Former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Lindiwe Mazibuko. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

ON SUNDAY Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko announced she would not be returning to Parliament post election. She set out her reasoning in an article for the Sunday Times newspaper, in which she argued she intended to study abroad in order to broaden her prospects. She suggested she might return to the DA at some point in the future.

From that statement, a singular fact is significant: faced with the prospect of leading a growing party in the National Assembly as the constitutionally recognised leader of the opposition, Mazibuko chose instead to return to university.

The loss to the DA and South Africa is profound. Mazibuko was a superstar. How is it that the DA has come to lose someone who embodied all its best qualities? To answer that question, one needs to better understand the current internal condition of the party.

Elections, particularly those with that result in growth, are vital to any political party. Progress is the glue that helps holds a party together. Without it, political parties tend to start looking inward and become consumed by their own politics, instead of outwardly focused and concentrating on winning votes. The election result could not have come a better time for the DA because, in the years and months leading up the election, there was much evidence of significant discord within its ranks.

These problems are many and varied. Some of them are the inevitable consequence of political life — factionalism and the contestation for power — others, however, are the consequence an internal political culture that has become poisonous. It is this culture one needs to properly understand.

Any political party shares a close relationship with its leader. They are powerful and influential. That is as it should be. They are elected on the basis of a vision and expected to motivate the party in pursuit of it. But, just like the external political environment, internally, a party requires a culture where competition thrives. It is through healthy competition that an organisation or society progresses. The DA, however, has not experienced such healthy competition in a long, long time.

Two good questions to test the internal health of a political organisation are the following: Is there anyone inside the party who can say no to the leader? And, perhaps more importantly, what are the consequences for any one person, should they do so?

Just to be clear, one is not talking here about disagreement for its own sake, but of a healthy difference of opinion; of different approaches, strategies and arguments that advocate the best interests of the institution.

The answer to these two questions for the DA are, unfortunately and to the great detriment of the institution, not what they should be. There exists a single, dominant and authoritarian personality at the heart of the party. With that there exists too an organisational culture that has become weak and entirely subservient to the wishes of its leader; as a result, intolerant, paranoid, fearful, vengeful and malicious.

It is ironic that the DA’s external mission — the equalisation of political power in South Africa and the establishment of a countervailing force to the African National Congress (ANC) — has become so markedly different from its own, internal political dynamic.

But what, specifically, are the consequences for an organisation when a single, dominant personality comes to define its nature? Four things are worth noting:

• First, it becomes fearful. Contrary opinions and difference are no longer valued as commodities, but viewed as threatening. Not only are they hesitantly expressed, if at all, when they are, they are crushed and the consequences send a clear and unambiguous message that dissent equals punishment, not engagement. Ideas are not argued but enforced. And argument becomes a weapon to destroy not to convince.

• Second, it becomes overly politicised. Its staff, which should serve its public representatives in neutral fashion, take sides. When that happens, party decisions that should be taken in the interests of the organisation as a whole come to serve a particular agenda. In turn, public representatives rise or fall not by their own merit or contribution, but by whether or not they are subservient to the centre of power. The more powerful they are, the greater their predicament as the more of a threat they represent.

• Third, it loses the ability to introspect. Critical to progress is the ability to be able objectively to assess your own condition. If, however, a culture of fear and deference holds sway, the object becomes to appease the prevailing powers that be. The party’s interests become subservient to and confused with the desires of the person who wields powers. It becomes increasingly difficult to separate the two.

• Fourth, as a consequence, dishonesty becomes prevalent. When you lose the ability to introspect and disagreement is punished, people mislead to protect themselves. This inevitably leads to an environment where information is leaked, backs are stabbed and gossip and hearsay come to define internal discussion.

A truly poisonous environment is one where people constantly suspect each other and where individuals are no longer engaged with on the merits of the case they present, but with regards to who they represent and whether their views might advance or damage one’s prospects if associated with.

Ultimately, the condition of the organisation itself becomes a lie. Everyone becomes complicit. It is healthy, they tell themselves, because that is what I must believe to succeed.

All of these things are always present to some degree in any political party — they are the nature of the beast. But in an environment where they take on extreme proportions they become defining. More importantly, unchecked they become the way of things. They are all well set inside the DA.

I interact and talk to many, many people inside the DA. Of greater interest is that many, many people inside the DA talk to me of their own volition. And what is interesting about that, in turn, is that in a number of cases I was not on the best of terms with all of them inside the party while I was there.

From outside the party you get a fascinating perspective. You see the full extent of the unhappiness and discontent. People write to you and offer up opinions and encouragement in their hundreds. They express their deep resentment and even satisfaction with critical things you say, often from the least expected quarters. Make no mistake, there is a profound and fundamental division running deep through the DA. A civil war. Everyone talks about it all the time. The only people they don’t tell are South Africans. And the reason for that, as they will all tell you, is because they are scared.

The public record is replete with many and powerful examples of a deep and fundamental divide between Mazibuko and DA leader Helen Zille, as well as those aligned to her. It is a longstanding and powerful divide that has infiltrated not just the party’s representatives but also its staff. That situation is simply not tenable. In an environment where difference is isolated, marginalised and relentlessly persecuted the result is a kind of slow torture. Your political life is sucked from you. What you believe becomes the source of despair, not encouragement. You can be sure there are many others in the DA who feel the same way as Mazibuko — that their contribution is something to abandon, postpone or hide; not to be expressed, openly debated or, depending on its merits, celebrated.

The evidence for this is overwhelming. It appears from discussions with DA members that Zille had placed a party staffer loyal to her in charge of all parliamentary communication (an example of DA cadre deployment, the elected parliamentary leader of the opposition could not sign off the communication of her own caucus).

The relationship between those two became entirely politicised, with the head of communications, a staff member, relentlessly undermining Mazibuko’s communication and denuding those platforms available to her of their worth. Certainly they deteriorated to the point that they were irreconcilable.

Mazibuko’s staff have been systematically isolated and marginalised inside the party. Zille’s faction no doubt leaked correspondence to the media about the DA’s affirmative action foul up, damning Mazibuko. Later it was reported Zille would threaten to fire Mazibuko’s chief whip over the debacle, despite heading the caucus meeting where the initial decision took place. Her primary issue in the election campaign, Nkandla, would be given to Mmusi Maimane to drive on television and defend in court. And all the while, a campaign would be driven to elevate Maimane as a future leader of that caucus.

Mazibuko was sidelined out the DA’s election campaign, reduced to a bit player on posters, adverts and party events. It is true Mazibuko was sick for some of this time, but these kinds of decisions are made months in advance of the actual campaign.

In her place, a golden highway was paved for Maimane, Zille’s heir apparent and the ultimate yes-man. The party’s Gauteng campaign was used to create a platform for his progression and he will now, inevitably, be anointed parliamentary leader — the first time a DA politician has become parliamentary leader without ever serving in parliament, testament to Zille’s inability to maintain unity in her own caucus.

That decision, driven by Zille, was entirely political. There simply exists no evidence that Maimane’s favourability outweighed Mazibuko’s. Had the DA put just a small amount of money behind her, compared with the R100m it put behind Maimane, it would have had a disproportionately positive effect. Just as it would have had they used their combined superstars — including Patricia de Lille and Wilmot James — as it did in elections gone by. Its decision not to use them cannot be explained by any piece of marketing evidence; only by a desire to create a platform for one man and a political future for him.

The interests of the party became internal, not external. And it was done because Mazibuko did not see eye to eye with Zille on many things and posed a potential threat to her future control of the DA. Zille’s response to that, and the response of those loyal to her, was to hound Mazibuko out of the party. Those who did not hound, relented meekly before her.

But all of this pales when held up to the atmosphere: a toxic mix of resentment, anger, gossip and even hate. One might withstand all of the above if, at the end of the day, you felt there was some prospect things might change. Clearly not. You cannot lead a caucus in Parliament when the leader, outside Parliament, is set against you.

With Mazibuko’s departure, you can safely say there is no significant personality in the DA of any stature or standing, who can say no to Helen Zille.

