Zuma vs Zille

William Saunderson-Meyer on the contrasting situations of the two former party leaders


Jacob Zuma and Helen Zille. It’s hard to think of two political leaders more diametrically different in the influence they have exerted on the fortunes of their respective parties.

When Jacob Zuma became leader of the African National Congress and president of the Republic of South Africa, his party had a 70% majority in Parliament. Under his predecessor, President Thabo Mbeki, the economy had been growing at a blistering 4% per annum.

Like a malevolent Midas, Zuma turned virtually everything he touched to dross. ANC voter support plunged to alarm bell levels, triggering his party firing him. The economy is in tatters, with growth less than half of the Mbeki years, and corruption the only booming sector. Our social fabric is frayed. The spirit of the country is almost universally gloomy.

Yet, despite it all, Zuma appears to be loved, or at least widely excused. About half of ANC branch members still support his faction and this band of disgraced cronies is set to be in the majority on the ANC benches in the next Parliament.

The media, although critical of his behaviour, generally depict Zuma as a corrupt but genial buffoon. Few present the unvarnished reality — that he is malignant growth on both party and nation, demanding urgent and permanent excision.

Zille, on the other hand, has endured a consistently carping press, astonishing levels of personal abuse on social media and from ANC and Economic Freedom Front politicians, as well as much antipathy from within her own party.

Some of it is understandable. Zille is combative, abrasive and sometimes insufferable. Her gaffes on social media about “educational refugees” from the Eastern Cape, as well as her statement that the legacy of colonialism was not entirely negative, were factually correct but politically explosive, leaving many of her DA colleagues reeling from the resultant public outrage.

She also has made some spectacular tactical blunders, such as when against better advice, she bulldozed through a merger with Agang, only to have it collapse in recriminations within days. Similarly, in her well-intentioned drive to change the DA’s race profile, she catapulted a naïve young woman, Lindiwe Mazibuko, into the parliamentary leadership of the DA, only then to fall out with her. 

Nevertheless, Zille’s political achievements on behalf of Cape Town, where she was mayor for three years, the Western Cape where she has been premier for a decade, and the party she led for 12 years, are remarkable by any objective measure. And, unlike Zuma, she remains untainted by corruption, despite the best efforts by her opponents to smear hers, sometimes inspanning state institutions like the Public Protector.

When Zille became leader of the DA in 2007, the party had control of not a single city or province. The two general elections that she presided over saw the DA vote rose nationally by 10 percentage points, to 22.4%.

Almost entirely because of Zille's drive, the DA won control of Cape Town, initially by dint of a precariously assembled seven-party coalition, and of the Western Cape, where it now draws 60% of the vote. Under her leadership, the province has thrived economically — unemployment is 14 percentage points below the national average —  and in model governance, with 83% of its municipalities getting clean audits.

The DA, as a party, has always had a Kleenex approach — use, discard — to its former leaders. ZIlle’s predecessor, Tony Leon, was also shabbily treated.

It has never consciously built a “council of elders”, ready to advise, pacify and reconcile, as the ANC has done. (Not that the “elders” of the ANC ever proved to be of much use against Typhoon Zuma.)

But the disdain with which she is being treated by her own party must hurt. She steps out of politics in a few weeks with the DA barely acknowledging her successes, never mind celebrating them.

There is also noticeable gulf between Zille and DA leader Mmusi Maimane, another person whose meteoric rise was orchestrated by her. On occasion, her protege has rebuked her harshly in public, as if to shame a recalcitrant child.

Under Maimane, Zille has seen her influence deliberately curtailed, her contribution downplayed. Unlike Zuma for the ANC electoral campaign, Zille has barely featured in the DA’s campaign.

Such pettiness may backfire. A survey last week showed that 58% of DA voters were more likely to vote for the party if the election campaign had been led by her.

Both she and Maimane downplayed the significance of the figures. However, given that this was the view of DA supporters of all races, it does seem to negate the popular argument that Zille’s old-style liberalism is distasteful to blacks, or at least to those not already in the DA.

Although we will only know for definite on May 9, when the votes have been counted, one gets a sense that Maimane may have misplayed the DA’s hand. Its retreat from non-racialism may prove to be enough to offend the minorities that form the historical rump of its vote, while not being radical enough to entice disenchanted ANC voters who, instead, may either abstain or vote EFF.

That would be disastrous. For a decade, the DA has been a growing and credible successor to an ANC that after a quarter century looks decidedly shopworn. SA cannot afford to have the toxic and dangerous EFF usurp that role of the DA.

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