DA leader Helen Zille. Picture: SOWETAN
DA leader Helen Zille. Picture: SOWETAN

FOR core supporters of the Democratic Alliance (DA) it matters that the party maintains its liberal values — an issue that is the subject of intense debate due to escalate ahead of next year’s general elections, and in the race to replace party leader Helen Zille in three years’ time.

National spokesman Mmusi Maimane recently got a tongue lashing from Gareth van Onselen — once regarded as one of the DA’s leading thinkers — for his attempt to define what it means to be African. The main gripe was that the DA’s founding values would be diluted if that sort of talk was not properly anchored in liberalism.

The African National Congress’s (ANC’s) attack on DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko prompted the debate. The governing party said Ms Mazibuko was "un-African" after she criticised President Jacob Zuma’s comments that businesses that support the ANC would prosper.

Mr Maimane’s logic is that if the DA does not offer an alternative vision to voters on the meaning of Africanism, "then the ANC will get away with defining African as black, and consequently position itself as the only home for black voters".

Those worried about the DA’s direction — and seemingly its next move when Ms Zille steps down — are uncomfortable with what they see as an erosion of the DA’s liberal values, particularly as a result of new entrants coming into the party with diverse ideas and assuming positions of responsibility.

The DA has been growing its membership — swallowing politicians from smaller opposition and bringing young black leaders up in its ranks. This trend will have an influence on the sort of leader likely to emerge after Ms Zille.

Those close to the internal ramblings view the clash of ideas as early signs of a brewing contest for Ms Zille’s seat, with Mr Maimane and Ms Mazibuko seen to be positioning themselves as natural successors when the party goes to its next federal congress in 2015.

What would work in favour of both Ms Mazibuko and Mr Maimane is that the DA is aware that its only chance to topple the ANC, or even come close, is with a credible black leader at the helm.

Ms Mazibuko would be aware that her name has been touted in some quarters, including the media, as a potential successor to Ms Zille. The DA’s 2011 municipal elections poster, which features the trio of Ms Zille, Ms Mazibuko and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, may have been intended to demonstrate that the party was committed to nonracialism. But the poster also managed to firmly position Ms Mazibuko among the faces that strongly represent the DA brand.

Mr Maimane has enjoyed a similarly mercurial rise in the DA ranks, making him a serious contender. Among Mr Maimane’s sympathisers, the criticism of his views has been seen as an attempt to weaken his chances as a potential contender, and thereby give Ms Mazibuko the edge.

Ms Mazibuko says anyone who intends to run for the DA’s top post will have to do so based on how they have delivered in their previous role as well as their vision for the future of the party.

However, part of the DA’s problem with its succession plan is Ms Zille’s failure to lure Mamphela Ramphele into the party.

Ms Ramphele was seen as Ms Zille’s possible replacement, but is expected to launch her own party. The same goes for failed attempts to sweet-talk Trevor Manuel into ditching the ANC. And if the claims are true, the DA may have also tried to win over Zwelinzima Vavi.

Mr Maimane says the debate on the DA’s values is healthy, as it "stretches mindsets", promoting thought over belief.

Ms Mazibuko agrees, adding that debates cannot always be framed as proxies for a leadership succession battle. "That is ANC politics," she says.

Mr Maimane says the DA is a federal organisation and individuals are allowed to contest and canvass opinions. The party is "a house big enough" to accommodate multiple views, he says. "There have been enough leaders who have come to the defence of what we stand for," says Mr Maimane, who is also the DA leader in the City of Johannesburg.

Asked if he still sees himself leading the DA in a bid to win over the City of Johannesburg in the 2017 municipal elections, he says: "A lot can still happen between then and now." Ms Mazibuko shares a similar sentiment. "Things change very quickly in politics," she says.

In the spirit of ubuntu espoused by the ANC, the greater good of the collective is regarded as superior to that of the individual.

But liberalism has individual rights at its core. Which route will the DA pick? Answering this could make the next federal congress a battle for the soul of the party.