Although DA leader and Western Cape premier Helen Zille, has kept a low profile on this week’s declaration by national spokeswoman Lindiwe Mazibuko that she would stand against incumbent Athol Trollip for the top post, party insiders say this development would not have come without her blessing.
For the past four years, Zille, who, in early 2007, beat Trollip and former DA MP Joe Seremane to succeed Tony Leon as party leader, has been redirecting the DA to become a party with mass and black appeal. According to party pundits, black support in the recent May local government elections almost tripled – to six percent, contributing to its just less than 22 percent share of the overall vote – but it has yet to shake the label of being a minority party.
Mazibuko, who at 31 falls into the increasingly important youth age bracket, has been a rising star in the party since joining Parliament in 2009 as an MP and national spokeswoman.
Colin Eglin, former DA MP and ex-leader of the DA’s predecessor the Progressive Federal Party, said the Mazibuko candidacy for parliamentary leader had clearly been part of a strategy for some time.
And that strategy – to parachute a young black leader into the top ranks of the party’s leadership – had obviously been driven by Zille, said Eglin, who delivered the Barry Streek Memorial Lecture of the Cape Town Press Club this week. One significant clue to this, he added, was that it was not customary for the parliamentary caucus to choose to elect – or re-elect – its parliamentary leaders half way through a parliamentary term.
Although the circumstances of leadership races were never the same, he compared Trollip’s likely fall to his own. “I stood aside for an Afrikaner, Athol will stand aside for a black leader,” he told the audience. Eglin, who led his party into official opposition status in 1977, was referring to the election of Frederik van Zyl Slabbert as national, and parliamentary, PFP leader in 1979 in his stead.
And as it was important that people of different cultures and races felt “comfortable” in an organisation, it was important black people felt part of the DA.
This was the atmosphere that Mazibuko would help to create for young black voters, Eglin argued. Analysts this week said Mazibuko’s candidacy was part of the battle for the heart and soul of the DA.
, University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor and commentator, said: “It’s really a fight of the old guard, the PFP, versus the new guard that is emerging, that is headed by Zille, who has very carefully placed herself over the past few years.”
Habib cautioned that it remained to be seen whether this would affect voting support by, for example, attracting young professionals and appealing to a broader spread of South Africans, or moving the party beyond its 16 percent support gained in the past national elections.
However, Habib welcomed the development as one which could have a positive effect on accountability in a constitutional democracy. Politics worked when political elites became nervous because there was a viable formation emerging, he added.
Professor Susan Booysen, of the Wits University Graduate School of Public and Development Management, said the leadership contest was part of the DA’s rebranding. “Rebranding is very important. It means getting away from the image of a party of white men, even if Trollip is progressive. Party politics is frequently about rebranding. The old back benchers, it’s saying to them they’ve reached their ceiling.”
The DA’s shift away from its liberal roots started in 1999 under Leon, who was sharply criticised by liberal stalwart Helen Suzman for joining forces with the new incarnation of the old apartheid-era Nats. The move, however, turned 1.7 percent electoral support in 1999 into more than 16 percent 10 years later, and a seemingly unshakeable grasp on power in the Western Cape and Cape Town by 2011.
On June 24, 2000, the DA was formed through an agreement between the then DP and NNP, which brought significant coloured support to the party. It required politicians to retain their respective party memberships while working under the banner of the DA and its policies.
But it quickly went pear-shaped as Leon and his deputy, NNP leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk, clashed.
By November 2001, the DA had hit the rocks. The NNP threw in its lot with the ANC. This brought about a constitutional amendment to introduce floor-crossing so the NNP members could again leave the DA.
At the time Van Schalkwyk described the DA as a party not yet arrived in the new South Africa, according to the UK Guardian, and one on the road to nowhere. Instead it was the NNP that ceased to exist in 2007 after several floor-crossing periods, which effectively reshaped the South African political landscape. Defections were abolished, through yet another constitutional amendment, in January 2008.
By then defections had created a plethora of one-person parties. Of those only the ID of former Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) MP Patricia de Lille grew to have more than one member in Parliament. That survival lasted until last year, when De Lille and Zille started negotiating a merger leading up to the May municipal poll, with full integration for the 2014 provincial and national elections.
Zille’s adroitness in realising what she has called “political realignment”, first emerged publicly after the 2006 municipal elections when she was elected as mayor after having brought together seven parties to clinch Cape Town from the ANC.
Mazibuko has been criticised as “the Madam’s (Zille’s) tea girl”. During the land affairs budget debate earlier this year, ANC MPs called her mtwana wam, a pointed reference to her age. Concerns remain over whether her youth will trump gravitas when she faces President Jacob Zuma as leader of the official opposition across the National Assembly.
Independent analyst Daniel Silke, who left the DA 10 years ago, said Mazibuko represented the party’s need to promote black leaders into top positions and, in that role, to offer alternatives to young black leaders and professionals.
“There is a body of young black leadership who increasingly feel alienated from the ANC, particularly from (the militancy of the) ANC Youth League. This is an opportunity for the DA to lock in a younger second-generation of black leadership who are now for the first time looking for a new political home to the liberation movement of their parents,” he said.