The Democratic Alliance held three press briefings in about 24 hours on Tuesday and Wednesday, trying to limit the damage caused by the ousting of Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip and the planned removal of Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and ANC alliance.
But after hours of talking, the leader of the opposition, Mmusi Maimane, said precisely nothing.
The removal of two executive mayors in just one week does not bode well for the DA ahead of the 2019 national elections. Instead of spending time putting together its election campaign strategy, the party finds itself in a protracted state of panic and damage control, this time to address the crumbling state of its coalition governments.
The DA has been accused by its coalition partners — the EFF and the United Democratic Movement (UDM) — of arrogance and superiority for allegedly making unilateral decisions on governance issues in the two metros.
In turn, the DA has lambasted the UDM for allowing itself to be used in what it calls an EFF-ANC “coalition of corruption”.
The crisis in the DA, however, cannot solely be blamed on external factors. Since last year, the party has faced its own internal volatility because of personality clashes and differences over policy, with the public spats resulting in self-sabotage.
Since the swearing in of President Cyril Ramaphosa in February, the DA has done less to combat the “Ramaphoria” than it has to put out fires breaking out in all corners of the organisation.
The most notable problem has been its lengthy battle with former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, which the party admits harmed its reputation among voters, and threatens election losses in a province that has long been the DA’s stronghold.
Added to its many personality battles, the party has also found it difficult to speak with one voice on policy issues.
Although all DA leaders pride themselves on being liberals, the party appears to be displaying different types of liberalism. On the one hand, it has members showing a classical liberalism and they have been dubbed as too conservative. On the other, it has members presenting a radical liberalism and they are accused of making the DA sound too much like the ANC.
The ideological differences have resulted in public squabbles over diversity clauses and broad-based black economic empowerment (BBBEE), which have further exposed the shaky foundation on which the DA is built.
In April, at its national elective congress, the party adopted a constitutional clause on diversity proposed by Maimane, which calls on the DA to ensure its composition at all levels reflects South African demographics.
But the clause was not accepted without criticism, public disagreement and strict conditions from conservatives in the party, who demanded that it explicitly reject race-based quotas and other “racially polarising” ideas.
Last month, ideological differences surfaced again when policy head Gwen Ngwenya announced prematurely that the DA had resolved to scrap BBBEE. According to party members, the DA was working on an alternative model to BBBEE but an announcement was only due to be made in September. The incident has drawn widespread criticism of the DA and is already being used as ammunition by the ANC to scare voters away from the party.
The period leading up to the 2019 elections will be the greatest test of Maimane’s capabilities as a leader. He will have to find a quick solution to undo the confusion over the BBBEE issue, allay the concerns of residents in DA-run constituencies and mend relations between the DA and other opposition parties in their various coalitions.