ANALYSIS: Seeds of DA discontent were sown in 2015

It was a surprisingly cold Sunday in April 2015 when Helen Zille announced her intention to stand down as leader of the DA.

She had been nominated unopposed and her re-election as leader of the party she inherited from Tony Leon in 2007 would have been a formality at the DA's congress in May.

But she calculated that even though the party had just produced its strongest result ever in a general election the year before, breaching four million votes which translated to 22,23% of support and 89 seats in the National Assembly, it had to reset itself if it really wanted to challenge the ANC.

It could not contest the following year's municipal elections with a white triumvirate at the top of the ticket; it needed to show there had been tangible and visible progress in ensuring diversity of leadership if it wanted to make inroads into an increasingly disgruntled ANC electorate.

READ: Helen Zille's time has come and gone - Athol Trollip

But Athol Trollip, the ambitious and slighted DA leader in the Eastern Cape, was not to be denied the national platform he lost in 2011, when he was defeated in the election for parliamentary leader by Zille's then-protégé, Lindiwe Mazibuko. He was challenging the erudite and soft-spoken academic Wilmot James for the position of federal chairperson, and indications were he was going to win hands-down.


With James Selfe remaining as chairperson of the federal executive, Zille told her inner-circle, there would be enough fodder for the race-nationalists to attack the DA with. Besides, she would remain as premier of the Western Cape and wouldn't abandon the party. Whomever took over as leader – preferably Maimane – she'd be a heartbeat away if ever there was a crisis.

So, with Trollip refusing the stand down and determined to right the wrong that he believed he suffered at the hands of Zille and Selfe, the steady hand that guided the party, Zille announced she would step down.

On that cold Sunday in April 2015, in the Diamond A conference room at the City Lodge Hotel that abuts OR Tambo International Airport, a reluctant but convinced Zille told the media "the best time to go is when people want you to stay".

Maimane, a relative novice in politics and the party, was duly elected by a landslide less than a month later at the party's federal congress in Port Elizabeth. Zille's wish had been granted. While her departure was, by her own admission, earlier than she would have wanted, she helped to engineer a leap forward. The DA now had its first black leader who many believed was charming, charismatic and committed to the cause.


The DA's 2015 leadership election was an unnatural event. Zille's hand was forced when she clearly wasn't ready to vacate the position – and the fact that she was nominated unopposed is evidence of that. The debacle with Mazibuko's departure from the position of parliamentary leader earlier also certainly played a role. Mazibuko was earmarked as a possible successor to Zille and her elevation to parliamentary leader was supposed to be the springboard from where her career as DA leader was to be launched.

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But Mazibuko was unable to traverse the prevailing culture in the party, which held that race should not be a determining factor, and an emerging pragmatism, which sought to move race closer to the centre of party ideology. She quit as parliamentary leader shortly before the 2014 general election, famously announcing her decision to the Sunday Times before she told Zille.

With Trollip not playing ball, Mazibuko having left and an election looming, (one in which it was imperative for the DA to break out from the Western Cape) Zille and the DA had to make a call. Change was engineered. Maimane was installed.

Four years later, with Nelson Mandela Bay lost to the opposition, an alliance with the EFF in Johannesburg, a Tshwane Metro in disarray and the worst general election result in 20 years, it's clear that Zille regrets her decision. She asked the party to elect her as federal chairperson to begin a recovery process.

The party will soon decide whether it wants her back.