Zille: Maimane stabs himself in the foot

Donwald Pressly says the DA leader has mishandled the matter of his predecessor's controversial tweets

The Zille saga can explode

The prosecution of the case against Helen Zille could drag on for an extraordinary length of time, a DA insider said last week. “The party is ruled by the rules book,” the insider said.

A panel had been set up to make a recommendation to the DA federal executive. If she is found guilty of bringing the party into disrepute, the federal executive – headed by DA MP James Selfe – cannot overturn the judgment. The executive, however, can change the punishment – and it could actually make the punishment worse.

If Zille loses, she can take it on appeal. “This whole thing could drag out for years… she may well have ended her term as premier by the time it is completed.” If she loses the appeal too, she can go to the High Court, which itself could be a lengthy affair.

The key political problem is that Mmusi Maimane, the man who replaced Zille as leader in 2015, has already come out strongly against Zille. It is an open secret that Maimane wants Zille out as premier.

Cape Messenger refers you to the Times storyThis quotes a confidant of Maimane as saying that “Helen must do the honourable thing” and he – the confidant – also confirmed that the DA leader wanted Zille to resign as premier.

Significantly the story has not been denied since it was published in late March. An EWN report quotes Maimane as distancing himself from Zille’s colonialism tweets and that he would never support any system that glorified colonialism or apartheid. Zille defended her tweets saying her tweets were taken out of context – although she apologised for the tweet immediately on the day she sent it.

More people worship the rising than the setting sun

News24 this week reported that a strong legal panel would lead Zille’s disciplinary.

The DA’s deputy federal legal commission chair Werner Horn reported that Hans-Jurie Moolman, a DA councillor from Potchefstroom, Pogiso Monchusi, a party member and Dr Annelie Lotriet, A DA MP, had been appointed to the panel. They are all qualified in law. Zille has been charged by the DA as having broadly brought the party into disrepute and of damaging the party with her March 16tweets about colonialism. “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

The second tweet was: Getting on to aeroplane now and won’t get on to the wifi so that I can cut off those who think EVERY aspect of colonial legacy was bad.” News24 reported that Zille apologised and said she was not defending or justifying colonialism, but only highlighting that its consequences were not only negative.

“Of course colonialism had a diabolical impact worldwide, including South Africa. That was the very premise of my tweets. Anyone who read them without a personal or political agenda would have understood that. If you say the consequences of something were not only negative, you are saying most were negative,” she said.

“But if there was anyone who genuinely thought I was praising, defending, or justifying colonialism, I apologised unreservedly and stressed that this was not so. I do so again now,” Zille said. What is Zille saying about her own party leader then? She is effectively accusing him of having a personal or political agenda. Here former leader Tony Leon entered the equation.

In the Sunday Times he said the DA “now has a direct collision on its hands. “On Monday former party leader Helen Zille wrote in support of her tweets the week before on colonialism, that her own party faced “the real danger, in its quest for votes, may start to swallow every tenet, myth and shibboleth of African racial nationalist propaganda.” Maimane shot back – a day after Zille’s ‘real danger’ warning: “If this was the price for development, then I say the price was too high.”

Leon, meanwhile, pointed out the passing irony that in her years at the helm, Zille was “no mean hand at vote-winning – and that was her success. As for tactics: she did what she thought circumstances required and was ruthless in its achievement. For example, she airbrushed part of the DA story out of existence in order to extend her base and to present a perceived real history of her party to the electorate in 2014. That of course is the leader’s prerogative.”

Leon noted that Maimane had his own calculus. Leon reported that a day after Zille’s ‘real danger’ warning, he fired back. He said, after denouncing colonialism, that “if this was the price for development, then, then I say the price was too high.”

Leon makes the very telling point that whatever the merits, demerits, context or lack of it for Zille’s ‘original sin’, the current and former leader “cannot continue down this path. Something or someone has to yield.” He quoted the old Tswana proverb ‘Two bulls cannot stay in the same kraal’ might have the wrong gender in this case, “but points to the likely outcome.” Maimane, Leon pointed out, announced that there were “no holy cows in the DA“.

