Heat and fury as DA gets first black leader

10 May 2015 - 02:00 By JAN-JAN JOUBERT
Helen Zille was the subject of lengthy tributes.
Helen Zille was the subject of lengthy tributes.

The Democratic Alliance is set to make history today by electing its first black leader at its national congress in Port Elizabeth, after a nasty internal election campaign.

DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane, who is supported by many DA establishment figures, is favoured to beat the party's federal chairman, Wilmot James, by a big margin when the almost 1300 voting delegates make their choice this morning. The result is expected at 1.30pm.

The race to replace James as federal chairman is expected to be closer, with Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip the home-town favourite against former youth leader Makashule Gana, whose campaign gained much momentum in the closing stages.

The candidates for these positions were canvassing ferociously at the congress, with T-shirts, food, lapel pins and other paraphernalia handed out in great quantities.

Maimane hosted a big braai at a local primary school on Friday night, and other campaigns were to host bashes last night. Eastern Cape delegates held a march to the conference venue.

Much of yesterday was spent paying tribute to outgoing leader Helen Zille, who has led the party for eight years. Six tributes, speeches and multimedia productions lasting a total of 90 minutes were presented, including Zille's farewell speech.

She was credited with turning the DA from a party of opposition into a party of government. During her own speech, Zille appeared more composed and relaxed than she has been lately.

Whoever is elected to leadership positions today will have a huge task to heal the wounds left by three weeks of division, personal attacks, nasty e-mails filled with sex-related accusations, and the adoption of a values charter that has left many liberal DA supporters uncomfortable amid signs of policy drift.

The values charter was accepted by the congress yesterday after much opposition, which had led to a heated clash between James and Trollip (who supports Maimane as leader) during a meeting of the party's federal council on Friday.

James, who pronounced himself to be personally strongly in favour of families, argued that the strong focus the values charter placed on the value of the family in society was a dilution of the liberal tradition of placing the emphasis on the rights of the individual. He proposed amendments.

Trollip questioned the late timing of the amendments, then attacked James heatedly, in a way that shocked some members of the federal council. Only eight of the more than 100 council members present backed James's amendments.

He raised his objections again during discussion of the charter on the floor of the conference yesterday, but it was passed by a big majority.

In the run-up to the discussion of the charter, directly after Zille had left the stage, DA deputy federal chairwoman Anchen Dreyer urged support for the document from those who had doubts aboutit, saying it was Zille's legacy and its acceptance would be a tribute to her.