Adriaan Basson: It's war in the DA between 'laptop boys' and 'Bruma boys'
The Democratic Alliance is at risk of being paralysed by
low-intensity warfare between the "laptop boys" – a grouping rallying
behind what they deem to be the party's "liberal core" – and the "Bruma
boys" – the party's corporate leaders based at its glitzy new Johannesburg
Less than a year before the party will challenge the ANC for power in national and provincial elections, DA leader Mmusi Maimane is stuck in the middle of a brutal battle for his ear between the two opposing camps.
The tension between them burst into the public domain this week when News24 revealed the party's federal executive committee had rejected race as a determinant for economic redress as the party prepares its policy documents in anticipation of the election.
A frantic scramble ensued after DA leaders started contradicting each other on social media and in public about dropping the "B" from BEE. The party ended up forcing Gwen Ngwenya, a newbie in the DA and head of policy, and party veteran James Selfe to issue a joint statement, displaying a united front.
After speaking to several DA leaders in the wake of the fallout over the BEE debate and the handling of the Patricia de Lille matter, the cracks are clear.
This week should have been a godsend to the official opposition, that governs the Western Cape, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.
Ramaphoria was officially over when President Cyril Ramaphosa gave in to the populists in his party over constitutional amendments of the property clause and the world took note. The influential Wall Street Journal wrote a scathing editorial about this, comparing Ramaphosa's policy to that of Zimbabwe and Venezuela.
The gift to the DA didn't stop there: The world's most important newspaper, the New York Times, sent two journalists to Mpumalanga to dig up the skeletons in Deputy President David "DD" Mabuza's closet, which they published in a double-page spread on the weekend.
In terms of publicity, it doesn't get better than this. One would have assumed that the DA would be all over the show, issuing press releases, holding press conferences and tweeting away at the negative global press its nemesis, the ANC, received.
But, not a bleep. Instead, the party was devouring itself over its mismanagement of the De Lille matter, that alienated thousands of previous and potential votes, and the miscommunication of its new economic policy.
In the one corner is the "laptop boys", a grouping that believes the DA has drifted too far away from its "liberal values" and that it should champion free market policies and non-racialism in a clear break from the politics of the ANC.
This grouping includes communications czar Gavin Davis; MP and influential strategist Geordin Hill-Lewis; MP Michael Cardo and Ngwenya, who is emerging as the face of the "laptop boys". Chief whip John Steenhuisen and MP Dean Macpherson are said to be sympathetic to this group.
Ngwenya was sworn in as a DA MP in February this year after leaving her position as chief operating officer of the conservative think-tank, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR). It is well-known in the party that Ngwenya maintains very close relationships with IRR CEO Frans Cronjé and Gareth van Onselen, a former DA staffer who now heads up politics and governance at the institute.
There are fears that the IRR has an unhealthy influence over DA policies with Ngwenya's appointment as head of policy.
Those opposing the "laptop boys" believe that their ultimate goal is to unseat Maimane, federal chairperson James Selfe and DA CEO Paul Boughey, and replace them with their own people.
"They are actually working against the party. This (the BEE debate) was a carefully coordinated campaign to move the party to the right. They want to control Mmusi, but he is no longer listening to them," said one DA MP.
The "laptop boys" believe the party has moved too close to the ANC and want to consolidate its "core support base", which those opposing them interpret as a move to pander to white voters.
The "laptop boys", say those in the know, are opposed by the "Bruma boys": Boughey, campaigns director Jonathan Moakes and polling kingpin Johan van der Berg and his team of researchers and scientists.
This party moved its head office to Johannesburg earlier this year in an attempt to establish itself as a national party with regional presence. The party's "war room", that continuously polls the electorate on various issues, was part of the move.
Selfe is associated with the "Bruma boys" and accused of trying to use data and polling to determine the party's reaction to "every single thing".
Boughey is De Lille's former head of staff and Moakes and Van der Berg are party veterans. They are accused of "over-corporatising" the party, using data from polling and social media to determine what the DA should react to and what not.
One such decision was polling that showed Selfe and Steenhuisen were receiving too much media attention and should stand back for Maimane.
Critics of the "Bruma boys" blame them for the party's perceived indecision and slow reaction to key ANC blunders of late. "They keep on saying black voters don't want more ANC negativity from the DA. Then what are we if we cannot criticise the ANC?" asked an MP.
The poor handling of the De Lille matter is a bone of contention for both groupings, with the "laptop boys" blaming Selfe, who drove the legal proceedings. But Selfe's defenders say it is completely unfair to single him out – the De Lille approach was a collective decision by the federal executive and ultimately they should take responsibility for it.
Tension in political parties is normal, but this could be catastrophic for Maimane's chances to top the 22.2% his party scored in 2014 if he doesn't take charge of the situation in an election year.
- Basson is editor-in-chief of News24. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanBasson