Helen Zille’s return is a bad omen for South Africa

On October 19, former Western Cape Premier and Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille was elected federal council chairperson of the Democratic Alliance (DA) after previously serving as its leader for eight years between 2007 and 2015.

At the start of her new term, she claimed that her comeback to the leadership of the country’s largest opposition party did not signal a return to the old days when it was perceived as an elitist organisation, but represented internal transformation. “I was a change candidate … I will always be around to represent the values that the DA stands for,” Zille said.

Her victory, however, caused a number of prominent members of the DA to resign. On October 21, Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba quit the party, saying he could not work “with a group of people who believe that race is irrelevant in the discussion of inequality and poverty in South Africa”.

Two days later, the DA’s first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, also resigned, declaring that the party was “going back to its original self, which is a party of white people, focusing on the interests of white, and nothing else”. The same day, the former mayor of Nelson Mandela Bay and party chairman, Athol Trollip, left the party as well.

In a few turbulent days after Zille’s return, the party, which under her leadership in 2008 tried to position itself as a multiracial conduit for post-apartheid liberalism and “party of government” succumbed to a public meltdown.

Now, with new old leadership, the DA is clearly set to move away from its past progressive vision, towards a conservative, white minority-focused agenda. This does not bode well for either the party or South Africa’s political future.