William Saunderson-Meyer
William Saunderson-Meyer

Is it time for the DA to ditch Helen Zille?

What is the optimal length of tenure for a political leader? How to judge the moment when the adulation of your followers curdles, as it inevitably does, and turns to aversion? Do you jump, or do you wait to be pushed from your pedestal?

These are questions that Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille will be asking of herself. Or at least, these are the questions that she should be asking herself, because the matter of succession certainly seems to be occupying the minds of a number of her senior colleagues.

Some of the machinations have been subtle and circuitous. Zille’s predecessor, Tony Leon, last week criticised Zille for her absence from Parliament – she leads the party from her position as premier of the Western Cape – warning that this has “inadvertently helped diminish Parliament’s institution”.

This is a view shared by a number of people on the DA’s federal executive, for whom it has become a pressing performance issue. They point to the division of the two roles being, for example, a direct cause of the gaffe when the parliamentary caucus, led by Lindiwe Mazibuko, supported the government’s controversial empowerment legislation, only to have to reverse its position under belated pressure from Zille.

The reality, as these amateur organisational theorists all know, is that Zille is already irreversibly committed to leading the Western Cape. So any move now to meld the two executive roles into one – as they were previously – will by definition force her to resign as national leader.

Other of the machinations are more transparent. The party was rocked by claims in last weekend’s Sunday Times that Zille had rubbished Mazibuko at the DA’s national executive meeting, including saying that she, Zille, had “made” Mazibuko and also “saved” her on numerous occasions.

Zille denied the claims but conceded that there were divisions and tensions driving “distorted factional agendas”. She had “simply put the facts [about Mazibuko] on the table”, and accused her party colleagues of leaking information to advance their own succession agendas, both within the caucus and the party.

On the face of it, such public stirrings of discontent within the DA are strange. Why tinker with success? Zille’s many intensely loyal rank-and-file DA fans will be gobsmacked that anyone would contemplate replacing the person who — even her most strident detractors are likely to concede — through sheer force of personality led the party to its most successful electoral performance ever.

However, it is this very success that provides some of the explanation. Not only does the DA’s impressive performance quicken the pulse of Zille’s ambitious colleagues by opening new vistas for progression, but the party also has only a two-year window before it must again face the electorate in the nationwide 2016 local elections.

Had the news of Mazibuko quitting become public before the May 7 general election, it would have been a public-relations disaster for the DA and would have cost it dearly in votes. While the picture painted in the media of paternalism and favouritism on the part of Zille has undoubtedly done some damage, the party can reasonably hope that the incident will have been long forgotten by 2016.

So if there has to be dissension and daggers drawn in the corridors, it might make sense to get it over and done with sooner rather than later.

Zille has been party leader for seven years, compared to the 13 that Leon held office. Leon stepped down before being challenged, although it was apparent at the time that had he not done so, he would have faced a leadership bid from Zille and would likely have lost humiliatingly. Instead Leon backed Cape DA leader Athol Trollip, who lost easily to Zille.

In contrast, be it by accident or design, Zille has no obvious replacement waiting in the wings. She has over the years boasted that the DA was “growing its own [leadership] timber”, presumably to replace the no longer serviceable old, white male deadwoods that dominate the DA neck of the woods. Alas, so far the new timber has on testing turned out to be unreliable softwoods, or upon exhibiting the threatening resilience expected of a hardwood, has been axed to the ground.

So if Zille is ousted or resigns, the DA has a succession problem. Thus the dilemma for the DA is whether to persist with a divided leadership model that is not working and a national leader whose increasingly abrasive and sometimes erratic behaviour might weaken the party, or to dump Zille and join hands in prayer for a leader of comparable charisma and vision miraculously to materialise.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye

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