There was a time when Helen Zille was regarded by the DA’s political opponents as a step up from the combative Tony Leon, who was despised by the ANC and its allies.They mistook her role in the struggle as proof of progressiveness. How wrong they were.
Leon did not flaunt any anti-apartheid credentials. He flaunted his liberalism and his role in fighting for these ideals as far back as his student days.
When he assumed leadership of the Democratic Party, the DA’s previous incarnation, his big mission was to build a muscular opposition.The project entailed swallowing the remnants of the National Party, thus bringing some really odious characters into the fold. It was, to all intents and purposes, a successful project.
Whether or not you liked Leon or his party, the fact is that they made strident opposition to the majority party a good habit. Had they wilted under the criticism that opposition to the ANC was anti-transformation, we may not have the kind of opposition space that is now being enjoyed by some parties that broke away from the ANC and others that have emerged over the past decade.
When Zille took over the DA, her stated mission was to grow the party beyond its traditional base and nurture the next generation of nonracial leadership.The liability that Helen Zille is to the DA was obvious during the recent negotiations over coalitions.. Photo: Deaan VivierPhoto: Jaco MaraisThe liability that Helen Zille is to the DA was obvious during the recent negotiations over coalitions.. Photo: Deaan VivierPhoto: Jaco MaraisThe liability that Helen Zille is to the DA was obvious during the recent negotiations over coalitions.. Photo: Deaan VivierPhoto: Jaco Marais
She scored some successes on the former, but her personality and outlook ensured that she was a dismal failure on the second score. When the black people she took credit for finding and nurturing matured into full-blown leaders, she took umbrage because she discovered they were not her replicas. She simply wanted to reproduce more Zilles – but with darker skins.
The real Zille would emerge after she left the leadership of the party, beginning with the infamous colonialism tweets. She has since become a truly obnoxious being, no different from the odious characters that Leon hooked up with in 2000. The difference now, though, is that Leon had power and he could keep them in their place. As things stand now, Zille dictates the party’s direction.
That direction is one that will ultimately take the DA into the wilderness. When the DA allowed a powerful former leader to return to its executive in 2019, it was always going to be a recipe for disaster. Especially because this leader had a very distinct view of what the party should look like. That is, it must reflect her own world view. Those who motivated for her return believed that she would energise the party and give it ideological stability. But she has become a liability.
Since John Steenhuisen became the leader of the party, he has been trying hard to prove to the world that he is the real boss, but Zille makes a point of reducing him to a supporting act. It is quite cringeworthy, watching him trying to assert himself when it is very obvious that the party leader is the woman who vacated the position in 2015.
The liability that Zille is to the DA was obvious during the recent negotiations over coalitions. It was clear from the onset that the stance taken by the DA was actually a Zille position. Steenhuisen and other leaders unconvincingly tried to present the positions on who the DA would and would not enter into negotiations with as decisions by the party’s federal executive. When Zille spoke on the matter, she was very convincing, giving away the fact that she had railroaded the party into a particular position.
Zille’s hardline stance cost the party a lot of capital. The DA may have walked away with three Gauteng metros, but it lost the trust of all the opposition parties it had been working with to create municipal governments.The collapse of the deals, ostensibly on the basis that the DA did not want to be beholden to the EFF, was due to her narrow-mindedness.
As we now all know, the outcome was worse than the DA had said it wanted to avoid. The DA governments in Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg and Tshwane are now totally beholden to the EFF and will probably collapse if they don’t play ball with the party Zille so irrationally hates.
The biggest cost of Zille’s presence is suffocating the DA. Much like former president Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican Party, the DA is in thrall of this individual. Very little moves without her say-so, a terrible thing for an organisation that has the word ‘democratic’ in its name. With the enormous power she wields, Zille is driving the DA further and further to the right and, ultimately, to irrelevance.
Again, just like in the US, no one in the DA will dare stand up to her. Giving so much power to an unhinged right-winger will be the party’s downfall. It may hang on to most of its loyal base for now, but even they will become gatvol of the regressive autocrat.
–Mondli Makhanya is Editor-In-Chief of City Press