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

ON May 12 I wrote a column titled "The real reasons Mazibuko left the DA parliamentary leadership". It set out an alternative analysis of why Lindiwe Mazibuko left the Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentary caucus, instead of contesting the leadership. Since then, many things have spilled out of the party, much of them hysterical. Now that there is relative calm, how does that original analysis rationally hold up against these developments?

The column set out four negative characteristics of the DA’s internal culture — a consequence, it argued, of the authoritarian and dominant personality its leader Helen Zille has become. It made the case that these were "the real reasons" for Mazibuko’s departure. It suggested the choice to leave was understandable because her situation was untenable.

The argument was viciously derided by some DA members, none more so than Zille herself. The overwhelming majority of this criticism was ad hominem, paranoid and at times defamatory. While the DA’s response speaks powerfully to some of the characteristics ascribed to it in the original analysis, I shall focus on testing the case put forward by the party.

Zille has now publicly confirmed there was a fundamental breakdown in her relationship with Mazibuko. Zille’s most telling description of the problem was in an interview with Redi Thlabi on Talk Radio 702 on May 19, when she said:

"I think what probably went wrong is that Lindiwe was surrounded by advisers in that caucus who tried to make her believe that she should only take her own decisions and take autonomous decisions, which is fine, but without reference to broader party interests, and that caused very, very serious problems and tensions. It caused major, major issues around the quota bill, it caused many, many tensions and problems about the land issues and around other conferences that were held in Parliament; and these things built up massive tension. And the more I tried to open lines of communication, the more they were … the Berlin wall came down and that was a very, very, very great problem for us, and I was doing my very best to resolve them, to ensure that Lindiwe did succeed, but it was problematic and that is why the caucus was going to move (against Lindiwe) and I really did my best to resolve the factionalism in the caucus and support Lindiwe, and that is a matter of public record."

These are not marginal, but extreme issues, as Zille’s many adverbs confirm. The original argument posited that Zille was responsible. Zille argued Mazibuko was. But the first point, indisputable and described in powerful terms by Zille herself, is that there was a serious and fundamental breakdown in their relationship. This was evidently kept from the public prior to its revelation by Zille. So, it was perfectly correct to suggest there were "real", unstated reasons for Mazibuko’s departure. The only point of difference now is the cause.

The accusations Zille makes against Mazibuko are serious. She suggests the party’s decision to support affirmative action and land legislation, and the decision by caucus members to keep silent on a virulently anti-Israel declaration, were a consequence of Mazibuko condoning, if not directing, those members to take those positions, because she was trying to be autonomous. In other words Zille suggests Mazibuko sabotaged party policy. It is curious Zille would offer someone with these profound problems the premiership of the province responsible for the biggest economic hub in Africa. (Likewise, that Zille should believe the premiership was hers to offer. The party votes on such things.)

Zille’s explanation in the 702 interview stands in stark contrast to her previous explanations about decisions of the caucus she leads. She is on record as suggesting the mistakes were the consequence of incompetent MPs, out of their depth, or of internal systems that failed. She has never publicly put Mazibuko’s leadership at the heart of the problem, until now.

Quite the opposite. Publicly, she would say she had full confidence in her leadership. It is ironic that Zille would so powerfully attack Mazibuko’s competence in an interview that focused primarily on her denying she ever attacked Mazibuko at the party’s federal executive: "I certainly never launched a public attack on Lindiwe Mazibuko", she said in the 702 interview, "I would never do such a thing". But her denial constituted just that.

Significantly, Zille also stated in the interview that these problems had "absolutely nothing to do with my leadership style". In other words, she did her best and Mazibuko went rogue. She appears to believe every fault line in their dysfunctional relationship can be attributed to Mazibuko and her advisers, and that she was blameless. Ironically, in a separate interview on Power FM, she said "the buck stops with me as the leader" and, as such, she "takes responsibility" for failures. Clearly not in this case.

Now that Zille agrees there was a problem, previously unarticulated, let us look at the other main points put forward – the argument that Zille was to blame.

