Johannesburg – Despite controversy around her, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille remains loved in the DA and she often does whatever she wants, insiders said on Thursday.
"You know that inappropriate tweet shows that Helen is uncontrollable," one DA federal executive member said about the former party leader.
"She seems to have superpowers and some of us have decided to just leave her [be]."
The member was referring to a recent tweet from Zille on the Life Esidimeni tragedy.
In her tweet Zille said: "It is good that the families of the Life Esidimeni victims have received a measure of justice and compensation. I would like an answer to this question: What did they do, before these tragic deaths, to raise the alarm about their loved ones starving + living in profound neglect?"
The DA member said Zille, for whom it is not the first time that a tweet has landed her in hot water with her party and South Africans in general, had agreed to stop giving commentary on Twitter and focus on her role as Western Cape premier – but reverted to her old ways in just a matter of weeks.
Zille, Maimane 'not on speaking terms'
"I can't even tell you what's actually being done about this matter," said the member, who added that the DA had scored major points for its efforts in trying to raise the alarm ahead of the Life Esidimeni tragedy but that Zille was scoring "own goals".
The DA member also suggested that Zille and the party's leader, Mmusi Maimane, were not on speaking terms, claiming the relationship between the two became even more strained following Zille's tweets about colonialism last year.
It is good that the families of the Life Esidimeni victims have received a measure of justice and compensation. I would like an answer to this question: What did they do, before these tragic deaths, to raise the alarm about their loved ones starving + living in profound neglect?
Last year Zille tweeted: "Getting onto an aeroplane now and won't get onto the Wi-Fi so that I can cut off those who think EVERY aspect of colonial legacy was bad. For those claiming legacy of colonialism was only negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc".She later apologised.
A question of timing
Another DA official told News24 on Thursday that the problem around Zille's Life Esidimeni tweet could have been an issue of timing but that Zille posed a relevant question.
"It is entirely valid. You can call it insensitive but I don't think there is anything wrong with it," said the party insider.
"It is a really difficult situation, she remains extremely popular and loved in the party. It is an extremely complex situation," said the second source.
"But several people, including myself, are frustrated that this keeps coming up.
"I might be mistaken but only around four families seemed to have acted on the situation, this is out of 144 people who died."
The party's spokesperson Refiloe Nt'sekhe had previously labelled the comments as inappropriate and unfortunate – a view one source said he understood in spite of his defence of Zille's recent tweet.
In response to the Life Esidimeni tweet that sparked the outcry, Zille later tweeted: "Why would I say that the compensation was just if I was blaming them? I am asking a question that every alert newspaper reader would ask. I have been reading the press and the question has not been addressed. No blame at all."
Stories such as the testimonies from family members including Reverend Joseph Maboe, 80, whose son Billy was moved from a Life Esidimeni facility without his knowledge, and Monomong Welheminah Thejane, whose brother Daniel Charles Josiah also died after he was moved without the family being notified, were covered by several media houses.
Political analyst Ivor Sarakinsky said on Thursday that Zille was a powerful figure in the Western Cape and enjoyed a lot of support from the federal council.
"Over the years she has put powerful people that support her in strategic positions. She is a major player in the fights and divisions in the party as illustrated in the Patricia de Lille matter."
De Lille is currently facing a disciplinary hearing. She has been accused of contravening the DA's federal constitution, amid claims of misconduct.
Sarakinsky noted that Zille's colonialism tweets landed her in hot water and a compromise deal was reached and she was instructed to not tweet.
"She continued to say that colonialism was not bad and then now she has entered the Life Esidimeni debate. This really raises questions on whether Mmusi Maimane is really leading the party.
"If he is leading the party, why has he not taken firm action against her as threatened in previous hearings?"
He said Zille was a senior leader in the party and, to some degree, she did not believe that she should be held accountable.
"She seems to believe that she is above the party and that she can mould the party along her ideological vision."
Sarakinsky said Maimane's inaction sends the message that he is a weak leader who cannot act against his mentor.
"There is also a racial aspect to this in that the DA came down like a ton of bricks on Patricia de Lille and Premier Zille is unscathed by these scandals."
He said it was possible that Maimane did not want to act because he did not want to alienate the white core voting base of the DA but was risking losing the recently won coloured support base.
'Just plain malicious'
Political analyst Ralph Mathekga disagreed with Sarakinsky.
"I wouldn't say she's powerful – powerful people use their power to the benefit of others. She is just plain malicious," said Mathekga.
He pointed out that Zille had a big constituency.
"She is aware that the party is at a crossroads and is struggling on how much of the old it must take to the future. Another problem with the DA is that it is trying to attract the black voters and, at the same time, not upset its core white voters."
Mathekga said: "It is all egotistical. She is becoming an egomaniac."
He said Zille's behaviour was putting Maimane's leadership to the test.
"The people want Maimane to act by firing her. If the senior people were well-behaved we would not be questioning his leadership.
He said Maimane's public status as a decision maker was in doubt "because there seem to be people who have carte blanche to do whatever they want".
"There are egos and people who feel a sense of entitlement in the DA."
'It's time to ask the hard questions'
In her response to News24, Zille said: "I have written an article fully setting out the background which News24 is running. Mmusi's leadership is far more robust than these analysts think and cannot be undermined by a simple question pounced upon by people who try to stroke outrage at every opportunity."
In her opinion piece, carried on News24, on how the Western Cape can prevent tragedies such as Life Esidimeni, Zille said people accused her of having an empathy deficit.
"They are profoundly wrong. I have enough empathy to know that hand-wringing does not cut it. Asking the right questions and taking the hard decisions does. Taking personal responsibility does. Having a capable, competent and efficient department does.
"This means appointing the right MEC to head the department and the right professionals in the right positions, who are dedicated enough to go way beyond the call of duty, tooth-combing an entire province to find unlicensed facilities to make sure they are brought up to scratch. That is real care, not sentimentality.
"Because no other province has had a licensing regime, who knows how many other people have perished in unlicensed facilities without anyone raising the alarm? The Life Esidimeni tragedy may be the tip of an iceberg.
"It's time that more people in South Africa asked the hard questions – all the hard questions – so that we can prevent tragedies like Esidimeni happening again."