It’s Zille, stupid!

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DA FEDERAL council chairperson Helen Zille speaks after the resignation of leader Mmusi Maimane and former Nelson Mandela mayor Athol Throlip. Itumeleng English African News Agency (ANA)

“It’s the economy, stupid!”, was the Clinton-Gore campaign slogan in 1992. There was a mild recession because of the transition from a wartime (Cold War) economy to a peacetime economy. The slogan was designed to focus their minds on an obvious fact. It’s Zille, stupid!

The DA has legitimate reservations, and regrets, about Mmusi Maimane’s leadership. The most measurable effect of the Maimane office is a drop in voter tally, manageably small as 1.8 percentage points are. The May election result, and subsequent by-election results are concerning. The DA powerbrokers are obviously within their rights to prefer change as they see fit.

The DA drivers should, however, reflect meticulously on the party leadership to ensure that effective adjustment serve the single goal of a political party: To create voters. As a business leader has but a single goal, noted by management guru Peter Drucker, to create a customer, politics is no different. And the prime mover in keeping customers is the creation of leaders to continue the drive.

Political leadership excellence is defined by voter creation and retention, and by the creation of leaders to perpetuate the delivery. The actual DA leadership crisis started with Helen Zille and is, by discomforting federal executive choice, confirmed: Zille is the problem; Zille is not the solution.

Zille did not groom a successor

Mamphele Ramphele; Lindiwe Mazibuku; Patricia de Lille; Mmusi Maimane. Of course specific particulars attended each of the escalating differences and failed relationships and terminations. But terminations they all were. Gone is Joe Seremane. As is Wilmot James. On Zille’s watch. It’s not her fault. She simply happened to be around at the time. Every time. The conclusive evidence of Zille’s failed leadership is her return. Period.

Zille is a conniver, but not a player

I direct attention to then Premier Zille’s caking (intended) of Western Cape Leader Bongi Madikizela’s One & Only Construction Industry Birthday Party. It took Zille but a single day to exculpate her plodding provincial minister under the noses of the entire federal leadership.

I direct attention to the shenanigans in Knysna, Zille’s political responsibility until May. It is an open secret that the newly elected Chair of the Federal Council advised discredited now ex-Mayor Willemse on ways and means to circumvent DA procedures and processes. Did she also so advise her friend De Lille? I know not.

Yet for all Zille’s gainsaid political abilities, her major claim to fame remains the 2006 Cape Town multi-party government when 7 ACDP councillors delivered 5 smallanyana parties to form a king-maker block of 16 councillors that eventually agreed to work with the DA until Zille had been able to convince the ID, a year later, to join in when one of the little ones departed.

While a specious Ramaphoria gratuitously harmed the DA, Maimane, by comparison, enhanced the DA optic by governing the capital, Tshwane, and the economic hub, Johannesburg, and the very heart of ANC legacy, Nelson Mandela Bay… Could Zille have achieved this? We do not know. Would Julius Malema have attached to Zille? We do not know. Did this government gain promote the DA? The jury is still out, but it is undeniable that under Maimane the DA ran the biggest metros in the land, and by running Nelson Mandela Bay, the DA had been in the ANC’s face after a manner Zille never even threatened. So irritating had been the loss of Nelson Mandela Bay that the ANC even opted to attune with undeserving and impugnable individuals and cabals to wrest back at least a semblance of control. Maybe a drop in support, to gain a probable foothold for gain, is lost with Maimane’s departure.

If Zille is such a great leader, why did she not foresee the disaster (“unfortunate turn of events”, by MP John Steenhuisen) following on her election; why did she not play the unforeseen by manifluencing the narrative as a surgical plan coming together? Sorry strategist; terrible tactician. Dismal delivery by a poor politician.

Zille is a bad communicator

Communications maturity is the single most important executive skill imaginable. Zille’s communications failure stretches way beyond Twitter and those damning colonialism bolts.

The objective of executive communication is to speak only for bottom line brand benefit. To say the right thing right first time and at the right time and by the right medium. To recognise that not everything that can be said, and not everything that should be said absolutely has to be said, and certainly not necessarily immediately. The woke executive communicator carefully identifies the audience; carefully drafts the message; carefully selects the medium; carefully determines the delivery time; carefully identifies the right individual to deliver the message; delivers with style and conviction.

It’s like a Springbok maul. It breaks at the right time. It is a thing of beauty. And it is conclusive. It admits of no alternative. Zille does not even recognise that in modern communications there is no such thing as “personal capacity”. Zille needs to learn that when you have to explain what you meant when you said what you now say you didn’t mean when you said what you said, you’re dead.

If ever an executive could destroy a corporation, in a moment, it is by internet communications immediacy. It is the era of Fake News, Alternative Facts, Lies, Misrepresentation, Misspeaking, Chopper Talk, Doxxing, Deepfake, Deadcatting, Chewbacca shots, Social media mayhem, and Obloquy and the deafening noise of media traffic – and no brand is safe.

It’s dangerous out there! How things are is not important. Facts only matter when meticulously presented to create an unblemished optic. How facts can be made to look is of prime importance. The presentation must make distortion ridiculous. To avoid damaging misrepresentations is an art and a science and calls for talent and skill. When the facts stack up against your brand, you need to find a credible way to present the facts in a way that diverts attention; that takes the sting out of the accusations; that undercuts and neutralises the accuser; that stuns the opposition and promotes the brand. Zille has none of these communications skills.

Zille did grow the numbers… really?

Zille’s legacy, not all bad, to be honest, is the increased DA numbers on her watch. In four elections under her leadership the DA increased its support by 10.8 percentage points – 67% growth. As former President Zuma took office, Zille grew the DA by 40 basis points. As the Zuma disaster played out, Zille expanded DA support by 7.5 points, contracted it by 2 points, and again expanded it by 4.9 points for her net growth delivery.

Notably, Zille doubled Indian and Coloured support, and grew Black support by 3.4 points. She lost 6 points among Whites. To have gained votes – any votes – in the Zuma era scarcely count. Unless it had been spectacular gains. Ten points up, and creating a home for terrified Indians and Coloureds, is no achievement of note.

What is undeniably significant is that the DA, in the early Ramaphosa era, lost most of its support among Whites (20.2 points). It may very well be that terrified Indians (8.6 points) and Coloureds (5.4 points) felt bullish enough, with Zuma gone, to leave Big Mamma’s house, along with less disgruntled Blacks (1.9 points).

But White voters were undeniably liberated by Ramaphosa. They left for the FF+ and the ACDP because they had most always been more comfortable in those houses, even when fear for the bully Zuma laagered them with the biggest small kid on the street.

Mmusi dropped a bad pass. He’s gone. The passer isn’t.

Johnnie Westraadt runs an informal thinktank of ordinary Capetonians.