With regard to the first component of that argument, the original analysis argued that the DA has become overly politicised. Its staff, which should be neutral, has taken sides, and its public representatives now rise or fall by their allegiance to a centre of power.

In the week following the original column, Zille said she regarded factionalism in the party as so widespread and such a powerful potential threat to its future she felt obliged to stay on for another term as leader. A story in Die Burger read: "Zille told Die Burger on Tuesday that if she announced her intention to retire now, faction forming in the party would escalate. Due to this, she would probably make herself available again as party leader to prevent such an issue ahead of the critical 2016 municipal elections".

This is a curious position to take when, in a separate interview on Power FM, she said: "I don’t think we have ever been more focused, more united and had a better collegial spirit." So united, it would seem, a natural change in power might well lead to a party meltdown.

Zille also admitted in a Mail&Guardian interview that she would not get involved in parliamentary leadership elections in future. The M&G story read: "She swore never to campaign for another parliamentary leader after the damage caused by her support for Mazibuko". Things have clearly deteriorated on her watch. When Mazibuko was elected in 2011, Zille said: "When a candidate loses an election in the DA they are not driven out of the party, they are valued for the contribution they can make and sometimes we agree and disagree with each other; there are no permanent camps." Now the very excuse Zille publicly offers up for the Mazibuko debacle is that: "She would have lost the election in that caucus".

Zille’s new, detached attitude to the election comes a little late. The Sunday Times reported that her attitude to Mmusi Maimane being the next parliamentary leader suggested a fait accompli. It stated: "Zille told the meeting that because she knew Maimane was not experienced enough to be parliamentary leader, the executive had to decide on a strong team to support him. She also disclosed that she had asked the (chair of the DA federal council James) Selfe to be the leader for a year and then let Maimane take over, but Selfe had been unwilling." Significantly, Zille did not deny any of this in her substantial rebuttal. Her preference before and after the meeting, then, means the heavy weight of her hand, perceived or otherwise, will be difficult to lift from the race.

All these problems point to an environment fundamentally fractured and from whose centre she cannot detach herself.

The second negative characteristic described was that dishonesty has become prevalent. All the fall-out to that original piece has confirmed this, defined as it has been by leaking, counter-leaking, name-calling, suspicion, paranoia, revenge and threats. It has been a shabby, childish showing from the party the past two weeks.

A primary source of these leaks is the DA federal executive, various members of which provided the Sunday Times a series of quotes from its post-election meeting at which the Mazibuko affair was discussed. Among them was a description of Zille being highly critical of Mazibuko. Zille denies this and says the story was part of an agenda between factionalised journalists and disgruntled DA members. This hardly matters. The point is, one of the DA’s highest decision-making structures is leaking information. That is a problem for the DA, not the media.

But there are other leaks. Someone who probably came from Zille’s camp, leaked to the Cape Times a federal executive e-mail exchange that revealed animosity between Gavin Davis, federal chairman Wilmot James and Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip, and at the centre of that was, you guessed it, more leaking. So both sides are at each other’s throats, leaking and counter-leaking.

Curiously, Zille, who went as far as to pen a statement on the DA’s website about factionalised journalism, and requested meeting with the Business Day and Sunday Times editors as a result of my column, has said not a word about the Cape Times or the journalist who wrote that story. You have to ask why. Could it be that the leak to the Cape Times suited her agenda?

But look past the paranoid journalism claims for a moment, what Zille is in effect saying is that members of her own federal executive are conspiring against her. If she is correct, multiple sources giving the same version of events can only point to a conspiracy. Of course Zille would never reach this critical conclusion, only imply it, because that would give the game away. Better to focus on the journalists.

But there is suspicion — and evidence — of paranoia. Davis’s first inclination, in his response to my column, was to suggest Mazibuko had commissioned it: "It is highly unlikely he would not have consulted her on his column before it was published," he wrote. She did not, but this is the kind of thinking dominating Zille’s inner circle. Such a statement is hardly evidence of trust in Mazibuko either.

Then there were allegations that a lunch I had with a friend — and colleague of Mazibuko — was evidence I had been "briefed" on her departure. Again, no evidence was provided for this, because there is none. It's not true. More paranoia, this time directed against those aligned to Mazibuko.

