The DA’s white male puppeteers – Donwald Pressly

Political parties, including the DA, are known thickets of rumour, leaks and factionalism. What makes these dynamics relevant here is topicality; this is an apparent expose of members of the lesser-known ‘Boy’s Club’ behind so many of the debilitating twists and turns in the official opposition party. Donwald Pressly, author of the “The Changing Face of the DA,” and probably closer to the inner machinations of the party than any political journalist I know, unpacks hitherto only suspected detail of who made/makes the DA tick. He’ll be deeply unpopular with DA string-pullers, but a popular political journalist has no place in the job and loses credibility favouring any particular faction. A lot of this pivots around a car purportedly once secured for now-resigned leader Mmusi Maimane by Steinhoff, apparently a closely guarded internal secret until leaked recently. Just who did that helped metastasise the cancer that the party is struggling to treat, the story implies. Further complicating the mess is how certain power players allegedly deployed their own to senior positions in the Cape Metropole, amid claims of outright nepotism. Hardly lends credibility to a party accusing the ANC of cadre deployment – while claiming to be a decent alternative. – Chris Bateman

The DA Boy’s club

By Donwald Pressly*

The Democratic Alliance has faced a political blizzard for the last three weeks. As part of the fallout, it could end up losing two cities which it runs. But there is little doubt that the controlling hands of an entirely white English speaking boys’ club – which has run the party for years – has been smashed.

Donwald Pressly

The central figure behind the boys’ club is Paul Boughey. He appeared to quietly resign just before Helen Zille was elected as chairperson of the party’s federal executive. The truth is that the knives were out for him, notably among the remnants of the club. It marks the end of five years of direct control of the party by the shadowy group. One can describe them as such because the most powerful of them were out of the public eye. Boughey, who has worked behind the scenes since Tony Leon was leader, was the main man – according to a high placed source – behind the dismissal of Patricia de Lille as mayor. As a parting shot, he is accused by party leaders – who will remain anonymous for the purposes of this article – as the person who brought down national leader Mmusi Maimane. One key source said simply: “The (damaging) leak was by Paul Boughey. The issue of the (Steinhoff) car (provided to then leader Mmusi Maimane) was never shared with the management committee. It was clearly a deal done at the (party’s administrator’s) office. No-one else knew about it (until it was leaked).” Before he left the party, Maimane attacked elements of the Afrikaans press for carrying the story about the Steinhoff car.

Boughey, approached for comment, said he was “definitely not” behind the leak. In all his time as the party’s chief executive officer he had always fought against “this leak culture”. He said it had been a personal decision to resign as CEO. While the review report had proposed that he resign, this was only one aspect of his decision to go. He believed the DA’s performance in the 2019 national election was “a good result in a difficult climate”. Nevertheless, he believed that it had been time for new leadership in the party administration. He said he would be pursuing new ventures but was taking a break to be with his two small children. “I am taking some time to think,” he said. He said he would “definitely not” be taking up any job as Deputy City Manager as suggested by former DA mayoral committee member Brett Herron. “That is his wild imagination”.

Boughey said he was not the only person with the information about the car. There were three or four people with the information. But he would not say who he suspected of having leaked it. In public Mike Waters, deputy federal chairperson, was credited with asking questions about the car. Boughey said: “A culture developed… a campaign against Mmusi (Maimane) intent of undermining him personally. People operating in this fashion is part of the DNA of the organisation. It is personalised and destructive.” It remains a mystery as to whom leaked the Steinhoff car document. Waters says he had raised the matter at Fedex and the national management committee – which included deputy federal chairs Natasha Mazzone, Thomas Walters, Ivan Meyer and Refiloe Nt’sekhe, then federal council chair James Selfe, Boughey and senior staff member Leana van Wyk – only after seeing it reported in Rapport newspaper. “I got accused of being the leak… which I am not,” said Waters.

But Boughey’s detractors are sticking by their allegation. They say Boughey knew that the (former DA leader) Tony Leon’s review report – commissioned by the leader and the fedex on how to rescue the party from a poor election result in 2019 – had proposed that he should be axed. His detractors say Boughey then decided, that he would then take everyone down. The report also said Selfe, the federal executive chairperson for 20 years, and the leader Maimane, should also be put out to pasture. Selfe was the first to go, but all three are now gone.

