DA leadership: Who is it going to be?

Johannesburg – Sunday sees the first of a series of DA leadership debates as party hopefuls jockey not only for the position of outgoing federal leader Helen Zille but also for the posts of chairperson and three deputies.

The party’s townhall-style debate among leadership candidates and party faithfuls, to be held on May 10 in Nelson Mandela Bay – the metro the DA wants to clinch from the ANC come the 2016 municipal poll – comes on the back of last week’s lobbying and behind-the-scenes consultations to solidify support.

DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane, who said he was “in it to win it” after declaring his candidature last weekend, has already told his canvassers to run a “positive” campaign centred on hope.

Outgoing DA chairman Wilmot James, who did not declare his intentions until late Friday morning, is understood to have drafted a confident and principled manifesto to take on the road.

Last week, the intra-party campaigning was already in full swing for two of the three candidates for chairperson. Eastern Cape DA leader and Nelson Mandela Bay mayoral candidate Athol Trollip addressed party faithfuls in Cape Town; his opponent, Makashule Gana, one of two current deputy chairpersons and an MP, was in Johannesburg.

Campaigns by individuals, including those contesting to be the next financial boss as incumbent Dion George is standing down, will continue for the next two weeks. At the same time the party leadership debates will move to Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.

Wilmot James apr 24
Academic-turned-politician Wilmot James on Friday confirmed that he will run against Mmusi Maimane for the leadership of the Democratic Alliance. File picture: Dumisani Sibeko
The DA prides itself that would-be leaders contest within the party in an open, merit-based contest to seek a mandate for the position.

“It is far better to have a race than a coronation,” one insider commented last week, amid the wait to see if James was throwing his hat in the ring for federal leader.

It’s a serious business of campaigning, lobbying, polling and getting endorsements. Candidates spend their own cash and raise funds to travel across the country and to print T-shirts and posters. Any funds, or donations of kind, are declared to the party. Records are kept to ensure candidates’ donations do not come from the usual donors to DA coffers.

Regardless of leadership contestation, one outcome of the DA federal congress in Nelson Mandela Bay is clear: on May 10, the opposition party will have a black federal leader for the first time.

Whether the leader is Maimane or James will be decided in a vote that will determine what type of black leadership the party is comfortable with – as the federal congress is also adopting a new set of DA values.

That this is happening is in no small way the result of Zille’s relentless eight-year pursuit of political realignment and repositioning. This has led to the party just more than doubling its vote to a little more than four million votes in last year’s elections when compared with those of 2004.

The realignment vision and DA repositioning has led to the dyed-in-the-wool liberals being pushed further from the party centre.

Thus, in November 2013, the DA for the first time recognised race as “a legitimate proxy” for disadvantage and poverty, despite its continuing opposition to racial quotas.

Touted as a win for the so-called black caucus, that decision of a weekend policy gathering in Cape Town was endorsed by Zille, among others, who spoke in support of this shift and the DA’s decision to “promote black advancement by extending opportunities”. Where the DA governed it would take a generation, she said at the time.

The policy meeting came after a bruising attack by traditional liberals over the party’s vote for the employment equity amendment draft legislation. Zille fought, and withstood, the public verbal assault, but also made known her displeasure over how the parliamentary caucus had “dropped the ball” on this legislated racial quota system in an SA Today online newsletter. Internally, it led to a reshuffle of the parliamentary portfolios.

Few, if anyone, within the DA would deny the new federal party leader will have to manage tensions between the various grouping from the liberals, the young Turks often closely linked to former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and the “black caucus”.

There’s agreement that the leadership contest has heightened tensions but not on pain levels: what is unfolding has been described variously as “battles” and “skirmishes”.

It is understood that Maimane’s polling within the party ranks is high and the expectation is that with a local government election a year away, he would capture votes.

Even his critics admit he has big platform appeal, although many point out that to date he has been “anointed” or “head hunted” to positions.

If Maimane wins, he’ll stay on as parliamentary leader, marking a return to the DA’s tradition that the federal leader is also its boss in Parliament. This could go a long way to placate the party’s traditionalists, who were aggrieved over the exception made for Zille to serve as Western Cape premier while being federal leader.

James is a stiff public speaker but has been instrumental in redirecting how the DA does policy by taking that previously behind-closed-doors process to provinces and regions. In so doing, he has turned what is regarded as a ceremonial position into one with clout.

James is said to draw “serious” support from across the country, including Gauteng, where the DA has its eyes set on the Johannesburg and Tshwane metros in the local government elections. Both now have two weeks to take their offerings on the campaign trail.

For Gana, who has come through the party ranks and is closely linked to the so-called black caucus, the bid to become DA chairman has taken a bizarre turn. He’s come under pressure to abandon the beret with its jaunty bobble, styled on the traditional Scottish tam o’shanter, that he has been sporting since 2013 because it’s seen as making him look too radical. However, last week he decided to keep the headgear as part of his identity and to plough on on the back of what have been described as “daily endorsements”.

Trollip, who comes from an old liberal family, is an experienced politician. But some say he has an axe to grind: he lost to Zille in the 2007 leadership contest to take over from then leader Tony Leon, and was again frustrated in late 2011 when Mazibuko convincingly won the parliamentary leadership post.

Trollip returned to the Eastern Cape just over a year after that contest, ostensibly to spearhead the 2014 elections as the DA premier candidate there. Although he lost, he enjoys significant support.

He has publicly indicated that he will be supporting a leader who “espouses, personifies and embodies non-racialism” come the May federal DA congress.

Both Trollip and Maimane have dismissed allegations that they are on a double-bill leadership ticket amid speculation that James and Gana may join forces.

Political Bureau

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