South African opposition leader in the firing line amid claims of smear campaign

Mmusi Maimane, the first black leader of the Democratic Alliance, faces a crucial meeting

 Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane speaks  in Johannesburg, South Africa. File photograph: Kevin Sutherland/EPA

Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane speaks in Johannesburg, South Africa. File photograph: Kevin Sutherland/EPA

 

Mmusi Maimane’s leadership of the Democratic Alliance (DA) has come under serious threat ahead of a crunch party meeting this weekend which will fill a key post in South Africa’s main opposition party and review its recent election performance.

The DA’s first black president has faced calls to step down in the months since its poor showing in May’s parliamentary election, where its voter support fell from 22.23 per cent in 2014’s national poll to 20.77 per cent.

Despite the poor result, the party initially appeared to back its leader, who was elected to that post in 2015 in a bid by the DA to broaden its appeal among black South Africans. The party’s deputy federal chairman, Athol Trollip, insisted Maimane would remain its leader until the next federal congress in 2021.

However, in recent weeks a campaign to get rid of the 39-year-old from the DA’s top job has emerged, with critics accusing him of steering the party away from its broadly centrist liberal ethos.

First, in mid-September, Maimane was urged to step down by Institute of Race Relations policy researcher Hermann Pretorius in a column he wrote that claimed there was a “leadership vacuum at the top of the DA” and that the party had become ideologically confused.

The institute, a think tank with similar policy views to the DA and strong ties to former and current party members, subsequently launched a very public campaign to save opposition politics in the country, which it said was in dire straits.

On Thursday, during an interview on local radio station Power FM, Maimane called the institute a right-wing movement and said its call for him to step down was equivalent to “some sort of domestic worker relationship where they can tell me when to come and when to go”.

‘Smear campaign’

More recently Maimane has been subjected to what he believes is “a smear campaign” designed to weaken him and his allies in the DA’s leadership group ahead of the party’s crucial federal council meeting on Saturday.

Separate allegations of corruption against Maimane were made anonymously in two national newspapers in late September over his use of a car owned by a disgraced businessman, and his renting of a house in Cape Town that he was accused of declaring as his in a parliamentary register.

Maimane has since been cleared of any wrongdoing by the DA’s financial committee after it investigated the allegations at his request.

Some political analysts believe that one of the aims of the anti-Maimane campaign is to undermine his party supporters at the federal council meeting where a new chair of the council will be elected.

Maimane’s ally Athol Trollip and former DA leader Helen Zille are considered the frontrunners for the position at the DA’s top decision-making body, and they represent very different options for the party and its leader.

A win for Trollip would strengthen Maimane’s ability to fend off internal party calls for his head, while a success for Zille – who left a position in the Institute of Race Relations in September to re-enter the political fray – could damage his future plans for the DA.

Social media gaffes

Even though Zille backed Maimane for the party’s leadership post in 2015, the pair have clashed repeatedly in recent years over policies and Zille’s frequent social media gaffes.

Delegates attending the council meeting will also review a report compiled by an election review panel that assesses where the DA went wrong at the polls on May 8th. Although its support only dropped by 1.5 percentage points, it was the first time since 1994 that the party had not grown in an election.

Led by former DA president Tony Leon, the panel has reportedly recommended, among other things, that Maimane stand down as party leader.

According to South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper, the review panel has recommended the DA convene an early elective congress, and if the federal council agrees to this, then Maimane should decline to stand for re-election to allow new leaders to emerge.

Maimane insisted this month that a review of the DA’s structures and processes should not be seen as a referendum on the party’s leadership.

However, the federal council has the power to convene an early elective congress and if it does so this weekend, Maimane’s days as the DA’s first black leader could well be numbered.

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