Who’s who in the DA leadership zoo?

Helen Zille apologises for her controversial tweets on colonialism, during a press conference with DA leader Mmusi Maimane in Johannesburg.

The picture of Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille spelling out the political compromise of the century last week painted the proverbial 1 000 words.

Instead of banishment, Ms Zille stays on as premier of the Western Cape but is out of all DA decision-making structures.

But it was the body language that spoke, not the compromise.

Leader present and leader past didn’t want to be there.

Hardly surprising, considering what has transpired since Ms Zille’s ill-advised tweets on colonialism.

Rather than resolving the issue, it exposes an existential crisis in the DA.

Ms Zille might have relinquished the reins to Mr Maimane in May 2015, but the battle for the soul of the DA continues.

Try as it might, the DA seems incapable of shedding the mantle that the ANC exploits at every turn.

Last week was no exception. No sooner had the ink dried on the accord between Ms Zille and Mr Maimane, than ANC spin doctor Zizi Kodwa put in the boot.

He reckons this political solution proves that the real leader of the DA is and always has been Ms Zille. That Mr Maimane is little other than window dressing. That, in Mr Kodwa’s own words: “Maimane is a caretaker who can’t take any decisions.” Question is, what truth is there in this assertion? Rather than Mr Maimane being a token leader, it has more to do with two centres of power in the DA. The more conservative old guard, bolstered by the detritus of the National Party, still wields a great deal of influence. Factional battles are not limited to the ANC. Why else did it take so long for the DA to elect a black leader?

Mr Maimane represents everything that the ANC says the DA isn’t.

Ms Zille represents everything that the ANC says the DA is.

This is where the battle for the soul of the DA is being waged. (Considering that Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma may become Jacob Zuma’s surrogate if elected ANC president, the irony of the ANC labelling Mr Maimane a token leader is inescapable.)

For a party that is fighting to break the black electoral glass ceiling this could not have come at a worse time.

That the DA’s Colonialism-Gate could have been far better managed from the get-go is beside the point. The damage is done.

The DA cannot afford to lose its traditional support base – white middle class South Africa – which firing Ms Zille would probably have done. It’s not purely about votes, though. Where else would the traditional DA voter make their mark?

It’s also about the money, the stuff that fuels political campaigns. In a time when a convincing message must be widely disseminated to draw votes, no party can afford to annoy its funders – which firing Ms Zille would have done.

It also cannot afford to lose what black middle class support it has, which leaving Ms Zille to continue to fight every step of the way as the DA proceeded with its disciplinary process, may well have done.

Somebody once said politics is the art of compromise, and compromise is the lubricant of political intercourse. This accord is a prime example.

The DA’s leadership has taken a calculated risk by shutting down Ms Zille but leaving her to serve out her term as provincial premier, in an attempt to limit the damage to its existing support base.

But it goes beyond the DA’s current support base. To have a fighting chance of wresting control of the National Assembly from the ANC and taking Gauteng province in 2019, it needs the support of a great many more black voters.

Since the DA is a largely urban party, they must come from the urban black middle class. The ANC has the rural black vote sewn up, except for certain parts of KwaZulu-Natal and most of the Western Cape. Not much chance there.

So how will those uncertain urban black voters who seek an alternative to the ANC view Colonialism-Gate?

We’ll only really know in 2019, but rest assured, the ANC will henceforth make a meal of it at every opportunity, in an attempt to stem the haemorrhaging of voter support predicted by the recent IPSOS poll.