On the Democratic Alliance and Zille’s settlement agreement

I’ve written two pieces pieces on Helen Zille’s recent tweets that led to today’s press conference with her and Mmusi Maimane, at which it was announced that she’ll continue as Premier of the Western Cape while withdrawing from DA activities generally, so there’s much I won’t repeat here.

Analysis of political developments is an unavoidably subjective activity, and also one that typically attracts emotive and partisan reactions. The point of this brief comment is simply to make the point that, as much as you might love or hate the DA or Zille, this was the second-best outcome you could have hoped for.

The best outcome was for Zille to resign from both the party and the Premiership. That was never going to happen, because she’s not one to back off from a fight, especially when she thinks she’s being unfairly criticised (as was the case here, until her apparent change of mind reported today).

The next best outcome, both for supporters of democracy and for supporters of the DA (who are not mutually exclusive groups), is summarised in one goal: for the DA to be able to get on with the key task of challenging the ANC’s dominance in local politics. And, that task was being impeded by the distraction of the Zille case.

As much as Zille was an asset in the past, directly responsible for significant growth in the Party’s support since at least 2006, she might well have become a liability to the DA in 2017 (and this is especially important leading up to the 2019 National Elections).

The Party seems to have though this the case, which left them with three options: first, to attempt to remove her though a vote of no confidence; second, to persuade her to resign as Premier; or third, to negotiate a settlement by which she resigns from all Party activities and remains as Premier.

On option one: Her job as Premier of the Western Cape is not something they can take away from her. The Provincial Legislature would have to vote to remove her, and this would be a risky strategy, in that if they kept her on, the Western Cape caucus would be wide open to accusations of racist bias (fairly or not), which seems electorally stupid. Alternatively, the DA could have (undemocratically) insisted on a certain vote, or (despotically) replaced MPL’s with ones who would vote for Zille’s removal.

On option two: This requires Zille’s co-operation, which was never likely. Any attempt to force this, via some version of option one, would have resulted in months of court battles, distracting from the key task of combating the ANC in these crucial months leading up to the election.

Also, it would have resulted in worse press than any other alternative sketched here. As much as it’s embarrassing to have dirty laundry aired in public, it’s far worse for a current leader (Maimane) to be repeatedly, and very publicly, undermined for a protracted period thanks to a legal dispute (and there would have been one, given that Zille doesn’t back down, and because the Party has political, not legal, reasons to want her out of the picture).

That leaves option 3, which is a political, not a legal, solution. The DA does the best it can to separate themselves from her and her colonialism comments, while also not engaging in a protracted fight with her, which they might well lose.

This is what they achieved in affirming that she stays on as Premier (which is a government role, not a party role), while reaching agreeing with her that she removes herself from all party roles (besides Provincial caucus meetings, which are essential to doing the job of Premier).

As far as I’m concerned, anyone who says this is a win for Zille, and a loss for Maimane, simply doesn’t understand politics in practice (rather than in ideal principle). If you watch the press conference (third link above), it’s clear that Maimane stamps his authority on proceedings, that Zille is humbled, and that she’s clearly not an agenda-setter in the Party going forward.

Whether you think the agenda itself flawed is another matter. Maimane is now obviously in charge, and has rid himself, and the party, of suspicions that he’s simply doing Zille’s bidding.

As for Zille herself, I thought hers the best public apology I’ve seen in a long while. Despite what nitpicking on social media would have us believe, her language is clear, contrite, and as far as I can tell, sincere.

It is odd that someone has changed their mind this comprehensively, and so quickly, but it’s also possible, and I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Those who are mocking her apology as insincere should perhaps consider whether there’s any version of an apology they would have accepted from her, seeing as I don’t think she could have done much better.

So, she gets to finish her (successful) term as Premier, while not being involved – and theoretically at least, not commenting – in DA politics. As a friend put it on Facebook, that’s not enough for some. But it’s nevertheless better than the alternatives. Thinking it’s not so is detached from political reality – just as thinking her initial tweets were (obviously) acceptable was.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.