South Africa‘s official opposition is in crisis.
Mmusi Maimane’s resignation on Wednesday as leader and member of the Democratic Alliance (DA) marked a critical climax of the party’s undoing following a poor electoral performance that highlighted its challenges to win over the majority black vote.
Maimane announced his decision to step down after the party released a blistering investigative report that blamed him for a shock result in May’s national election, when the DA’s voter share dropped by 1.5 percentage points – the first time in two decades it had lost ground in a general vote.
Initially, Maimane had intended to remain a member of Parliament for the party, but he subsequently announced on Twitter that he was leaving the DA for good.
“I have worked tirelessly to build the project of One SA [South Africa] for All. It’s been my greatest honour to serve the people of SA and will continue to do so,” Maimane, who in 2015 became the DA’s first black leader, said in a Twitter post on Thursday morning.
I have worked tirelessly to build the project of One SA for All. It’s been my greatest honour to serve the people of SA and will continue to do so. I have today resigned from the DA and Parliament. Thank you to the people of this country for your faith in our nation. God bless SA
— Mmusi Maimane (@MmusiMaimane) October 24, 2019
The DA, whose support has largely been seen as middle class and historically white, has publicly rallied under the slogan “one South Africa for all”.
Its rise in South African politics has been an explosive trajectory which saw it merge with members of the New National Party, a refurbished extension of the apartheid-era ruling Nationalist Party, to become the main opposition to the African National Congress (ANC) party.
But May’s bruising results – the DA saw its support dwindling from 22.23 percent of the vote to 20.77 percent and lost its status as the official opposition in two provinces – were seen partly as a consequence of a perception among some black voters that the party continues to protect white interests. At the same time, it has faced allegations by senior black leaders that it blocks pro-poor policies to help the majority black population.
The currently leaderless party denies being led by a white grouping but, following Maimane’s departure, it faces major upheaval.
Athol Trollip, the DA’s federal chairperson, would have ordinarily become acting leader, but he resigned moments after Maimane’s announcement. The party has now lost three of its high-ranking officials in just three days. Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba was the first to leave on Monday, saying that the DA’s lack of policy on racial inequality led to his dramatic exit.
But for political analyst Ralph Mathekga, this week’s developments by no means signal the end of the party.
“The DA is not done. It depends on how they react to this. Something has unsettled them as an opposition and they need to re-ground themselves,” Mathekga said.
The underwhelming showing at the polls, however, has haunted the DA over the past five months.
Following the vote, Maimane, 39, appointed a panel of three senior DA members to investigate the election losses. More than 200 party members made submissions to the panel, which released a scathing 13-page report this week that found Maimane was to blame.
“The overwhelming view of those who made submissions or with whom we held discussions is that the party leader, while immensely talented, can be indecisive, inconsistent and conflict averse,” it said.
The report was released a day after former party leader, Helen Zille, staged an unexpected return to politics by being elected as the chairperson of the DA’s highest decision-making structure, the Federal Council.
Zille, who sparked public outcry in 2017 when she tweeted that colonialism was not “only negative”, is seen as representing a conservative-liberal grouping within the DA.
For some, her return has been evidence that the main opposition has fully embraced conservatism. Mathekga said that the “Zille project” is one the DA should abandon to avoid losing more black members and wider support.
“It’s a crisis. The ascension of Zille, the inauguration of right-wing politics, this seeming ideological reorientation of the DA, this conservative element that seems to be overwhelming the party, they should not allow it to consolidate,” Mathekga said.
But DA spokesman Solly Malatsi rejected the idea that the party was moving towards conservatism, saying it remained rooted in liberal democratic policies, such as the right to property ownership.
“That is absolute rubbish. The policy direction of the party is not the sole discretion of any one person,” Malatsi told Al Jazeera. “The DA’s values have always been on the basis of liberal democracy. Helen Zille was elected through a very democratic process by members of the party who are very diverse.”
The DA has also suffered from public infighting, seen as another reason behind May’s underwhelming election results.
Almost a year ago, popular former Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille left the party after a showdown that led to six other members following suit. At the centre of the crisis were claims by De Lille that a “white cabal” of DA leaders, who formed part of its “old guard” from the New National Party, had blocked every attempt she allegedly made at racial redress.
De Lille went on to establish her own party, GOOD, with former members of the DA in December 2018. Her party won two parliamentary seats in May’s election. On Wednesday evening, in response to Maimane’s resignation, De Lille tweeted a video of herself singing goodbye to former leader and “I told you so”.
“I spoke to him many times about the cabal that’s anti-transformation,” De Lille told Al Jazeera.
As questions hang over Maimane’s political future, the DA itself faces many questions as it prepares for the 2021 local government elections.
While a number of small parties are active in South Africa, the only big rivals to the ruling ANC for the past six years have been the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), led by former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, and the DA.
The EFF currently faces a range of corruption allegations emanating from reports that its members have received millions in illicit funds from the now collapsed VBS Mutual Bank. The EFF represents a far-left nationalist approach in South African politics, which Mathekga believes makes it an ineligible challenge to the ANC.
“The EFF is the opposition party that will be left if the DA is decimated. What it means is that South African politics would have become weaker,” Mathekga said.
Smaller parties such as GOOD will seek to consolidate on the DA’s losses and close the gap that may form if the latter continues its spiral.