What Helen Zille’s departure means for South Africa’s main opposition party

Helen Zille, leader of South Africa’s leading opposition, has announced that she will step down. Reuters/Sumaya Hisham

Helen Zille’s leadership of South Africa’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has been historic for three reasons. She was the first leader of the predominantly white party to have 1980s anti-apartheid struggle credentials; the first woman to head the DA; and above all, the first actively to make it attractive to black voters.

Zille did this by targeting South Africans across the colour and class divide. She actively enrolled black leaders from university campuses to found a pool of black talent to grow within the party. As she steps down, the party’s student wing, the Democratic Student Alliance Organisation has thriving branches in more than half a dozen campuses and has won Student Representative Council elections at more than one.

Zille’s positive and negative legacies

Under Zille, the DA won staggeringly high proportions of coloured voters in Cape Town, and more than half of coloured voters in the rest of the Western Cape – the only one of South Africa’s nine provinces run by her party.

Zille also began the long march of founding DA branches in African townships, small though they are today. Under the DA, the Cape Town City Council has started projects to provide sub-tenants (known as “backyarders”) in townships with outside flush toilets, taps and power sockets.

This is significant for the hundreds of thousands of backyarders who are likely to spend a lifetime on waiting lists for free government houses, known as RDP houses, named after the government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) which spawned them.

Zille also threw a lifeline to the unemployed by funding public works and community programmes. The DA-run Cape Town City Council’s 181 “mass opportunity” centres provide sport and drama activities for children living in shanties where whole families typically live in one room.

At provincial level, the Western Cape under the DA followed Gauteng province to provide the hungry children of unemployed parents with a free breakfast in addition to a free lunch. The high school pass rate in the Western Cape ranks in the top third of performing provinces in the country.

Despite these achievements, Zille has attracted her own fair share of criticism. Most recently, she endured sustained criticism for instructing the Western Cape Provincial Government departments not to renew their subscriptions to the Cape Times. She took the decision because she said the newspaper carried shoddy journalism. The daily Cape Town paper is part of Independent Newspapers, which is owned by ANC-aligned businessman Iqbal Surve.

The decision was criticised as anti-media by, among others, newspapers from rival publishing houses to the Cape Times – such as Business Day and the Mail & Guardian as well as The South African National Editors’ Forum.

Three years ago, Zille caused offence by referring to pupils from the Eastern Cape, a bordering province, as “education refugees”. The Eastern Cape is the poorest province in South Africa and her comments were interpreted as arrogant and racist.

Attributes her successor needs to have

Zille’s successor will need to be multilingual. She was the first DA leader to be trilingual and could comfortably deliver speeches in Afrikaans, English, and isiXhosa. This is a capability taken for granted among black leaders in South Africa, including President Jacob Zuma.

Put bluntly, another attribute Zille’s successor needs is to be black. Every published image of the DA’s parliamentary, provincial and municipal caucuses show huge slabs of whiteness.

To grow beyond 2-3% of the African vote, the DA needs to get serious about reflecting the South African Rainbow Nation among its elected representatives in parliament, provincial legislatures, municipalities, its elected organisational leadership and its logo.

A big question remains as to whether the DA will combine the positions of party leader and parliamentary leader, a decision that would be taken at its federal congress on May 9. Their fusion would strengthen the authority of Mmusi Maimane, the DA’s charismatic young black parliamentary leader, if he becomes party leader.

The challenge for the DA is that electing another white leader would make it a target for rival parties denigrating it as a white party.

Future electoral performance

In recent years, the media had become more critical of Zille for perceived autocratic actions, such as parachuting African and coloured leaders into top positions without much electoral consultation with rank-and-file DA membership.

One issue rarely discussed is that until now, the DA has chosen black leaders such as Lindiwe Mazibuko and Maimane who speak in accents that the DA’s white membership feel comfortable with. If the DA wishes to have more appeal to young black voters, its white members face some tough choices ahead. Its future black leaders will need to have more appeal in the black townships.

One key task for Zille’s successor will be to attract more Africans, coloureds and Indians as branch members. The tipping point will come when they outnumber the whites who joined the party from the now defunct National Party and the Progressive Party.

Until this is achieved, the DA will remain on the periphery and be unable to take a leadership position on the big challenges facing the country. But it also carries huge risk as the party for the first time comes face to face with factionalism, and competition for patronage and clientelism.

These factors have hurt the governing African National Congress and devastated other opposition parties such as the Inkatha Freedom Party, Pan Africanist Congress of Azania and the Azanian People’s Organisation.

The 2016 local government elections and the 2019 general elections will deliver the verdict of black voters on the DA’s new generation of leadership and choices.