South Africa’s opposition tries to patch things up
A row over colonialism has become a divisive distraction
HELEN ZILLE, a doyenne of South Africa’s liberal opposition, knew it was time to go when she stepped down as leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) two years ago. Ms Zille, a white woman, had fought hard, first against apartheid and later to build the party into a plausible alternative to the ruling African National Congress (ANC). She then took a back seat in the party to allow the rise of a young, black leader, Mmusi Maimane, even as she kept her position as premier (governor) of the Western Cape, the only province won by the opposition. “I had fortuitously avoided the fate of most politicians, captured in the aphorism ‘There is no comfortable end to a political career; only death or disgrace,’” Ms Zille boasted in her autobiography of 2016.
Sadly that was not to be. After a trip to Singapore in March impressed her, she tweeted that colonialism was not all bad. It was a spectacularly ill-judged comment in a country still scarred by its history of apartheid, for which the racial foundations were laid during its time as a colony. Worse still for the DA, it reinforced its image among many potential black voters that it is a party that acts in the interests of whites. Ms Zille surely should have known this. Yet instead of retreating from the remarks, she doubled down with increasingly sanctimonious defences. “Helen is always right,” says one party insider.
This ugly row has had serious consequences for a party that ought to be scooping up new supporters by the millions in a country growing weary of the corruption that is flourishing under the ruling African National Congress. President Jacob Zuma himself faces 783 charges of fraud, corruption and money laundering. Instead, black voters are abandoning the DA. Private polling by the party that was leaked to the press showed that its support among black voters has slumped from 17% to 10% in the past two months.
Instead of kicking Ms Zille out of the party as political considerations dictate that he probably should have done, Mr Maimane on June 13th announced a compromise that will see her removed from all decision-making positions in the DA while remaining premier of the Western Cape. In this way, the party avoids a drawn-out and divisive disciplinary process, given that Ms Zille appears to have no intention of going quietly. But repairing its image among black voters will require more than cautious compromise. It is also unclear whether the Economic Freedom Fighters, a populist party whose support has put the DA into government in Johannesburg and Pretoria, will make good on its threats to withdraw its support if Ms Zille does indeed keep her job as premier. Having stepped down once for the sake of her party, Ms Zille may yet have to do so again.