Helen Zille’s resignation, and hyperbole in political commentary

helen-zilleOn Sunday, we witnessed an atypically shambolic press conference from the Democratic Alliance (DA). Part of the reason for the chaos was presumably the significance of the news, namely Helen Zille’s announcement that she won’t be standing for the position of party leader at their upcoming elective conference.

A journalist contacted me yesterday for comment on whether she “jumped or was pushed”, and it strikes me as unfortunate that the question seems as high on people’s lists of interests as it seems to be. The News24 live feed of the press conference chose “I wasn’t pushed” as their headline, even though the mere idea that she might have been was mentioned only once by Zille, and then once in a speculative tweet by UCT’s Professor Pierre de Vos.

My view is that the distinction is to a large extent a meaningless one, and one that mostly serves to feed a public demand for sensation.

Zille is undoubtedly a strong enough character to have stayed on if that was her preference – so to some extent, it strikes me as absurd to suggest she was “pushed”. But in this discourse, “pushed” is interpreted to mean something closer to “evicted”, or told/asked to go.

If you think of “pushed” in the less hyperbolic sense of being subject to internal pressures, it would be absurd to think that those were not present. For one, there isn’t a political party that has no internal dissent, and second, we also know that Zille has been contemplating stepping down as leader for some time now.

The fact that Zille herself made the possibility of stepping down public knowledge would also mean that anyone who would like to see her do so might have been emboldened to make that suggestion internally more often or openly than before. This wouldn’t amount to being “pushed” in any sense that represents an ousting or a coup, which is what the hyperbolic language suggests – it’s rather part of the ordinary growth and evolution of an organisation.

In this case, I think the timing poor. I of course don’t have access to all the information, and there might well have been compelling reasons why it couldn’t wait. But I think it poor first because it will have the likely effect of eliminating any serious competitors to Mmusi Maimane as Zille’s successor, and second because there isn’t much time for any successor to be confident of full control of the party in time for the upcoming elections in 2016.

The first issue undermines internal democracy, and has the effect of Zille anointing her successor, rather than that successor being chosen by the party. Postponing the federal congress to give other candidates a fair shot would have cost R5m, according to Gareth van Onselen.

On the second issue, a new leader will not only have to get to grips with a broader range of internal interests and pressures, but will also presumably want to put his or her own stamp on things, which means that those they lead will also have to adjust to a new regime. Add those complications to the strong suggestions that the DA will be launching a new “values” platform before the election, and the recipe seems to indicate an incoherent election campaign.

Regarding Maimane himself, I think he’ll struggle with internal and external credibility, at least initially. His rise has been too rapid to establish a track-record that inspires confidence, and beyond being a good rhetorician, we know little about him as leader – his strategic inclinations, his views on policy, and so forth.

Having said that, there’s a wealth of experience in the party that can offer advice during the transition, and I also doubt that Zille would have been as supportive of him as she has been until now if he were not up to the task. She’s also not going anywhere, having committed to seeing out her term as Western Cape Premier.

However it plays out, there are interesting times ahead for watchers of South African politics, same as it ever was.