The DA leadership race took a turn for the worse 72 hours before the weekend federal congress where Mmusi Maimane, the party’s parliamentary leader, and outgoing chairperson Wilmot James will face off.
At the heart of Wednesday’s verbal sparring, which unravelled promises of positive campaigning, was who of the two was the real alternative to the ANC. However, the acrimony was couched under the cloak of whether or not the DA supports the National Development Plan (NDP), South Africa’s blueprint to reduce poverty and inequality by 2030.
First out of the blocks was Maimane’s campaign manager Geordin Hill-Lewis. In a statement published on Politicsweb, he pointed out that James, who joined the DA in 2008, “worked closely with the ANC throughout the 1990s” before describing James’s political affiliations as ranging from the Black Consciousness Movement in the 1970s, the United Democratic Front in the 1980s and as “an ANC sympathiser” in the 1990s.
Hill-Lewis also argued James was flip-flopping over the NDP, citing his previous public support in a series of statements dating back four years against current and, at best, lukewarm attitudes.
But James hit back, saying the “attack piece” came as Maimane was under pressure after a lacklustre performance during Monday’s televised debate, and Hill-Lewis served as his proxy.
“I strongly believe that the DA needs a new direction and must be an alternative to the ANC, focusing on the DA’s Growth and Jobs Plan, rather than (being) an alternate ANC flirting with the ANC’s National Development Plan,” James said.
The background to what may seem a series of obtuse points is key to the DA and its future after the elective congress in Nelson Mandela Bay as it hits directly on bones of contention within the DA.
Although the opposition DA voted in favour of the NDP in Parliament in late 2013, it has a conflicted relationship to this plan. It supports large swathes of it, but not quota-based affirmative action or black economic empowerment. Instead, the DA has used the NDP to attack the ANC government, saying it was failing to implement it.
Hill-Lewis’s description of James’s position on race-based redress as always “a bit shaky” touches another DA sore point. It relates directly to the opposition party’s initial vote for the 2013 Employment Equity Amendment Bill in Parliament. The support had DA leader Helen Zille publicly spitting fire against her parliamentary caucus, led then by Lindiwe Mazibuko – and triggered speculation of a tough closed door meeting.
However, shortly after the parliamentary legislative debacle, a DA policy gathering in Cape Town in November 2013 officially recognised race as a “legitimate proxy” for disadvantaged and redressing the legacy of apartheid, even as the DA remained opposed to racial quota-based employment equity and empowerment.
On day’s terse stand-off between the two DA leader contestants followed Monday’s television debate between the two in which, according to James, Maimane did not do too well. Maimane and James had also shared the stage with other leadership contestants in a series of town hall-style party debates.