Helen Zille DA

Image via Facebook: @HelenZille

Helen Zille sets out DA’s road to recovery – talks race, EFF and more

Helen Zille is in charge of the official opposition, irrespective of which position she fills, writes Jan Jan Joubert.

Helen Zille DA

Image via Facebook: @HelenZille

Acting DA leader Helen Zille addressed her first public meeting since her dramatic return to politics ten days ago, and sent a very strong signal that she will be a force to be reckoned with.

She addressed the Cape Town Press Club at Kelvin Grove in Newlands on Thursday afternoon.

Zille started her address with a slow and detailed account of her version of what transpired in the DA over the past ten days.

Calls of a crisis ‘debunked’

She believes that the resignation of the party leader, the party’s federal chairperson and the mayor of the country’s largest city does not constitute a crisis in the DA and takes a dim view of the way the media has reported on the events.

According to her, there are only two worthwhile political analysts in South African media – Rapport editor Waldimar Pelser and PoliticsWeb editor James Myburgh.

The rest are only worth reading to understand why their readership is so uninformed, Zille opined.

According to her, until recently, the DA was constrained by poor leadership, but market research shows that in the past week the party’s support started rising again. She said the fact that each of the DA’s nine provincial leaders publically opposed her candidature for DA federal chairperson but she still won, shows that the provincial leaders have lost touch with DA supporters.

Importantly, she was asked by a journalist, whether there is any chance that she would avail herself as a candidate to become overall DA party leader at the DA federal congress in April. Zille was unequivocal that the answer to that question is “no” because she believes one should not return to again hold a position you had held before.

Interesting as that undertaking by Zille may be, only a fool would consider it binding.

For Zille, the most important lodestars for the DA’s future must be that the DA must unequivocally be the party of non-racialism, excellent and strict governance and the market economy, and that it must be outspoken in those beliefs so that no-one has reason to even wonder whether the DA is a diluted version of the ANC.

The differences between Helen Zille and John Steenhuisen

Although Zille again made a point of promising that she will “stay in my lane” – meaning that she will not be the power behind the throne but will allow whoever becomes DA leader to truly lead – and although she told the audience that her new job was mainly to ensure that the DA organisational machine returns to being a creature of excellence, she made a very specific point in her speech of stating several key issues of policy and strategy where she differs from her parliamentary leader, John Steenhuisen, who is also currently the only declared candidate to become party leader.

Two of these differences are quite fundamental. 

The role of race

The first is that Zille believes race must play no role in DA policy or in the DA internally.

For instance, in addition to her belief that race is not a proxy for disadvantage, she believes – and holds that this should be stated DA policy – that race must play no role in determining relative disadvantage.

In contrast, Steenhuisen believes that although race cannot determine disadvantage, it would be tone deaf, factually inaccurate and ahistorical to deny that poverty levels among the vast majority of black South Africans are much worse than the poverty level among the vast majority of white South Africans, primarily because of the systemic racial discrimination of the past.

For what it is worth, on both race and working with the EFF, Steenhuisen stated current official DA policy whereas Zille contradicted DA policy.

Zille went so far as to say in her opinion the biggest mistake she made when she was DA leader was that she focused on ensuring that the DA gets black leaders.

She is now of changed mind, believing race has no role in politics.

The DA’s relationship with the EFF

The second major point on which she differs with Steenhuisen is that she believes the DA should not cooperate with the EFF in municipal governments in Gauteng and Limpopo because she feels the DA has nothing in common with the EFF.

Steenhuisen’s view is that although working with the EFF is really tough and challenging from a DA perspective, it must continue because if it ceases, the only alternatives for those who live in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Thabazimbi and Modimolle (Nylstroom) are either the emergence of ANC/EFF coalition governments, which would probably be the worst possible disaster for the interests of DA voters in those municipalities, or alternatively a situation where no-one can form an effective government, which will result in utter chaos and service delivery paralysis.

During question time, respected academic Prof. Anthony Butler asked from the audience what the impact of such fundamental differences between her and her parliamentary leader, Zille said the DA policy conference early next year will decide which view the DA will implement.

Much as the content of her speech was important, the other aspect of great interest to political analysts regarding her speech at Kelvin Grove was which indications it might give regarding the power relations since the recent dramatic changes in the composition of the party’s top leadership.

‘Helen Zille calls the shots in the DA’ 

Much as it may or may not have been her intention to upstage, weaken or undermine Steenhuisen as parliamentary leader or prospective party leader, her long and detailed speech to a truly packed, demonstrably enthusiastic and devotedly supportive audience at Kelvin Grove, the heart of Cape Town’s English liberal establishment, the differences between her speech and Steenhuisen’s speech three days earlier on precisely the same topic at precisely the same venue to many of the same people proved a fascinating early indication of where the true power in the changed DA might well lie.

And maybe Zille did not intend her speech as a show of force (but maybe she did), but whatever her intention, no-one who attended both Steenhuisen’s and Zille’s events can have any doubt of the true power relations in the official opposition. Know this: Helen Zille calls the shots in the DA. She is in charge irrespective of which official position she fills.

To decide whether the contrast in the Kelvin Grove response to Zille as opposed to Steenhuisen matters, it is important to know what normally constitutes a Cape Town Press Club audience and what it represents – politically, socially, intellectually and financially.

Although Cape Town Press Club events excel in its official role of giving working journalists access to important newsmakers, expert advice, important announcements and authors whose books matter in the national discourse, the overwhelming majority of members, financial backers and audience members, are about 98% white, 95% English speaking, 85% older than 60 years, mostly very wealthy, largely very well educated, and 99% DA supporting.

In short, many would argue they are quite representative of the cream of the Cape Town white English establishment.

Zille receives standing applause

The first important difference between Steenhuisen’s event and Zille’s was that Zille’s audience was exponentially larger – she pulled more people. That means that more people were prepared to pay R300 to listen to her vision than to his, to such an extent that the largest hall in the complex was filled to overflowing for Zille, while Steenhuisen’s event had a strong turnout, but could be hosted in a side room which was not nearly filled to capacity.

The second important point to note was the difference in audience reaction to the two speakers. Steenhuisen was given a supportive and friendly hearing, but Zille’s speech drew several outpourings of spontaneous applause, and at the conclusion of her speech many audience members erupted in standing applause.

The third important difference was in the style of the two speakers.

Steenhuisen made a speech, while Zille’s performance was almost like an intimate fireside chat. She was so much more at home. To be fair, geographically this is her home community – the home they lived in for decades is about four kilometres away, her church congregation is just up the road and the school her children attended is a stone’s throw away.

Steenhuisen, on the other hand is a Durban boikie – a different kettle of fish.

Be that as it may, the message from this week’s two DA Kelvin Grove events is clear – Zille is back and whoever crosses her in the DA will probably regret it.  Others may be elected DA leader, but for the foreseeable future, DA political power resides with Zille, and she is at liberty to wield that power as she sees fit.