“Independent” panel clears the way for Steenhuisen?

What do you get when you combine a “reputation manager”, a political adviser and a banker? The crisis in the DA started with an “independent review” commissioned by party leader Mmusi Maimane after the disappointing May 2019 election result. Maimane asked former DA electoral strategist Ryan Coetzee to chair the panel, and persuaded former party leader Tony Leon and banker Michiel le Roux to make up a three-man panel.

The panel’s report is clear and decisive. Readers of the full document may, however, have concern about the panel’s composition and how it reached its conclusions. Coetzee and Leon enjoyed remarkable electoral success, at least among white and coloured voters. Leon now chairs a lobbying and “reputation-management” outfit. Ominously for Maimane, its website promises that “we change people’s minds about you”.

Le Roux is a founder of Capitec Bank, and Forbes puts his net wealth at $1.3bn (R19bn). It can be assumed that he is a significant donor to the DA. Given recent party funding legislation and the rise of a business-friendly Cyril Ramaphosa to the presidency, the loyalty of donors has become a crucial challenge.

The panel focuses on the DA’s recent electoral performance, ignoring the successes under Maimane in the 2016 local government elections and gnashing their teeth over the small decline in the DA’s vote in May’s national elections, from 22.2% in 2014 to 20.7% in 2019.

This was scarcely a disaster in the context of Ramaphosa’s arrival, and the DA crucially continued to build support among black South Africans. The significance of the loss of some white voters is easily overstated because parties to the right remain natural DA coalition partners.

Why Maimane is to blame, meanwhile, is not explained. The report posits various factors outside his control: Helen Zille’s “colonialism” tweets, the shenanigans of Patricia de Lille, the water crisis in Cape Town and the Schweizer-Reneke controversy.

Instead the panel forefronts criticism of the party’s leadership drawn from 200 voluntary submissions and meetings with party activists. On the basis of these materials, its report concludes that Maimane was indecisive, inconsistent and conflict averse. These personal deficiencies resulted in confusion, disunity, and a lack of vision or direction.

Much of this confusion and disharmony, the report notes, arose on the issue of race. This manifested itself in incoherent “philosophical” views. At one point the panel helpfully provides what appears to be an advanced undergraduate essay on concepts such as “the individual”, nonracialism, redress, diversity and representivity.

There is strong criticism of the DA’s muddled economic and social policies with a demand for “a well-structured policy development programme to give effect to its vision for SA, that it is both values driven and evidence based”.

If race is such a problematic issue in internal DA politics, it would surely have been sensible to appoint a more diverse panel to investigate the many dimensions of the problem, and to elicit the genuine views of party activists and officials, black and white, women and men? “Diversity”, after all, is one of the DA’s ostensible core values.

Moreover, the DA’s constitution hamstrings the federal leader, and denies him the right to express views on policy. The leader can speak only when a matter is “urgent” and the federal congress, federal council and federal executive are not in session.

His comments must be consistent with the DA’s labyrinthine framework of values and principles and its wishy-washy programme of action. The obstacles to clear thinking on race and policy are actually built into the DA’s constitution.

The report argues that “those ultimately responsible for the leadership and management of the party — the leader, chair of federal council and CEO — [should] step down and make way for new leadership.”

CEO Paul Boughey gamely resigned, and had praise heaped on him by the panel. Chief whip John Steenhuisen was curiously exempted from the resignation call. James Selfe, chair of the federal council, had already decided to step down and take on a fresh role. The result was to leave Maimane stranded.

Then along came Zille: the best-laid plans of mice and DA men often go awry.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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