van Damme, recently spoke out against Zille, knowing full well that insubordination would likely be met with discipline by the DA elite. Van Damme said:


"You tweet outrageous things & then back pedal. Not a single person who read your tweet understood it to mean this. And it is not the first time you have publicly cast aspersions on my character. I saw your call, but since you raised this publicly, I want to discuss it here also.
And reporting you to FLC will mean nothing. We all know what our disciplinary processes have become. Also I don't believe in running to FLC every time there is a problem. So let's talk, Helen. Let us talk."


Mbali Ntuli, who represents the DA on parliament's Women's Caucus and has served on the Education and Social Development portfolio committees, says that Zille's harmful rhetoric is one of the primary reasons why she is running against Steenhuisen for the party's top post. Ntuli, who represents the DA's dwindling progressive, young and black support base, says that it's time for Zille to be put out to pasture. Ntuli recently posed the question to Steenhuisen:


"Helen should be thanked for her service and retire now, no?"


Indeed, politicians serve a party purpose at specific points in time. Like other leaders who have held onto power for far too long, an honourable legacy of liberation and triumph is often dismantled by overconfidence in the autumn years. Successes of the past are ultimately forgotten and failures of the present, often the result of being too disconnected from the popular public discourse, end up defining the political career.


In this way, on the stage of political expression, Zille's show is akin to a Shakespearean tragedy — peppered with moments of great praise prior to the intermission but ultimately destined for destruction shortly before the lights dim and the curtains close — with the Democratic Alliance falling on its own double-edged blade. Critical collateral damage.