William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Zille and Zuma: Different styles, same problems

Political parties seethe with factional intrigue and jockey for position. As a result, party leadership is like a tightrope walk.

The challenge is to retain cohesion by keeping mavericks leashed, while not stifling contrarian views that are not only inevitable, but can actually revitalise the party. With this against the tricky reality that unlike chief executives who have enormous power to impose their views and advance their favourites, party leaders govern by consent.

The leaders of both the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance are at present wrestling with disciplinary actions that illustrate this dilemma. Both confront mavericks who have cocked a snoot at them personally and can potentially cause ongoing ructions.

President Jacob Zuma wants to be rid of suspended ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, who has appealed his sentence. Helen Zille wants to be rid of Masizole Mnqasela, the DA’s home affairs shadow deputy minister.

Malema hurled abuse and threats at minorities and Tripartite Alliance leaders, leveraged party membership to access tenders, and threatened to topple a neighbouring government. He damaged perceptions of South Africa abroad, stirred fear and loathing locally, and wreaked mayhem within ANC ranks.

Zuma’s meek acquiescence to all this fuelled the widespread public perception of him as an ineffectual leader. Only when the rottweiler made the mistake of biting the hand that fed him, was Zuma provoked to act against Malema.

Zille’s leadership instincts are the quite opposite of Zuma’s pliable style. She has unchallengeable confidence in her judgment and does not suffer fools gladly.

Unfortunately, Zille also seems to believe that anyone who differs from her is a fool, and probably a traitorous one, too. Even minor differences of opinion are sometimes reacted to as though evidence of incipient mutiny.

Mnqasela’s transgressions are small beer compared to those of Malema. Nevertheless, he next week has to answer six DA misconduct charges and if convicted, could face expulsion from the party, or deselection as an MP for the 2014 election.

Five charges — each made up of several alleged offences — relate to remarks made by Mnqasela during last year’s battle between Zille’s protégé, Lindiwe Mazibuko, and incumbent Athol Trollip, for the parliamentary leadership.

With Zille’s more-than tacit backing, Mazibuko eventually romped home. But Mnqasela supported Trollip in some fiery outbursts, including labelling Mazibuko’s candidacy “window-dressing”.

This sparked Zille’s sharp putdown that Mnqasela’s thinking was “Verwoerdian” and that he had “made a fool” of himself. His original comment now forms part of the DA’s accusation of racism.

Another charge stems from Mnqasela stating that Zille was “running the party like a spaza shop” and a third from expressing the fear MPs who did not toe the line and support Mazibuko might be jobless in 2014.

Mnqasela also “stated or clearly indicated” to Zille that he would vote for Mazibuko if rewarded with a post in Zille’s provincial Cabinet — this is the kind of horsetrading that is endemic in politics, but here resulted in the fourth misconduct charge. The fifth relates to derogatory remarks about the performance of a DA colleague, the provincial Housing minister.

The final charge is that Mnqasela improperly solicited provincial government work for his business in 2009. To which the obvious question must be why neither the director general approached, nor the DA leadership, immediately brought police charges? Or does the DA allow its public representatives one free bite at the cherry?

Mnqasela remarks are certainly injudicious, sometimes mildly offensive — although they are often so grammatically impenetrable that it is difficult to be certain — but to deduce a racist contravention of both the party’s and the nation’s Constitution, is bizarre. This is nothing but thin-skinned, petty vengefulness by the winning side over the losers.

Such disciplinary action is also unprecedented in a party that historically has a robust tolerance of difference. After all, without a sufferance of plurality the DA could never have so effortlessly absorbed the old National Party — apartheid relics about which the adjective “racist” would truly have resonance.

Two leaders, two dilemmas. Will Zuma prove his reputation for appeasement by giving the nod that allows Malema’s appeal to succeed? And will Zille cement her reputation for being controlling by contriving Mnqasela’s exit?

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