Jacob Zuma and Helen Zille. It’s hard to think of two politicians who have been so diametrically different in the influence they have exerted on the fortunes of their respective parties.
Jacob Zuma became president of the republic when the ANC had a nearly 70% majority in parliament. The economy under then president Thabo Mbeki had grown at a blistering 4% per annum. Under Zuma, it was less than half of that.
Zuma turned virtually everything to dross. ANC voter support plunged to alarm-bell levels, triggering his firing by the party. The economy is in tatters, our social fabric is frayed, and the spirit of the country is almost universally gloomy.
Yet, despite it all, Zuma seems to be loved, or at least widely forgiven. About half of ANC branch members still support him and the Zuma faction is set to be in the majority on the ANC benches in the next parliament.
Although critical of his behaviour, the media depiction of Zuma is generally of a corrupt but genial buffoon. Few present the unvarnished reality – a malignant growth on both party and nation that demands urgent and permanent excision.
Zille, on the other hand, has endured a consistently carping press, astonishing levels of personal abuse on social media and from the ANC and Economic Freedom Fighters, as well as much antipathy within her own party.
Some of it is understandable. Zille is combative, abrasive and sometimes insufferable. Her gaffes on social media left many of her Democratic Alliance colleagues reeling.
Nevertheless, Zille’s political achievements, on behalf of her party, the city of Cape Town where she was mayor, and the Western Cape where she has been premier for a decade, are remarkable by any objective measure. And, unlike Zuma, she remains untainted by corruption.
When Zille became leader of the DA in 2007, it had control of not a single city or province. During her tenure, the DA vote rose nationally by 10 percentage points to 22.4%.
Almost entirely because of Zille, the DA won control of Cape Town and the Western Cape, where it now draws 60% of the vote. Under her leadership the province has thrived economically and in clean governance.
The DA, as a party, has always had a Kleenex approach – use, discard – towards its former leaders. But the disdain with which she is being treated must hurt. She steps out of politics with her party barely acknowledging her successes, never mind celebrating them.
It is under her successor Mmusi Maimane’s direction that Zille has seen her influence deliberately curtailed. Unlike Zuma, Zille is not playing a high-profile role in the election.
This may backfire. A survey shows that 58% of DA voters were more likely to vote for it if the election campaign had been led by her. Given that this was the view of DA voters of all races, it seems to negate the popular argument that Zille’s old-style liberalism is distasteful to blacks, or at least those already in the DA.
One gets a sense that Maimane may have misplayed the DA’s hand. It’s retreat from nonracialism may be enough to offend the minorities that form the historical rump of its vote, while not being radical enough to entice disenchanted ANC voters, who instead may either abstain or vote EFF.
That would be disastrous. For a decade, the DA has been a growing and credible successor to an ANC that after a quarter century looks decidedly shopworn. South Africa cannot afford to have the EFF usurp that role.