As DA chief Mmusi Maimane faces increasing pressure and challenges to his leadership from within his own party, it appears that provincial leaders have thrown their support behind him.
Maimane’s leadership of the organisation is set to be under the spotlight when the party gathers for a crucial federal council meeting on October 18. It’s expected that the meeting will receive a review of the DA’s lacklustre performance at the polls in May, elect a new federal chairperson and possibly grapple with the issue of an early conference.
In recent weeks, Maimane has had to answer tough questions about his use of a hired vehicle and his home in Claremont.
On Sunday, Rapport revealed that Maimane drove around for months in a car gifted by disgraced former Steinhoff chief executive officer Markus Jooste, after indicating that it would be returned.
The Sunday Times reported that a senior member of parliament in the party had quizzed Maimane, demanding to see proof that he was indeed paying his own rent at his Cape Town home.
This follows claims in City Press reports that Maimane had declared a R4 million Claremont home in the parliamentary assets registry as his own, despite the house not belonging to him.
He, in turn, has claimed there is a smear campaign against him.
News24 spoke to several party insiders at both national and provincial level to make sense of the current divisions in the party, and their views on the storm currently brewing around Maimane.
A number of the senior party members said they believed there were some in the party working to discredit Maimane and create the perception that he is a “corrupt” leader in order to get rid of him, because they do not agree with the policies and ideas he is trying to implement.
One national leader said the controversy unfolding around their leader served as a good lesson for many, saying Maimane’s primary engagement with the party was at a leadership level, which meant his shortcomings were easily exposed.
“His biggest mistake was to think his political allies are his personal friends,” said the DA insider.
“He really thought people acted in good faith. That is not how it works,” added the national leader.
Several provincial leaders have told News24 they stand by Maimane, with some claiming the battle for federal chairperson has to be won by a leader who is his ally.
It’s understood the party is seeking to replace James Selfe, who returned to the role as the party’s federal council chair during the 2018 elective congress. He has since been moved to a governance unit.
The position, which is akin to the ANC’s secretary general post, is viewed as the political chief executive of the organisation and manages the agenda and discussions for numerous party structures.
Those who’ve thrown their weight behind Maimane believe he needs to work with someone who shares his vision.
“Mmusi needs someone strong to assist him achieve what we want for the party and the country. If the DA fails, South Africa fails… we won’t fail,” said one provincial leader who didn’t want to be named due to sensitivities around the matter.
He said many believed Athol Trollip, who is the current federal chairperson, was best suited for the role, claiming he would be able to both stabilise the DA, while protecting Maimane from his detractors in the party.
“There is a smear campaign and those behind it are making Mmusi seem corrupt. They are taking it to another level. You don’t oppose someone’s ideas like this,” continued the first provincial leader.
When News24 contacted Trollip to find out if he had been approached or would be available if nominated, he refused to comment.
Former head of policy Gwen Ngwenya has been touted as the ideal replacement for Selfe by some in the party, most notably from within the liberal bloc.
A national leader confirmed this to News24, explaining that “true liberals” had approached Ngwenya because they felt she was a better option, as she did not represent the “failure” attached to Maimane and his allies, who had failed to grow the party’s support during the May elections.
Ngwenya confirmed to News24 that she had been approached.
“All I can say is, yes I am aware of the possible nomination. I have been approached, but I haven’t made a decision. I am being honest… that’s all I can say… I have been approached, but have not made a decision,” Ngwenya told News24.
While DA KwaZulu-Natal head Zwakele Mncwango refused to discuss who should take over from Selfe, he said he believed Maimane.
“I was one of the provincial leaders who asked for his side of the story. I haven’t heard anyone give a different version or dispute Mmusi’s story,” he said to News24.
Mncwango said, while he did not blindly support Maimane, he was not willing to believe “faceless individuals” who were clearly attempting to destroy the party’s leader.
Another provincial leader, Jacques Smalle from Limpopo, said he understood there were some leaders, who he described as a “small group of people”, who didn’t share Maimane’s policy ideas and the direction he wanted to take the party in. Smalle said he believed elected leadership should be respected, even if people don’t necessarily agree with them.
“Elected leaders must be given some respect, allow them to bring changes and, if you don’t agree with those changes, you have the full right to try remove those leaders at the correct time, at the congress,” said the Limpopo head.
He also weighed in on calls for an early conference, saying provinces would also need to be ready for this to happen, and that he didn’t believe this was the case.
A fourth provincial leader, who also asked not to be named due to the sensitivities around the matter, said the resistance to Maimane was not just about differences in how to lead the party, but claimed some white liberals felt uncomfortable with his vision. The senior leader said that attempts to diversify the party were seen as driving an “anti-white” agenda.
“These people [Maimane’s critics] are hell-bent on removing black leadership. They feel there is no place for white males in the DA,” said the angry provincial chief.
He further claimed Maimane ruffled the feathers of some in the party by taking strong positions on controversial matters, including his predecessor Helen Zille’s tweets praising colonialism, Dianne Kohler Barnard for sharing a post praising apartheid era prime minister PW Botha, and for some of his public utterances about black poverty and white privilege.
The provincial leader said it appeared the end game was to push for an early congress so the party could dump Maimane as leader in favour of John Steenhuisen, who would serve alongside the likes of Geordin Hill-Lewis, Solly Msimanga and Thomas Walters.
Steinhuisen has denied the claims, saying it was rumour-mongering.
“It’s completely ridiculous. I am his chief whip in parliament. My duty is to support Mmusi. Why would I be involved in a campaign against him? I have everything to lose,” said Steenhuisen to News24.
Hill-Lewis, who once served as Maimane’s chief of staff, has been accused by some of being the “mastermind” behind the leaks.
He dismissed the allegations as “complete rubbish”.
“Those claims are nonsense. I have nothing to do with the leaks and I am very sad to see what they are doing to the party’s reputation and our brand,” Hill-Lewis said.
The second provincial leader News24 spoke to said several people were being used to wage war against Maimane.
“You have bitter people like Mike Waters and useful idiots like Ghaleb Cachalia being used to go after Mmusi… I honestly hate that they are going after him and destroying the party at the same time.”
Waters told News24 he had been barred from commenting to the media, while Cachalia and Msimanga also dismissed the claims made against them.
“I haven’t been approached by anybody and find what is happening now more disturbing than anything else,” said Msimanga.
“I am not part of any discussion or on any slate,” said Msimanga, who is the former mayor of Tshwane.
Walters has also been mentioned as a possible third contender in the race for the role of chairperson of the federal council. He’s been accused of mobilising the “racial nationalists” in the party to get behind him instead of Trollip and Ngwenya.
Walters refused to comment when called by News24.
“I don’t comment on party contestation in the media,” he said.
While some believe the provincial bosses, along with their deputies and the leaders from their respective provincial legislatures, are powerful enough to save Maimane, one senior DA leader raised doubts about their influence, saying they tended to overestimate their power. He said they may not have the clout to help Maimane win the battle for the soul of the DA.