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DA shakeup ‘not a disaster for the party’

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STEVEN GRUZD

“We are a political party, not a convent,” says shadow minister of justice and federal council member, Glynnis Breytenbach. Vacated seats are “not a disaster”, nor the death of a party. “It’s something all political parties go through,” she says.

Breytenbach’s comments come in the wake of multiple high-profile resignations that have hit South Africa’s largest opposition party. Last week, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba and party leader Mmusi Maimane quit the party. They followed DA Chief Executive Paul Boughey and Federal Council Chairperson James Selfe. Chief Whip John Steenhuisen was obliged to resign from his post, but was then made interim party leader in parliament.

These departures were triggered by the recommendations of a “warts and all” report commissioned by Maimane himself after the DA’s disappointing 2019 election results. They garnered 20.77% of the national vote, down 1.36% from the 2014 election. DA seats in the national assembly went down from 89 to 84.

The DA was hurt by former leader Helen Zille’s tweets lauding colonialism, the ugly protracted battle to get rid of Patricia de Lille, and the political demise of former President Jacob Zuma. It would probably have performed better had Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma beaten Cyril Ramaphosa in the December 2017 African National Congress (ANC) leadership race.

The SA Jewish Report spoke to the DA’s Jewish members of parliament and an independent political analyst to understand what’s going on inside the party.

Michael Bagraim, DA shadow labour minister and self-described proverbial backbencher, says he has received more than 300 WhatsApp messages from concerned members of the community. “I think the DA strayed a little bit from its core values, its liberal mindset, its constitution, and its policies,” he says, but it was nevertheless sad to see Maimane and Mashaba leave the party.

“I see what’s happening now in the DA as similar to the cycles in Judaism. Every year on the high holy days, we take stock of where we are. On Simchat Torah, we read the Torah afresh. We need to be reminded of why we exist and see things with fresh eyes. Yes, this has given us a shock, but it’s a chance to examine our policies and debate what needs changing.”

The DA will choose new leaders at an elective conference in April 2020.

Bagraim sees the election of Zille as the new federal council chair as “a step forward” that will lead to renewal of the party, contrary to media speculation to the contrary. “We need to go back to basics, to Bereshit. The only party that can deliver a country we’d all like to live in is the DA. A few people resigned, but the party has stayed intact.”

Darren Bergman, the shadow minister of international relations and co-operation, says 2018 was an “annus horribilis” for the DA. “The 2019 election results were a failure, and things needed to change.” The report recommended resignations, and that’s what happened.

He says the media are creating the perception of chaos in the party, when in fact, the federal council meeting was calmly and maturely handled without any screaming and shouting.

Bergman also hailed Zille’s election, believing it will return the party to its liberal roots. He believes the party can recapture the votes lost to the Freedom Front Plus in the elections, but is worried that the current instability could jeopardise the Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) support for the DA’s control of Johannesburg.

Jewish voters are right to be disappointed with the DA over the past two years, he says, but the party “is in the process of self-correcting. They should be patient, and continue to support the DA as they have proudly for decades.”

“The review recommended that leadership takes responsibility for the poor election results,” says Breytenbach. The tallest trees attract the most wind, and positions have been vacated. It’s not a disaster. It’s not the death of the DA. If the DA fails, South Africa fails. We want to govern well for all South Africans.”

Breytenbach says those who resigned “contributed enormously to the project of the DA, and served the country with distinction”.

Asked if she had a message for the Jewish community, she said, “I spoke at Temple Israel over Yom Kippur, and my message was, ‘Please don’t leave. Please don’t give up on the DA.’ South Africa has never needed every single one of us as much as it does today. Jewish people lead, excel, and stand out. We always have. We can contribute immensely to South Africa. We have since 1994, and before 1994.”

Madeleine Hicklin, DA MP on parliament’s public works and infrastructure committee, says she is a “big fan” of Maimane, whom she described as “charismatic”. “Leaders come and leaders go,” she says. We will get stronger if we stick to our principles, our guiding lights. This too shall pass.”

These four MPs are clearly all “Zilleites”. Political analyst Ebrahim Fakir says, however, the problems in the DA are structural, and go beyond the leaders who have stayed or departed. “The DA’s problem is that everything it’s for can only be defined by what it’s against. It wants to remove the ANC from power, but it’s never going to vie for power itself,” he says.

He argues that the resignation of well-known black leaders “is not good optics, and it will leave a vacuum. But let’s be honest, they weren’t the most significant of leaders. Maimane was inconsistent and prevaricating. He wasn’t sure who or what the DA was. Mashaba was xenophobic, and didn’t dramatically change service delivery. I don’t think it’s a great loss.”

Zille is not an enlightened liberal, but a neo-liberal, Fakir says, “in a policy and governance sense. She wants to cut back on state welfare and state control. She may reconsider partnerships with the EFF.”

Fakir also believes the media is far too sensationalist about a natural realignment that happens in all parties. He says the DA might be smaller but more effective after the 2021 local-government elections.

The Jewish community will, no doubt, be closely watching developments.

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