On October 23, Mmusi Maimane resigned as the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA). His resignation was preceded by that of the DA mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba on October 21, and immediately followed by that of the party’s federal chairperson, Athol Trollip. Maimane resigned from parliament on October 24. The slew of high-profile DA resignations can be viewed in the context of the resignation of former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille in 2018. Maimane’s resignation appears to have been triggered by an internal DA finding that he bore heavy personal responsibility for the party’s poor showing in the May 2019 elections, though the context for his and the other party resignations appears to be race.
A quarter-century after the end of apartheid, most whites enjoy a standard of living common to developed countries, while most black South Africans remain poor, despite the emergence of a handful of black millionaires and a slowly growing black middle class. Maimane and Mashaba are black, de Lille is Coloured (the largest racial group in Cape Town.) Mashaba and de Lille have explicitly complained that a white cabal within the party has worked against their efforts on behalf of “transformation” that could address black poverty and make the party more attractive to the black majority.
Helen Zille, the white former mayor of Cape Town and premier of the Western Cape in 2017 had been ostracized by the DA over her comment that colonialism was not “all bad.” But she was just elected the party’s federal council chairperson, a senior position. Her return is seen by commentators as a sign that the DA is moving to the right and becoming more explicitly the party of white interests. Mashaba tied his resignation to her rise: “The election of Zille as chair of the federal council is a victory for people opposed to my belief systems.” He added, “I cannot reconcile myself with people who believe that race is not important in their discussion of inequalities.”
Historically, the DA has been the “white” party, and most of its electoral support has come from whites, Coloureds, and Asians. Together those racial minorities are about 20 percent of South Africa’s population, and the DA’s share of the national vote has been between 20 and 22 percent in the last two national elections. Voting continues to be largely along racial lines in South Africa, with blacks (perhaps 80 percent of the population) voting for the governing African National Congress (ANC) or the radical Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). The DA has struggled to make itself relevant to the black majority, necessary if it is ever to become the party of government. Maimane’s selection as party leader had been part of that effort, building “one South Africa for all,” a slogan the party employed. But party leadership structures—and finances—appear to be largely white.
Some commentators attribute the fall in the DA’s performance—less than 1.5 percent—to a decline in conservative white support in the face of the DA’s leadership outreach to blacks or the incompetence of Maimane’s leadership; the Freedom Front Plus, an Afrikaaner party, arguably grew its support at the DA’s expense. However, the party had benefitted from the grotesque corruption and poor governance of the ANC’s Jacob Zuma, president from 2009 to 2018, enabling it to attract disgruntled ANC voters with its reputation for good governance. But by the 2019 elections, Zuma was gone, and Cyril Ramaphosa, with his reputation for competence, led the ANC. Hence, it is likely at least some voters who had defected to the DA returned to the ANC.