The DA determines its future from Saturday as the battle for its heart and soul plays out in the election of the chairperson for its most powerful decision-making body after congress, the Federal Council. It’s tricky, regardless of how the chips fall.

Helen Zille and Athol Trollip went up against each other in 2007 in the contest to succeed Tony Leon as DA leader. Zille won then. And it is widely expected she will win, again, in what is set to be a tight party poll on Sunday.

That the other two candidates — DA MPs Thomas Walters and Mike Waters, respectively Deputy Federal Council Chairperson and Deputy Federal Chairperson — are not really being talked about is indicative of how Zille and Trollip represent the prevailing factions in the DA.

It’s, if you will, akin to a choice between Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.

But in a political party that obscures its often brutal backroom manoeuvres with tightly choreographed public displays, the two-day powwow of the Federal Council takes place against the backdrop of carefully prepared steps. It’s been in the making for four months.

One, a deal was brokered to bring Zille on as contestant in a crucial move that pulled people together, as Daily Maverick is reliably informed. Until her last-moment entry, quite literally just before the 5pm close on 4 October 2019, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Trollip would win.

Two, moves are under way to collect the necessary 5,000 signatures to push for DA leader Mmusi Mamaine’s resignation. It’s the back-up plan, according to DA insiders, if the weekend discussions defeat the early congress and leadership election proposal by the review panel instituted by Maimane following the drooping electoral support to 20.7% in the May 2019 elections from 22.23% in 2014. The only other way the leader can change in the DA is if Maimane were to resign voluntarily. And that’s not on the cards.

That the DA is at a crossroads was rammed home on Thursday when its longstanding CEO Paul Boughey resigned. He had resisted calls to do so in the aftermath of the poor election results that had elicited the resignation of Jonathan Moakes.

Moakes and Boughey go way back as part of the young Turks brought on then by Leon. And they have been close to Maimane — too close, according to some circles in the DA worried about the influence of those who are effectively administrators.

In his resignation letter released by the DA, Boughey describes working with Maimane as “an extraordinary experience” and how the current self-reflection was necessary to strengthen the party. “I have no doubt that the leadership and broader membership of the DA will rise to this moment, that it will recalibrate and come back even stronger to face the challenges of election 2021 and beyond,” he wrote. “In a country and increasingly global landscape characterised by the rise of competing nationalisms, the DA’s vision and values have never been more important to South Africa’s future.”

Furious campaigning has been happening in this hugely important contest even if it may not look like that from the outside.

Zille has campaigned hard, including sending out a personal video message and various pamphlets under her motto — unity, stability, growth. “If elected, I will work hard to foster unity, to achieve stability and to put the DA back on a growth path,” said one seen by Daily Maverick, while another promises a list of specific immediate tasks and the promise of Federal Council accountability and transparency. Also included in the campaign package are a commitment to “redress and diversity”, pursuing One South Africa for All, a capable state and “a functioning state” with a social welfare net.

“We must be unapologetic about our love of individual freedom, no matter the populist pressure brought to bear on us. Our job is to show the voters that only the DA can save South Africa.”

Trollip’s campaign material seen by Daily Maverick seems tame in its emphasis on “Dedication, Loyalty and Discipline. These are the character traits that I have consistently displayed through thick and thin”.

A somewhat, but not completely tongue-in-cheek response from a DA senior was simply — “Mommy’s back!”

The Federal Council chairperson not only is in charge of the DA’s highest decision-making body after its national congress, but also the smaller day-to-day-focused Federal Executive Committee that has binding decision-making powers. The committee can, for example, institute disciplinary steps and does endorse appointments in DA-run government, and approve coalition agreements.

While Maimane has the numbers in the Federal Executive Committee, the Federal Council is a different case. And it has worked against him previously.

For example, before the May 2019 elections, the council defeated the push approved in the committee that provincial leaders, who are largely supportive of Maimane, should be able to double dip in the process of selecting elected public representative candidates.

Daily Maverick understands the numbers in the Federal Council could well indicate an early congress, as recommended by the panel Maimane had appointed some four months ago for the organisational review, possibly any time between December 2019 and February 2020.

