Helen Zille’s return is a bad omen for South Africa

Under Zille’s leadership, the Democratic Alliance will likely move back to identity politics.

Helen Zille
Helen Zille was re-elected as the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) in South Africa on October 20, 2019 [File: Reuters/Mike Hutchings]

On October 19, former Western Cape Premier and Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille was elected federal council chairperson of the Democratic Alliance (DA) after previously serving as its leader for eight years between 2007 and 2015.

At the start of her new term, she claimed that her comeback to the leadership of the country’s largest opposition party did not signal a return to the old days when it was perceived as an elitist organisation, but represented internal transformation. “I was a change candidate … I will always be around to represent the values that the DA stands for,” Zille said.

Her victory, however, caused a number of prominent members of the DA to resign. On October 21, Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba quit the party, saying he could not work “with a group of people who believe that race is irrelevant in the discussion of inequality and poverty in South Africa”.

Two days later, the DA’s first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, also resigned, declaring that the party was “going back to its original self, which is a party of white people, focusing on the interests of white, and nothing else”. The same day, the former mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay and party chairman, Athol Trollip, left the party as well.

In a few turbulent days after Zille’s return, the party, which under her leadership in 2008 tried to position itself as a multiracial conduit for post-apartheid liberalism and “party of government” succumbed to a public meltdown.

Now, with new old leadership, the DA is clearly set to move away from its past progressive vision, towards a conservative, white minority-focused agenda. This does not bode well for either the party or South Africa’s political future.  

A failed transformation

When Maimane took over leadership of the DA in 2015, he embarked on charting a new path for the party.

In his first speech as DA leader, he emphasised his commitment to “shared values and the need to create access to opportunity” for young, unemployed black South Africans. He stressed that the party “cannot pretend apartheid didn’t happen” and must remain committed to implementing “policies that redress the legacy of the past”.

However, his push to open up the party and the policies it was putting forward to address issues of concern to poor, historically-disadvantaged South Africans and attract more black voters did not succeed. In May 2019, the party ended up losing votes, sliding from 22.3 percent to 20.77 percent.

A panel review report tabled earlier this month by former DA leaders Tony Leon and Ryan Coetzee warned that the party is alienating traditional, white Afrikaans-speaking voters and blamed the party’s disappointing showing in the 2019 general elections on its attempt to attract more black voters.

This enabled Zille’s triumphant return and set the direction that South Africa’s main opposition party will take.

Despite professing her desire to “build the moderate, non-racial centre of South African politics around core constitutional values” in the past, the DA’s new leader has markedly failed to empathise with and act on historical black oppression.

Her self-styled, make-believe brand of restrictive liberalism is anything but broadly progressive and all-inclusive. She has opposed affirmative action and black economic empowerment and has made no real effort to push forward any form of progressive politics.

In 2017, Zille infuriated black DA members and the public at large after suggesting that colonisation was not all “negative“. In a series of tweets, she reimagined colonisation as a beneficial period for South Africa’s blacks, suggesting it should be seen in a fresh, appreciative light.

In this way, she dismissed the latent potential of pre-colonial African societies, implying that Africans could not ever have achieved complex industrialisation without intervention from European masters.  

Her views provoked an outpouring of public anger, divided the DA and caused considerable displeasure among the DA’s black members.

Then, in May 2019, Zille caused further outrage after claiming that society was ostracising “whiteness” and that there is “black privilege” in South Africa, which constitutes “being able to loot a country and steal hundreds of billions and get re-elected”.

It is this type of leader that a majority of DA delegates envision can take the party forward. How that can happen under a leadership whose understanding of present and past challenges are stalled in whimsical, far-right fascinations with colonisation remains unclear.

A bad omen for South Africa

Under Zille’s leadership, it is quite likely that the DA will transform itself from a party that supposedly aspired to represent the multiracial fabric of the so-called “rainbow nation” to one that is steeped in bigoted, unproductive practicalities. Her policies will certainly repel centre-leaning black voters and leave a political void in South African politics. 

This shift in the DA’s political direction comes at a time when the South African nation is in desperate need to move beyond the daunting spectre of apartheid-era identity politics. The legitimacy the ANC has commanded based on its participation in the anti-apartheid struggle is slowly eroding and black South African voters are increasingly frustrated with its performance. 

The ruling party is struggling with high levels of corruption and its failure to lower a high unemployment rate, achieve high economic growth and improve the delivery of basic services.

The country finds itself at an important juncture in its history, when it is in need of a political project that can challenge the status quo of the ANC and build a future of true equality, justice, prosperity and social wellbeing for all citizens.

By opting for identity politics and easy wins, the DA is giving up its opportunity to be that political power that leads South Africa to a better future. Instead, it chooses to play a political game that will inevitably increase polarisation in the South African society, allow the ANC to cling to power for much longer and prevent the country from emerging from the current crisis of political vision.

Indeed, Helen Zille is not only bad news for the DA; she is bad news for South African democracy and its future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.