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It was an uncomfortable few days for the Democratic Alliance (DA) after this week’s public spat between former party leader Tony Leon and Joburg mayor Mpho Phalatse – and it raises the question of whether all is well within the official opposition.
DA federal chair Helen Zille tried to mend fences and reached out to Phalatse in support, as did Umgeni mayor Chris Pappas, indicating the tensions in the party were between the old guard and its new blood.
In response to the mini brawl on Twitter, Zille tweeted: “All addressed. This internal conversation should not have been initiated on a public platform.”
But political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga’s view was that Leon was on the money.
“Tony’s comments were not just about potholes,” he said.
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He suggested that between the lines were messages of action, and not just filling pockmarks in the streets, but fixing the party.
A senior party member in Gauteng, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Citizen the incident showed murmurs of a rift inside the party. There are two factions in the official opposition, the member said, the left-wing “wokes”, as they are labelled and the “liberals” in its founding tradition of Helen Suzman’s politics. And the gap was widening.
Mathekga said Leon’s politics represent the DA’s founding idealism and while it may not be agreeable to all, he was the leader who laid the foundation of its success and then cemented its reputation.
Russel Crystal, former deputy executive director of the DA under Leon, did not believe the party was plagued by factionalist camps any longer. Instead, he said, the DA had become a party of people more concerned with their own positions and holding office than the party and its principles.
Fix potholes and traffic lights and pavements that far more than strategic planning sessions will win the allegiance of your voters— Tony Leon (@TonyLeonSA) June 5, 2022
DA leader John Steenhuisen’s witty tweet of President Cyril Ramaphosa and a Grafton Everest couch this week also showed a flip-flop in principle, said Crystal.
“Last year, Steenhuisen said he was willing to work in coalition with an ANC government where Ramaphosa was in power. Now that there is a measure of doubt about the president’s future, he is relegated to ‘putting the graft into Grafton Everest’.
“The DA is no longer a party of principle. It’s now a party of personal position and power.”
Mathekga believed the DA was at risk if it did not find its centre.
“Tony pointed out it has become an anticorruption party, which is all fair and well, but it cannot be the only thing you do. It is the law of diminishing returns.”
He failed to see any strategic impetus beyond party activities in the Western Cape, which may bite the party where it hurts most, at the ballot.
Crystal criticised Phalatse: “The DA mayor of Joburg exemplifies the God complex rife in the organisation today.”
Keep on keeping on Mpho. You have the toughest job in South Africa. No-one else, ever, has managed a 9-party coalition, keeping their caucus behind them while trying to fix a broken City. We back you 100%.— Helen Zille (@helenzille) June 6, 2022
Phalatse, who previously hinted she was elected as mayor courtesy of a higher power, appeared impervious to advice, no matter how sound or from whom, “not even from the creator [Leon] of the momentum that she now lives and exists off,” he said.
Crystal doesn’t expect it to dramatically collapse. Instead, he said, it will be a slow process of attrition unless it finally wakes up.
“But even after the massive loss of votes in both previous national and local government elections [allegedly a million-plus between 2016 and last year], there still has not been a rude awakening.
“It makes one wonder whether there will be a realisation in time for the party to re-establish itself as a truly viable alternative to the ANC.”