Is Helen Zille’s Return to the DA Opportunistic or Heroic?


Since Helen Zille announced that she would be running for the Democratic Alliance Federal Chair position and therefore suspending her senior fellowship position at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), some people whom I have spoken with have expressed doubts as to her sincerity for doing so citing possibly opportunistic motivations. I am not convinced.

Zille announced her candidacy almost immediately before nominations closed, saying that people in the DA had asked her to run. It is no secret that she has been critical of the DA’s swing towards populist and race-based policy, and it is certainly no secret that the DA is in deep division, decline, possibly even corrupt, and woefully unwilling to introspect, because doing so would mean questioning the future relevance to the party of senior leaders. These individuals have no plans to vacate their positions of authority or give up on their goals of creating a party of racial social democrat policies.

Leaders currently contesting the Federal Chair position include Zille, Athol Trollip, Mike Waters, and Thomas Walters. During her time in the DA, it appeared that Zille had a social democrat slant, although since her departure she has seemingly moved quickly to reclaim the classical liberal ground. This is an unfortunately small pool of candidates; individuals such as Ghaleb Cachalia and John Steenhuisen would make welcome appearances in such a crucial role as much as Steenhuisen can be criticized for putting party above policy in the recent months. Cachalia is impressively liberal from a cursory glance at his tweets, and also managed to cause a storm in a teacup after using an idiom to describe Eusebius McKaiser’s conduct at a point. Said teacup was not from Zille’s tea set.

Zille has said publicly that saving the DA is superior to starting a new party to fill the DA’s space, and that ‘if the DA works, so does South Africa’. I have to agree with her on this, as much as it may seem preferable to start a new and pure liberal party. I say this largely because failure to turn the DA around will result in two hegemonic blocs consisting of a socialist ANC and a social democrat DA, making any new liberal party’s job a very uphill battle and watching the DA’s early days of growth all over again.

Few will dispute that a flawed DA is better than the ANC or even what the DA is right now (‘ANC-lite’). That said and aside from Zille, what do the candidates running have to offer?

Waters has been critical of the DA recently, particularly of Maimane’s Steinhoff vehicle, but also the DA’s dismal 2019 election performance and subsequent by-elections which he says the DA has lost a third of either to the VF+ or the ANC. He correctly identifies that people are disillusioned with the DA and proposes that the party return to its classical liberal roots and non-racialism to reverse its current decline that shows no signs of reversing. Assuming he is a true classical liberal, he is a worthy contender for the position in this regard. Of race-based policy, he simply says: “it doesn’t work”.

Trollip is a DA veteran with an admirable dedication to the party having lost to Zille and Mazibuko for senior contested positions in the party between the very position in contention now, and parliamentary leader. His criticism of Zille seems to lie mainly in that he believes Zille’s time has come and gone, which is not an unfair statement as much as Zille may well be what the DA needs to find stability. He has given overtures to a non-racial future, but as I wrote this article, I was unable to find any easy to access and clear beliefs on how he would take the DA forward short of the obvious need to discipline and unite the party. He has been described as a pragmatist, which can be both good and bad when the internal principles of the party need to be set in stone to prevent the very pitfalls the DA has consistently fallen into since it started to tweak its liberal origins.

Walters said previously that he does not communicate his campaign through the media, and that his campaign is for delegates only. It is an interesting position to take by a candidate for a position in a party that is so deep in the public eye for all the wrong reasons. As such, there is very little to say of Walters apart from his bio on the DA website, which again, is very little.

Of all the candidates, the most principled and vocal about what needs to be done and what they would do, would be Waters and Zille. Zille and Trollip are said to be favourites of the four, which may not bode well for Waters and Walters. It must be borne in mind that until the votes are counted, we cannot know the outcome, which may well be Waters or Walter in a surprise to everyone watching. Personally, I believe that Zille ought to stay at the Institute of Race Relations, but I say this in the hope that Waters has the authority and backbone as much as he has the most transparent beliefs besides Zille. I believe that Zille’s intentions are honest and not a grab for power, especially considering she took the party to where it was right before it started to collapse, but whether they are appropriate at this time is another thing.