Helen Zille’s shock resignation as leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) has triggered intense speculation as to who will replace her. Given the party’s federal congress is less than a month away, palace intrigue dominates all discussion. However, most suggest that Mmusi Maimane, the party’s parliamentary leader, is the hot favourite to win.

Zille’s decision has raised several questions. Her justification is predicated on the electoral cycle, her replacement can use next year’s local government elections, in which the DA traditionally has a strong showing, as a soft landing before riding a wave of popular support into the 2019 national election. Many, though, are disbelieving.

Zille has publicly stated that she would step down in 2017 — after the party hoped to expand beyond its Western Cape stronghold. She wanted to avoid a bruising and distracting internal fight to replace her that would jeopardise the party’s growth. What has changed between these assessments needs further explanation.

There are two possible scenarios: either, Maimane wanted to run now, or, had she waited, Maimane’s ascendancy would have been compromised.

Since Maimane joined the DA in 2011, he has been its Johannesburg caucus leader and mayoral candidate, Gauteng premiership candidate, a federal deputy chair and, more recently, its parliamentary leader. Maimane was on the rise. And quickly. It was only a matter of time before he would assume the top job. But, the DA is in opposition. There are limited opportunities for people to make a big impact, like the ANC has with government appointments. Ambitious people can set aside their leadership ambitions where the chance to run a portfolio and master it arise. The DA is not so fortunate.

It is perfectly reasonable, then, for Maimane to want to run now. While the party is in opposition, the only real position with any prominence and power is that of the leader. Arguably frustrated at holding a series of “second-fiddle” jobs that limit his ability to be fully in control of his future, and impact the party and the country as he desires, it makes sense.

But, Maimane must have known that had he gone up against Zille, he would have lost. Badly. His weaker brand aside, he also has significantly less experience (in opposition and in government). For a party that prides itself on its ability to govern, this is a serious weakness. Coupled with the narrative that he has not been in any position long enough to understand how politics operates, a counter-attack from Zille along these lines would have been devastating.

So is it plausible that with impending defeat, Maimane or his allies would have run against Zille in any event? Yes. And Zille, assuming she wanted to stay on, has only herself to blame.

A central plank of Zille’s legacy for the DA is her desire to pass on the reins to a black leader. This explains the quick rise of Maimane, his predecessor Lindiwe Mazibuko, and the courtship of Mamphela Ramphele. It would have been difficult for Zille, who views black leadership as essential to the DA’s transformation and growth, to be viewed as anything but hypocritical had she defeated Maimane. After the party’s poor handling of Mazibuko’s and Ramphele’s exit, Zille had to avoid her third black leadership debacle.

And therein lies the problem. Zille’s articulation of race in the context of the DA’s leadership is seemingly antithetical to everything the party stands for. It is certainly politically pragmatic, but worryingly reductionist and essentialising. It buys into the ANC’s dominant narrative that people of certain races can only support those of their own kind. It also suggests that all people of the same race group can be treated as hegemonic blocs that can be treated similarly despite their individuality. In succumbing to this kind of pressure as an immediate remedy to the ANC’s imposed racial burden on the DA, Zille was painted into a corner even if she wanted to stay on.

That is not to say that her remaining party leader would have been desirable. Quite the opposite. Rather it is a warning that even now as Zille steps down her good intentions are subject to the worst kind of racialised attacks: that she is patronising blacks by standing aside for a black leader that she can still control. No matter how far from the truth that may be, the danger is omnipresent and requires (white) liberals to tread carefully. The road to ethno-nationalism is paved with good intentions of race redress. But denying the first principle of the liberal movement — individualism — is where all the problems begin.


Kameel Premhid

Kameel Premhid

Kameel Premhid is a hack. He has opinions and writes about them. He dabbles in everything, which he shamelessly self-promotes, in an attempt to anger as many people as possible. He holds a BA and LLB from...

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