The conference Zille points to as a source of "many, many tensions" in her 702 interview was a parliamentary conference on Palestine, the declaration of which the DA in effect endorsed through its silence, angering the Jewish community. But that story came from me, in this column. Surely that is a rather odd thing to do, if I am being "run" by Mazibuko, as Zille alleged on Justice Factor? Why cause problems for the very person whose agenda I am supposedly promoting? How can you reason with someone who sees the very opposite of what she claims as evidence for what she claims? It’s mad. Mazibuko did well in the past two and half years.

One of the DA’s favourite claims, which is false, is that this column is obsessed with it. The facts say otherwise. Of 175 columns written on political parties this year in this space, just 18% of have been on the DA. By comparison, 71% have been on the African National Congress (ANC). If the DA wants to be treated like an alternative government it must learn to get used to scrutiny and not go off the deep end when put under the microscope. There is a strong case to be made that, despite all its media hostility, the ANC is a more democratic, tolerant force in this regard than the DA.

Now, any political party naturally has these elements to it, but this is extreme: a leader who believes members of her own federal executive are conspiring with journalists against her, leaks, counter-leaks, mutual abuse of colleagues on the mailing list of the party’s elite leadership, plots everywhere, a lack of trust, the bona fides of senior leaders mistrusted, the breakdown in internal relationships. This looks more like an edition of Heat magazine than a healthy political party.

The third negative characteristic described was the DA has become fearful. Zille has gone out of her way not to contest this argument, but to try and crush both the author and the subject of it. The DA has 4-million supporters. However well read that column was, only a fraction of its members would have seen it. Yet Zille’s response to a single column was akin to dropping a nuclear bomb.

It was a spectacularly disproportionate response. This column can hardly be described as the most powerful and influential journalistic force in the country. It is just one online opinion among many. So why go nuclear?

Aside from the fact that it was the truth, the next most obvious reason is that the DA leader just doesn’t like criticism. What she tries to do, in rather ineffective fashion, is bully. She will have to muscle up. All she did in this case was demonstrate how weak she is: how the party hangs by a thread and her departure would induce implosion, how hypersensitive and intolerant she is, how distrusting and paranoid her attitude has become and how she has lost all sense of proportion. These are leadership failures, not strengths. An institution should be stronger when a leader leaves, not on the verge of collapse.

The fourth negative characteristic described was that the party has lost the ability to introspect:

Although the party’s behaviour in response to the original column confirms pretty much everything argued, Zille and those who would represent it, have not conceded an inch. It has acknowledged problems only with the purpose of assigning blame or to avoid examining the cause.

What the past 10 days or so demonstrate is the DA is now incapable of introspection. Zille simply will not allow it. If this is how she responds to external criticism, just imagine the intimidating way in which she must crush dissent internally.

In conclusion, perhaps the greatest irony of this is captured by the phrase "speaking truth to power", a perennial favourite of the DA’s. How bravely it repeatedly evokes that phrase in public as it paints a picture of itself as a noble and principled force for good in the face of the ANC behemoth. But behind the scenes, and with rare exceptions, there are mice running the show. They cower and squeak in front of Zille.

But they don’t behave like that solely because they are weak. They do so because of one single and profound misunderstanding: the belief that the lie on which the DA is now built must be maintained to protect the party and South Africa in turn. They believe one must not show any sign of discord, or risk the good of the project.

How arrogant. And how wrong. There is no organisation in history that has thrived by containing and suppressing dissent. If anything, the opposite it true: it wells up like some unstoppable force and, when the dam wall breaks, the destruction it wreaks is so much more devastating. The truth is, the DA is harming itself and South Africa by masking its cowardice under a veil of ostensible bravery.

But the DA must discover that for itself. At the end of the day you cannot stop any organisation from being its authentic self. Its authentic self and the behaviour of its leader that has unfolded as a response to my column has certainly proved the thesis correct. We will have to watch the DA over the next five years to see where it all ends.

I am on leave but felt it necessary to put these recent developments into context. I shall return in August.