Boughey is also accused of being behind the dismissal of Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille. Party insiders say this is directly related to him wishing to get his girlfriend appointed to the city manager’s office – a plan that was successful – and also to get his best friend Craig Kesson, who had replaced him in 2014 as chief of staff in the mayor’s office, appointed as city manager. If that was indeed Boughey’s plan – it was not entirely successful. De Lille wanted her friend Achmat Ebrahim, city manager until 2018, to have another term. She was accused of urging – by SMS – her then ally mayoral committee member Xanthea Limberg to support him. The DA’s leadership accuse Boughey of wishing to get rid of De Lille because she stood in the way of Boughey’s plan to make Kesson the city manager. Boughey says this is all rubbish. “It is most outrageous and disgusting.” The party had taken the decision to remove De Lille on the issue of good governance. “My partner has nothing to do with it. It is sexist and racist (to make such an allegation).” His girlfriend was appointed by the new city manager to his office. “Anything that is suggested otherwise is rejected with contempt.”

Political parties, including the DA, are a thicket of rumour, leaks and factionalism. One of Boughey’s detractors who has publicly come out against him is Brett Herron. Herron, who resigned as a DA member of the mayoral committee after De Lille left, wrote in November 2018 about cadre deployment in the official opposition. This is what he told Politicsweb: “Cadre deployment is rife and party loyalists are gratuitously embedded in the professional administration. Craig Kesson, a few years ago was a junior DA researcher in parliament, has been elevated to an executive director and now earns about as much as the President of France. He is the Executive Director of a department for which he has no experience to lead. The appointment of Andrea De Ujfalussy, a close friend (read girlfriend) of DA CEO Paul Boughey, raised some eyebrows when she moved from her political post to (then director of utilities: City of Cape Town) Dr (Gisela) Kaiser’s office and has now recently been moved to manage the City Manager’s office. Or to manage the City Manager.” There you have the power of the boy’s group – and the power of Boughey in particular – summarised.

The new parliamentary leader – and likely winner of the federal leadership to replace Maimane – John Steenhuisen, speaking at the Cape Town Press Club, publicly stuck to the party’s guns on the need to dismiss De Lille. He said it was a requirement that leaders who were not up to scratch should be moved on. “Look I think it was a mess. Trying to put lipstick on a pig doesn’t make the situation any better. It was badly handled… we have learnt a lot of lessons. What is important to note is that we are a party that does not sweep things under the carpet and hope they go away… or simply redeploy people to carry on their nonsense in another arena. We grasp the nettle and take action and in this instance we did not communicate it well… Nonetheless we willing to hold our own accountable to the same level that we hold government accountable. People can take heart at a party that is willing to hold its own people accountable particularly when they fail to perform the mandates and functions they were elected to do.” But insiders still say that that De Lille affair was really all about Boughey trying to get his mates top jobs. These insiders say this meant going so far as pushing out the mayor herself. De Lille is now in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s cabinet and is leader of Good. All these shenanigans in the DA are blamed on the antics of the boys’ club.

Kesson is another leading figure in the boys’ group – ironically informally led by former DA ceo Ryan Coetzee – who rapidly rose in the ranks of the party. Kesson even wrote a book with Patricia de Lille, View from City Hall – before they fell out. Kesson still plays a powerful role in the city but senior party officials say that Boughey will not be given any job in the party.

One senior MP, who spoke anonymously, said that Boughey routinely lectured the party leader aggressively. His office crafted every document, every policy paper or statement from a party spokesman – a shadow minister – had to pass his office. Sometimes the information flows got completely blocked because Boughey had not sanctioned releases timeously.

While he was the chief of staff in the mayor’s office, Boughey regularly ran communications sessions with senior executive of the city as if he were the mayor. He was described by one former colleague as being “extremely bright” but almost always – like a former party leader Colin Eglin – in a bad mood with a fixed scowl on his face. Stories abound about how he treated staff with much disdain – both in the city administration in Cape Town and party administrative staff. One former DA (party) official said sessions with Boughey and his sidekicks were like “the situation room at the White House…. Everyone was terrified of him. He was always on the attack”. Before the 2019 election, he had the DA head office staff (spread between Johannesburg and Cape Town) working 12 hour days and over weekends, whether or not they had husbands or wives or babies to attend to. “It was like a sweat shop,” said one. Since the election, the DA administration – led by Boughey – has offered most of the staff retrenchment packages. It has been widely reported that the funding largely dried up after the 2019 election campaign.

Despite Boughey pulling out all the stops, the party slide from 22 percent to just over 20 percent of the national vote. It was this result that triggered the end of the party leader’s career – but also the key functionary’s grip on the party administration. All the time the boys’ club had succeeded in improving the DA’s standing – in the election of 2014, in the municipal poll of 2016, but the slide this year has put the club on the back foot.