In the other direction, however, there is a small but powerful cohort of acolytes around her that have built a career on saying yes. Mazibuko’s departure is a victory for them. They will be licking the blood off their lips. But you can be just as sure their deference has come at a high price: ignorance. They have lost the ability to introspect or to gauge the condition of the institution over which they preside. They cannot see the effect on the DA’s organisational culture because in their black and white universe, there are only friends and enemies. Their concern will not be the great loss to the DA that is Mazibuko’s departure but how best to further consolidate and entrench their position.

It has not always been this way. Ryan Coetzee was once able to act as a counterweight to Zille, possibly the only person able to make her change her mind on a significant matter or advocate a vision to which she was willing to subscribe. He too left.

This consequence, ignorance, is not to be underestimated. When a single, dominant and authoritarian personality is seemingly at the zenith of their powers, the truth is they are usually at their weakest. But they cannot see that. A yes-sir culture, supplemented by much fear, means the truth is kept from them. They are told only what they want to hear. Unhappiness wells outside the paradigm they have created for themselves. All of this is fuelled by an intense paranoia, which manifests in yet more authoritarianism and, thus, more fear, making the likelihood they will ever properly engage with reality all the more remote; that is, if anyone ever has the courage to present it to them in the first place.

For these people, there will be no lessons to learn from Mazibuko’s decision. Even the question of why studying was more an exciting prospect than leading the opposition in parliament will escape them. They are not interested in the answers to such questions outside of denying their legitimacy. Introspection has long since been replaced by post-rationalisation and, by that standard, things have never been better.

The DA knows this. It knows I know all its secrets. I know the truth. It has never had to deal with a journalist who has insight to and access to the party to the degree I do. It drives Zille crazy. For years it has grown fat off the leaks and discontent that have served to undermine the ANC. If I wanted, I could print every set of DA federal council minutes for the last year, its strategic plans and internal communications. But I don’t. Instead I try to present credible arguments, based on the DA’s public statements. I play fair. The DA will have none of it. It simply does not do criticism.

When reality is applied to it, you see the true colours of those in control: vengeful, personal, ad hominem, entirely unprepared or unwilling to deal with an argument or evidence. It simply cannot process the development. It cannot cope with it. It has become an extension of Zille’s personality. If that is its attitude to external criticism, imagine for a moment the potency of the poison that has infected it internally.

There was a small but telling insight into Helen Zille during the election campaign. At one point, she gave an interview in which she was asked about her role and Twitter and whether she considered it detrimental to the party’s image. In response, she said she had five people around her that she trusted most and described how they had, often stridently, tried to dissuade her from tweeting. She made much hay out of how much she encouraged and welcomed this sort of critical advice and then, seemingly oblivious to the irony, proceeded to describe how she had listened and dismissed it all, to carry on as she saw fit. And that is the DA’s current internal culture for you: the pretence of openness and difference masking the singled-minded will of one individual.

That is no environment for young talent to thrive or grow. It is how you alienate, marginalise and destroy it.

It is a testament to Mazibuko’s immense dignity and strength of character that she left in the way she did. Despite being viciously and brutally maligned and alienated inside the DA, she chose to leave with her head held high and not a single grudge to bear. Take a moment to appreciate the deep care and concern one must have for a cause to swallow so hard to protect the reputation of the one person who has effectively destroyed any positive outlook you once harboured.

Perhaps Mazibuko will return to the DA in Parliament. You can be sure the one consideration she will weigh against all others is whether it is environment in which she feels she will be valued and her contribution, whatever its merits, will be listened to. Not for the sake of listening itself, but with the prospect that it might actually influence the party’s direction. She will have to wait some considerable time. The forces at play are now deeply entrenched and there is much unhappiness to come over the next five years as they play themselves out.

This column was up briefly on the website early on Monday morning. In the interest of our and Gareth van Onselen’s editorial credibility, we agreed to make amendments that do not alter the substance of Gareth’s original column. Even in the case of external columnists, which Gareth is, we have to take care not to fall foul of the Press Code. By agreement between the Business Day and Gareth, we now publish this edited version.