Zille's departure: The winners & losers

Coenraad Bezuidenhout says the WCape Premier is unlikely to serve out her term of office having given up the DA leadership

De Lille will benefit most from Zille’s resignation

Helen Zille will not finish her term as Western Cape Premier, Mmusi Maimane will never make it to the Union Buildings, Wilmot James will be the biggest loser and Patricia de Lille will be the biggest beneficiary of Zille’s resignation as party leader. These are the very likely corollaries that now face the Democratic Alliance in a post-Zille world and here’s why. 

Her many fine qualities aside, Helen Zille frustrated the personal ambitions of many within the DA because of her willingness to fix circumstances to benefit the advancement of those she favoured. Over the years, her intervention in party list processes and other internal elections have driven many DA pundits to desperation. She perceives leadership as amongst other, a platform to dispense and deny favour as expedience requires.

Sometimes it would be in the interests of her urgent push to grow the DA faster, such as with her effective anointment of Maimane. Other times, the reasons would be more petty, such as her running differences with Theuns Botha that eventually lead to his recent resignation as a Western Cape provincial minister.

Zille disapproves of Athol Trollip in the same way as she does of Botha. To her very recent public regret, she acted on it by amongst other supporting a successful bid by Lindiwe Mazibuko to unseat him as Parliamentary leader in 2011. One consequence was the alignment of Trollip with parties disaffected by Zille’s interventionism, who were mostly from Gauteng. To be sure, these individuals do not necessarily disagree principally with the manipulation of party resources or processes to predetermine outcomes.

Trollip has made himself guilty of it in at least one instance towards the 2009 elections, when he cancelled unrelated public events in the Eastern Cape featuring then Parliamentary Leader Sandra Botha, as he started coveting her position. Rather, what Trollip and his cohorts coalesced for was to loosen Zille’s grip on the party, promote their ability to influence its direction and achieve personal advancement. These motives and some score settling must have been foremost motivations for Trollip to contest the party’s Federal Chairpersonship at the forthcoming Federal Congress.

DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen and the band of young MP’s that surround him would have recognised the opportunity presented by Trollip’s bid to return to national leadership for the accession of their stalking horse, Maimane. For them and many others in the party, Maimane’s accession provides the opportunity for roles to be rejigged and the prospect of dealing with a much more acquiescent and dependent political principle. What makes their position special is that they could utilise Zille’s trust in their council to engineer her resignation as Leader, as well as their vital influence on Maimane to have the reapportionment of roles post the 10 May election done in their favour.

Their chances of success are significant and not least because of Zille’s interest in securing her legacy. She has already rewarded the faction formerly supporting Theuns Botha in the Western Cape with the cabinet post he resigned from (it was handed to Anroux Marais) in exchange for delivering the province’s support for Maimane. Most other provinces have followed suite for a variety of reasons, and many public representatives have succumbed to the pressure to publicly demonstrate the alignment of their interests with the Maimane camp in a “groundswell” of support.

Much rather than being challenged by it, Maimane’s leadership campaign is all but legitimised by a naïve counterbid by current Federal Chairperson Wilmot James. Whereas James’ candidature beats the rhythms of credibility as a result of the considerable reputation he amassed prior to his career in the DA, it is let down by its kneejerk origins and lack of strategic foresight.

He has passed up opportunities to pursue leadership of the Parliamentary party before and squandered leadership opportunities such as delivering successfully on the DA’s jobs and growth project of a few years ago, making his claims of experience, ability and vision ring hollow. His known disdain for and perceived sense of superiority over sections of the party also makes his campaign seem insincere.

The party’s lack of appetite for yet another prescriptive factional leader who treats non-allies with the colonial-type of suspicion that is so often the want in the Western Cape will likely be communicated to him in a resounding defeat come 10 May. Unless James will be satisfied to mind the patch Maimane’s backers determine for him, he will be dead in the water.

For Maimane the challenge will be to retain his usefulness to his backers. He may perceive the impact his scripted-for-social-media speeches on the electorate as significant, but his inability to exact useful concessions from his opposites in Parliament and in the Executive should be a lingering concern. If Maimane is to be an opposite number for a Ramaphosa presiding over a post-Zuma ANC diminished by leftist breakaways, the prospective DA leader will have to find vast new depths to his ability to ensure maximum benefit for his party. If he can locate those reserves against the backdrop of significant growth in support at the 2016 local government polls, his leadership would be en route to success. If not, he can be assured of a challenge to his leadership in 2018.

Patricia de Lille would be aware that of everyone that could potentially do so, she is in a very advantageous position. As a politician that commands national respect, as leader of the DA in the Western Cape and with Zille out of the Leader’s chair, De Lille could now grow and consolidate her influence over the party significantly and as her own person to boot. One way to do this would be to latch on to the significant sentiment in the DA that the Provincial Leader of the party must also be the premier candidate in that province, and ride it all the way to Leeuwenhof. The best timing would be after the 2016 local government election, but significantly before the party’s electoral conference in 2018.

It is often said by astrologers that Piscean politicians have a propensity to upend themselves. It is regrettable that Zille’s leadership draws to a close in a way that conforms to this stereotype. She has at times been formidable and brilliant, her flaws all too human and her overall intentions highly honourable. However, the conclusion is inescapable that unless she initiates her own departure from politics willingly, she may again find herself at the receiving end of the same expedience that so characterised her politics.

De Lille has a good decade or more left in her in which she could see her star ascending. It is not too far fetched to say that of any of her contemporaries in the DA, she stands the best chance to enter the Union Buildings this side of 2024 as, say, a Deputy President in a coalition government. If it is not a prospect she finds too promising to give up on, the multi-accented Maimane will for now be where the DA’s belief in tomorrow will begin and end.

Coenraad Bezuidenhout is a former DA party staffer. He writes in his personal capacity