The last couple of weeks has seen the smashing – if not the eradication – of the boys club, which also includes Geordin Hill Lewis, who is now finance spokesman in parliament. It was Hill Lewis – and Gavin Davis, then an MP now ceo of Leon’s company Resolve – who convinced Helen Zille to leave the leadership in 2015. Helen refers to it in her book, Not Without a Fight. Hill Lewis and Western Cape finance MEC David Maynier are the last of the boys’ club to remain public representatives. Hill Lewis is now finance spokesman of the party in parliament. Ironically in 2015 Davis and Hill-Lewis, described by Zille as “my closest advisers precisely because they told me what they thought I should hear not what I wanted to hear… came round to discuss the situation (of the party’s national leadership).” She continued: “They said Athol (Trollip) had been approached twice to stand back until the 2017 congress, but had declined. I said we could not push Athol again. It had to be me.” It was one of the Team Zille’s ideas that she could stay on as national leader while Trollip could end up as party federal chairperson. “We agreed that it would create an impossible situation … if both Athol and I ran.” Zille added: “The prospect of Athol and me in the DA’s two top positions would be welcome grit to the ANC’s race mill.” In the end Maimane was elected national leader and Trollip became federal chairperson.

Ironically Zille stood against Trollip for the position of federal council chairperson in October this year. Now it looks like Steenhuisen, a white man, will become national leader. So exactly what Zille wanted to avoid in 2015 – is coming to pass: two white leaders at the top of the DA, one as federal leader and her as federal executive leader. But Zille now says that she doesn’t want to play into the race obsession of the DA’s detractors. Asked at the press club whether a white candidate for national leader wasn’t now inappropriate, she said: “Absolutely not.” It marks another defeat for the plots and plans of the boys’ club. Zille is known not to have much time now for Boughey, although she speaks highly of him in her book.

The boy’s team is informally headed by former CEO Ryan Coetzee. After leaving as CEO in 2009, Jonathan Moakes, another member of the boys’ club, took over as CEO – but he then stood aside for Boughey when he wanted to the party’s top job in September 2014. Ironically it was Coetzee – who was actually chair of the “Tony Leon” review panel – who recommended that Boughey should be dismissed along with Maimane and Selfe. It is understood Boughey and Coetzee remain friends. None of them predicted that Helen Zille would back in as federal executive chairperson – and it is likely that all but Selfe didn’t think they would be forced to resign. Selfe had already stood down as fedex chair before the review report was tabled earlier this month. But Zille – who initially worked well with the boy’s group – had become like a red rag to them. Maimane and his key man Athol Trollip had no idea that Zille would win. Trollip was confident of victory – he had the support of his leader and all nine provincial leaders. It is likely that Boughey understood his party’s core membership better – he resigned before Zille came back to power.

It The boy’s club was pivotal in bringing Lindiwe Mazibuko in as DA parliamentary leader in 2012. Zille initially was wary of Mazibuko going for this job as she knew it would pit her against Athol Trollip, the incumbent parliamentary leader. But she was won over by the boys’ group, in particular Gordon Hill-Lewis, her then chief of staff (at the time Zille was at the height of her party’s powers as national leader). He even drew up a list of MPs who were marked on the boys’ club’s canvass sheets as “doubtful” (reported from Not Without a Fight, page 348). “He (GHL) drove them to (the premier’s house) Leeuwenhof for our one-on-one conversations, where I did whatever possible to convince them of the importance of repositioning our party, which required us to give Lindiwe the opportunity.” That was later to explode in her face – in 2014 – when after Zille and Mazibuko clashed over BBEE, Mazibuko resigned and went to Harvard. Zille told the press club that Mazibuko was too young at the time. Zille now regrets parachuting black leaders into top positions – including Mazibuko and Maimane, indicating that leadership should be based merit and not race. She particularly regretted the attempt at parachuting Mamphele Ramphele into the party leadership. The issue of race representivity and the articulation of the BBBEE policy of the DA has been the fault-line over which the DA has stumped for five years or more now. Ironically it was the boy’s group which also advised Zille not to tackle Mazibuko over her stance on BEE – which was contrary to Zille’s.

A clean-up of the Democratic Alliance is now required. The deployment of DA staff into city administrations – in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Tshwane – will now need to come swiftly to an end. A party which attacks the ANC for deployment of party cadres at every turn – something which the ANC doesn’t view as remiss but, instead, does it deliberately – can hardly claim the high ground if it is seen to be a parties of jobs for buddies.

Boughey, Davis, Moakes – and Coetzee – have now all gone. But Boughey says he believes the DA “will consolidate… it needs to continue to thrive”. He believed the party was essential to South Africa’s democracy. “I remain a firm and strong supporter,” he said. He believed the party had overcome many obstacles in the past “and it will again”. The DA was different to other parties: “There is accountability and reflection.” Asked if he was licking his wounds, he said, he definitely was not.

  • Donwald Pressly is a veteran political commentator. He wrote The Changing Face of the DA about then parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko.