Regardless of the findings of the disciplinary inquiry into Helen Zille’s remarks concerning the legacies of colonialism, the outcomes for the DA can only be negative.
If the inquiry finds Zille guilty of bringing the DA into disrepute, whatever penalty is imposed will prove divisive and engender a negative fall-out. Her outright expulsion from the DA would be applauded by her political adversaries both within the DA and outside of the party. Such an outcome would also enhance Mmusi Maimane’s grip on the party leadership and be seen as a positive step in attracting black voters.
But, at the same time, expulsion would be regarded as excessive and vindictive by the DA’s traditional supporters. Moreover, it would give credence to the perception that the DA marches to the drumbeat of populism. Disillusionment among traditional voters could prove costly in terms of votes.
If in finding Zille guilty the inquiry restricted its recommendation to her removal as Western Cape premier, the country would lose its most competent provincial premier. From a governance point of view, that would be a grave setback. Although such an outcome would find favour amongst her political opponents, her continued membership of the would-be hailed as “proof” that the DA is the home of “racists and colonialists.”
Should the inquiry limit its censure of Zille to a suspended sentence, the likes of Mmusi Maimane and certain KZN MPLs, and councillors who have indicated their extreme displeasure at Zille’s tweets concerning colonialism, would be displeased and politically marginalised.
Such an outcome would immediately be seized upon as an affront to Maimane’s leadership and ambitions. Besides blunting the DA’s drive to recruit new black support, it would potentially run the risk of losing existing black support. But for Zille herself, such an outcome would hobble her political stature and credibility. Already that has happened to Dianne Kohler-Barnard.
In the event that the disciplinary inquiry produces a not guilty finding, division within the DA between traditional and new black support would be difficult to contain. After his outspoken rejection of Zille’s remarks on colonialism, Maimane would find his leadership compromised to the point that he would have difficulty in disarming the perception that he was on a leash.
Of course, those baying for Zille’s blood would go into overdrive in condemning the DA for failing to mete out what they would regard as the appropriate penalty. The DA would be accused of failing the test of transformation and have run out of roads in its quest for black support.
Of course, none of these outcomes would be possible if the leadership of the DA and in particular, Mmusi Maimane, had not been so impulsive in demanding that Zille face a disciplinary inquiry. But, as in the 2015 case of Kohler-Barnard, it would seem populist pressure prevailed.
What Helen Zille said about the legacies of colonialism is historically objective and correct. There were negative and positive aspects. By focusing only on the negative, Maimane and his ilk have lost a golden opportunity to place the legacies of colonialism in proper historical perspective; to put an end to the ANC’s exploitation of colonialism as a red herring in our political debate so as to deflect attention from the dysfunctional state of ANC governance.
Sadly, whatever happens to Zille, the red herring of colonialism will continue to infest the political arena and draw unnecessary lines of division. Like the Kohler-Barnard case, the DA leadership has handled the Zille issue appallingly. In his haste to curry favour with black radical elements, Maimane has failed to anticipate the permutation of possible outcomes, none of which favours the DA. For the ANC and its fellow travellers, the DA’s Zille dilemma is political schadenfreude which could not come at a better time given the growing groundswell of opposition to Jacob Zuma’s presidency.
Sent into BizNews and published 27 April 2017.