At the end of Leon’s trenchant analysis, he writes: “I am not sure whether or not Pompey he Great would qualify as a colonialist. As a conquering Roman general probably a box tick here. But his ancient wisdom well describes the snake pit in which all political leaders have to dwell, even in post-colonial South Africa. He said “More people worship the rising than the setting sun.”

This is a major political problem that the official opposition faces at the very time that the DA with a host of opposition movements and other political parties – like the United Democratic Movement – have united under a new protest umbrella, the Freedom Movement. The movement’s aim, which has galvanised opposition unity, is to have President Jacob Zuma removed as president of the country.

Spectacular bad timing

It is spectacularly poorly timed for the DA to be considering getting rid of its former leader – the very woman who has put the party in power first in the City of Cape Town, then in the Western Cape province – and paved the way under Maimane’s leadership to take municipal power in a further three metropolitan areas of the country – albeit it in coalitions in Port Elizabeth/Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane/Pretoria.

But that is the reality. The party has plunged itself into this mess. This matter has all the ingredients to be an extremely messy, divisive affair. It could be rather an ugly business.

Not that Zille hasn’t been very silly to write things about colonialism. There has been a flurry of debate on the social media about Zille’s right to express her opinion. But this columnist is of the view that she should have known better especially after her refugee tweet landed her in boiling water some years ago. It just doesn’t work trying to have complex arguments on Twitter. They are ripe for misinterpretation, deliberate or otherwise. It provided a field day for Zille’s enemies, not least of all a flurry of journalists who she has offended over the years.

Maimane has erred spectacularly

But that is now water under the bridge. The reality now is that Maimane has erred spectacularly. Silence on the topic would been the best option. Or he could just say that investigations were under way – much like federal executive chairman James Selfe, did. By drawing the lines of engagement with his former leader – and former mentor – he has limited his room to manoeuvre in the future. It is now Maimane versus Zille, when a diplomatic silence would not have placed them at daggers drawn.

Human rights activist Rhoda Kadalie – who has been close to Zille over the years – described Maimane’s response as ‘disgusting” and illiberal. It is likely that the internal legal processes will rule harshly on the Zille matter – but Zille will still be able to fight for her cause doggedly. And she will. If she were to be found not guilty, that would be explosive for Maimane. It is hard to imagine what he would do then – he may be forced to resign as national leader himself. There is the added political complication of the Economic Freedom Fighters – which props up the DA municipal governments in Johannesburg and Pretoria – calling for Zille to be axed as premier.

One of the consequences of this spat is that Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille – herself brought into the DA from the Independent Democrats by Zille herself – has been let off the party’s legal hook. It looked at one point that she was getting into a lot of trouble over allegedly releasing to the media confidential party documents…. The charges have been quietly dropped, apparently for lack of evidence (see RDM story)De Lille resigned as DA leader in the Western Cape in January – albeit before the legal investigation started – citing as her reason that she wished to devote herself to the work of mayor of Cape Town which was doing a huge political and bureaucratic restructuring exercise.

Sources in the party say that she had a fit of pique after JP Smith, the mayoral committee member for security, fought a successful battle to retain his portfolio and also beat her preferred candidate – Brett Herron – to be DA Cape Town municipal caucus chairperson. Apparently there is no love lost between De Lille and Smith. Whatever the reason, De Lille is now likely to be out of contention for Premier of the Western Cape when Zille goes. Housing MEC Bonginkosi Madikizela was in January elected acting DA Western Cape leader – and he now looks headed to replace Zille when she goes. But De Lille carries on to fight another political day.

But it does not look like Zille will be going anytime soon. Unless of course, someone convinces her to resign as premier for the sake of the party project – with Maimane setting his sights on national power in the national election in 2019. That is the stuff of another column but Gareth van Onselen, BDlive writer and commentator, has written an excellently researched piece on how this was most unlikely.

Incidentally Tony Leon also believes that the numbers just don’t add up to a DA victory in 2019. Maimane, however, has big political ambitions and, of course, he would want to maximise his party’s influence and talk up its potential – but this Zille saga could do a lot of damage to the party in the next two years. This matter has all the potential to derail Maimane and the DA at a time when the South African political fruits are hanging low.

Donwald Pressly is editor of Cape Messenger, where this article first appeared