The level of disenchantment with Maimane’s leadership is set to cause friction within the DA, even if the Federal Council swats off the proposal of an early elective congress and even if Trollip succeeds in clinching the post.

“He does not fill the space,” said a DA insider in reference to Maimane and his leadership.

It emphasises the failure of the opposition party to manage the changed national political dynamics under President Cyril Ramaphosa. Maimane’s broken bus analogy — the ANC is the same old broken bus even with a new driver — in the run-up to the May 2019 elections stalled. Nor did the SMS and email campaigns — questions were publicly raised on how the DA obtained personal details — or the posters urging voters to keep out the ANC and EFF.

And while the messaging may not have been all attributable to Maimane, given the backroom team of pundits, pollsters and planners led by Boughey and campaign manager Moakes, who resigned in May, in the DA it’s the leader who carries the can.

Threading through the weekend DA Federal Council meeting will be considerations of the 2021 local government elections — and how the DA has flatlined in by-elections.

Broadly speaking, the DA has lost wards to the Freedom Front Plus, but also on occasion to the ANC, while even where the DA returns to the seat, it does so with reduced support. Voters turning their backs on the DA across the country is casting a shadow over the opposition party’s much touted “Where the DA governs, it governs best” mantra.

The disillusionment stretches from Tshwane to Cape Town — from tender and appointment controversies to the Day Zero debacle and the gloating about a billions-positive bank balance as residents struggle to pay rates and levies. And, the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro was lost to the DA under Trollip as mayor.

For many in the party this is a worrying indicator with some 20 months ahead of the next local government election. Always good at number crunching and scenario planning, concern in some circles of the DA is the party may lose up to one in four of its 1,500-odd councillors.

Those are some of the considerations, which even if not on the agenda of the two-day meeting from Saturday, are part of the undercurrent. It’s understood that on the back burner, at least for now, will be the ideological contestation over race and the role this plays in DA policies on diversity. Both Zille and Trollip accept race as proxy for disadvantage and inequality, even if Zille would be more strident in opposing, for example, broad-based economic empowerment. The writings of Gwen Ngwenya, the DA’s ex-policy honcho who decided not to return as a DA MP after the May 2019 elections, on how race and race-based policies had “poisoned” the DA are regarded as part of a wider libertarian push by the Institute for Race Relations (IRR). Ngwenya joined the DA from the institute. But the DA seems to have at least temporarily united on the ideological front against the IRR’s #SaveTheOpposition campaign. Its demands to, among others, “stop race based policies”, end the co-operation with the EFF and elect “competent leaders” have been dismissed as “naked opportunism” and “sniping from the sidelines”. DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen, in a statement on 2 October, made short shrift of the IRR campaign, saying it should “form its own political party and contest elections in its own name”. This weekend is not just about the contest for Federal Council chairperson, a position held for almost two decades by James Selfe. Or even about the review panel’s recommendations for an early elective congress.

Other recommendations up for discussion are also important, if more structural. This includes the rationalisation of administrative positions, particularly given the drop in donations, the modernisation of the legal commission — it deals with disciplinary matters, for example — and also new fundraising approaches.

In order not to disrupt discussions, the 155-odd members of the Federal Council go to cast their ballots from 7am on Sunday morning. Zille, a self-described “classical liberal” on her Twitter bio, pushes a fit-for-purpose regime measured largely by electoral growth. Her decade-long track record as Western Cape premier is admired across the DA, but her reputation was tarnished by her 2017 colonialism tweets which raised party hackles and led to her suspension from party activities. Trollip is representative of what has been scathingly called the DA’s turn to being “ANC-lite”. He has pursued his ambitions for top party officer for more than a decade. He’s been a close confidante of Maimane’s — and has remained so even if it was under his watch that the DA lost Nelson Mandela Bay Metro after the historic opposition win in the economic heartland of the Eastern Cape.

It’s going to be a difficult weekend for the DA. And the contest for the powerful Federal Council chairperson post will in no small measure determine the next twists and turns in the DA