As Sunday evening approached at the Boardwalk Convention Centre, and delegates trickled out of what was the plenary hall for the DA elective conference, the last of the blue decor was also stripped.
The halls and corridors which on Saturday and Sunday was a hive of activity and excitement – and speculation – have gone quiet as delegates started to make their way back home. They have achieved their objective – electing a new party leader, and the team that will lead their constituents forward.
Mmusi Maimane, who has been chosen to lead the DA after Helen Zille announced she’s stepping down, strongly believes that the party is on the path to occupy the Union Buildings as the ruling party of South Africa.
Speaking to delegates with confidence and conviction reminiscent of his speech delivered at the State of the Nation debate earlier this year – when he called president Jacob Zuma a broken man who broke parliament – Maimane said the DA’s story still had to be written.
“We must be able to say one day that there is a DA president in South Africa,” he told delegates at the party’s federal congress in Port Elizabeth.
Hinting at the road forward, Maimane urged members to ensure their message of hope was more powerful than the message of hate.
“While they are tearing down statues, we will be building schools and creating jobs.
“While they illegally invade land, we will be implementing successful land reform programmes.
“While they trade on the divisions of the past, we will position the DA as the party of tomorrow.”
Protecting the Constitution
He said the country’s Constitution had to be protected at all cost.
“President Zuma, if you are watching this programme, we are still coming for you. Make no mistake Mr President, you will have your day in court.”
He said the DA would always serve the people in the country “and not the other way around”.
He said Wilmot James, who was his opposing candidate, still had a role to play in the party.
“My commitment is to build a united party. People like Wilmot James have a role to play in the party. We don’t unite behind a person. We unite behind values,” Maimane told reporters after the congress concluded.
“We are not a purging party,” he added and this sentiment was echoed by newly elected federal chairperson Athol Trollip.
“At this party, when you lose you don’t get kicked out of the herd. The party does not have any outcasts,” Trollip said.
The other newly elected DA leaders were federal chairperson of finance Alf Lees, deputy chairperson of federal council Thomas Walters, third deputy chairperson Desiree van der Walt, second deputy chairperson Refiloe Ntsekhe and the first federal deputy chairperson was Ivan Meyer.
James told News24 that he was disappointed by his loss.
“I did well but I did not win…I think that it was an excellent campaign and I am very proud of my team. In fact I would have been so disappointed if I didn’t run,” he said.
He congratulated Maimane on his victory, and vowed his continued support “with the usual vigour”.
The first day of the conference was overshadowed by comments made by veteran journalist Allister Sparks on apartheid-era prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd.
During a farewell tribute to Zille on Saturday, Sparks said he had known several intelligent politicians “including Hendrik Verwoerd” and many other “dull and stupid” ones.
This prompted extensive criticism of Sparks on social media sites.
Both Maimane and James addressed the controversy around the comments.
“I disagree with his comment on Verwoerd, but then I am entitled to have my own view as he is entitled to have his own view.
“But we should never say that someone like Allister Sparks, who has fought against Verwoerd, in fact supports his policies. I think that as we sit here as a party, we have been quite clear in saying that we deplore the policies of apartheid.”
James said the comments were regrettable.
“I think it was the most regrettable comment, whatever his intention was at the time. It was a really bad idea to mention it and to speak about Hendrik Verwoerd on that platform. He could have spoken about a whole lot of other people.”
Sparks later clarified his comment and laid the blame of the “manufactured outrage” on political commentator and author Eusebius McKaiser.
“I was speaking… in that context mainly about effective speakers who were able to carry their parties and do things like that, which I think Verwoerd did with great success… and he was a very effective speaker. I did not admire him – I spent the bulk of my life fighting against him.
He said McKaiser should have checked the facts of what he said with him first before criticising the comments on Twitter.
“If I say that I thought someone was ‘smart’, that doesn’t mean I agree with them. I think [former US secretary of state] Henry Kissinger was smart, but I don’t agree with most of what he did.”
McKaiser told News24 that he challenged Sparks to a public debate to discuss the “moral weight of the comments”.
“You do not go to a political party’s congress where there is a predominantly black audience and tell them that Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, was intelligent,” McKaiser said.
“We are outraged and we are justified.”