DA leader and MP Phumzile van Damme has said she is neither surprised nor bothered by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) slamming her and three other party leaders in its latest campaign to “save opposition politics”.
The campaign, which complains of the state of South African politics but only focuses on the DA, has suggested remedies to get the embattled party back on track.
These include getting rid of “racist leaders”, putting an end to “race-based policies”, ending the party’s relationship at local government level with the EFF and “appointing good leaders”.
It also singled out Van Damme, youth leader Luyolo Mphithi, and Herman Mashaba for triggering racial conflict, sparking racial furores and for lambasting the think-tank’s role in attempting to influence the party from outside.
Meanwhile, DA parliamentary chief whip John Steenhuisen was criticised for his social media response to an opinion piece by the IRR’s head of campaign, Hermann Pretorius, last week.
“We’ve been told there is a certain campaign to purge certain leaders in the party,” Van Damme, who is currently in the US, told News24.
“Now, the IRR says I continuously divide the party along racial lines. That is nonsense. I am very vocal at party meetings, I say things and there are obviously some people who don’t like the hard truth… so this entire year has been rough, and I have been side-lined.”
Van Damme said weekly newspaper Rapport did not start with just exposing party leader Mmusi Maimane’s so-called scandals, which have dominated headlines over recent weeks, but that she was a target first.
“It started with me, leaking all sorts of nonsensical things about me. Rapport, in essence, is now being seen as the mouthpiece of certain factions in the DA,” she remarked.
While she praised Steenhuisen for the position he took last week, Van Damme said she was not sure how Mashaba raised the ire of the organisation and then went on to defend the party’s youth leader, saying Mphithi was being targeted and blamed for the continuing loss of support in the North West due to the Schweizer-Reneke preschool race furore, despite him not having uttered a word.
Mphithi said he found the IRR statement concerning, claiming certain leaders had been targeted by the think-tank throughout the year.
“This campaign is like saying some of us are not good enough leaders, there are direct attacks on myself, Phumzile and Herman. It’s like saying according to them we are not good enough, not liberal enough for this organisation. We should be purged or removed from the organisation,” he told News24.
Mphithi claimed there was a “golden thread” one could make out, based on the narrative being built in statements and opinion pieces stemming from the IRR over the past few months, raising concern that they were being portrayed as nationalists.
While Van Damme did not mince her words when saying some within their own party were working with the IRR, Mphithi said a “strong argument” could be made for this, questioning how leaders were expected to behave in the DA during an era where issues discussed internally found their way into the media. Mphithi also called for the party to charge those responsible for media leaks.
A defiant Van Damme, who criticised the so-called 1959 committee, said it was borne out after Waters lost an internal election for the position of deputy chief whip. She added this was in reaction to young DA leaders who campaigned successfully to get their preferred candidate elected.
“They lost the campaign and then they came up with this narrative that there are these young lions who are trying to destroy the party and say we used under-handed tactics to win, which is not true.”
She said there was no truth to even the idea of “young lions” in the DA.
In response to Van Damme’s claims, Rapport editor Waldimar Pelser told News24 while the weekly paper was not beholden to anyone in the DA, it, like other media publications, benefited from leaks.
Pelser went to great lengths to explain the processes followed about getting tip-offs, emphasising that no story made it onto their papers without meeting journalistic standards.
“Anything that is leaked to us, we will gauge its newsworthiness, we will gauge the accuracy by doing a thorough examination of the facts,” he said.
Mentioning recent reports on Maimane, Pelser added it was the newspaper’s duty to “scrutinise” the politician as a leader.
“We’ve been unearthing stories on the DA for many years, a small number of them come from leaks… we’ve been told many things that we did not run, either because we deem them not newsworthy or we could not corroborate them.”
Pelser admitted that some “damaging stories” had a political effect but remained relevant and newsworthy, even citing that no one had argued against its recent story on Maimane driving around in a car donated by Steinhoff for numerous months following the company’s scandal broke.
“We don’t believe all stories that are leaks are non-stories, some very important stories sometimes are leaks and equally we don’t believe that all stories that are damaging, particular to politicians, are unworthy of publication. Quite frankly, some of the most important stories that Rapport publishes are damaging to politicians,” he said.
“We regarded it as very newsworthy and I think the response from other media houses, including News24, proved that we were spot on. The story of the Steinhoff car was very relevant to many voters, they were like: ‘We don’t like this,'” Pelser said.