Ahead of what is shaping up to be a fiery and combative DA Federal Council meeting this weekend, leader Mmusi Maimane said his party cannot afford to be content with “being the voice of minorities” and must “broaden our appeal to attract more black South Africans.”
The DA will at its Federal Council – its highest decision-making body between congresses – be electing a new Council chair to succeed party veteran James Selfe who has served in the position for close to two decades.
In making this choice, Maimane said, “the focus must be about building the DA of the future.”
Former party leader Helen Zille and Athol Trollip are the front-runners in a field that also includes Thomas Walters and Mike Waters.
But, it appears, that at the heart of a fierce internal battle is Maimane’s vision of ‘a new DA’ which has culminated in calls for him to step down as party leader.
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says the real debate in the party is the issues of race and how to position itself going forward.
And, he added, the candidates vying for the position were “not going to help the party navigate these issues.”
“If you look at the choices that they have going into this weekend, it is very clear that they seem not to be looking at a choice that could help them in navigating those. Those are people who have been there.”
Mathekga believed the DA is at a crossroads, and his assertion contradicts Maimane’s plan which seeks to “broaden appeal to attract more black South Africans.”
“The problem is that the DA will never grow. In order to reach growth in the DA, it has to reach new constituencies, come up with new messages and going back to implementing the traditional identity of the DA.”
Maimane conceded that achieving his vision “is not an easy project.”
“When you’re operating in the political centre, you have adversaries and potential supporters on all sides,” he said.
“The DA faces the unique challenge of needing to make an emotional connection with a wide range of voters of vastly differing worldview and backgrounds. Add to that [is ] the challenge of internal diversity and its ever-present need to find each other.“
He described the recent squabbles within the as a “minor slide backwards.”
The DA leader has been facing mounting pressure since the party’s lacklustre performance in May’s national and provincial elections.
He has also been blasted over his use of a car sponsored by disgraced former Steinhoff boss Markus Jooste, and over why he declared a R4m Claremont, Cape Town home in Parliament’s assets registry, despite not owning the property.
An internal DA probe has since cleared him of any wrongdoing. “ I am satisfied that there exists no financial illegality on behalf of Mr Maimane as it pertains to both the house and the car,” said DA Federal Finance Chairperson Dion George upon completion of the party’s internal processes.
Maimane’s supporters have also raised concerns over the influential role of former party leader Tony Leon, who is a member of the review panel tasked with looking at the state of the party.
Leon, former DA chief strategist Ryan Coetzee, who led the review panel, and Capitec Bank co-founder Michiel le Roux were reportedly part of a delegation which met with Maimane, asking him to resign.
A resolute Maimane charged that there is a smear campaign against him, and that those seeking his ouster are hankering for the ideals of what he said was the “old DA.” A resurgence of the party’s white, liberal old guard, some analysts say.
He added, “just as South Africa needs to implement reforms if it is to grow its economy and prosper, so the DA needs to change if it is to grow.”
Trying to project some semblance of party unity ahead of the Federal Council meet, Maimane said, “the DA has set out on a course to become the national government in South Africa… To this end, the party will be deliberating this weekend on the recommendations flowing from a broad review of its leadership, policy, structures and operations.”
“The DA is changing for the future… Growing pains were inevitable,” the DA leader said.