Johannesburg - Many of the Democratic Alliance's federal executive members heard the news that party leader Helen Zille was bowing out for the first time on Sunday morning.

DA parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane, who many have speculated will take Zille's place as head of the party, said he heard the news at the urgent meeting the executive was summoned to in Johannesburg.

Maimane would not comment on whether he would stand for the position.

"As you know I'm very committed to my role as Parliamentary leader. I love the job. I think that any discussion... is something I will have to think deeply about. I will also have to consult with my family, with the party etc."

Maimane said he did not want to take away from Zille's announcement by making any pronouncements on his own future.

Zille said that after almost eight years at the helm of the DA she would not stand for re-election at the party's federal congress in Port Elizabeth on May 9.

Zille was elected DA leader on May 6, 2007. She would however complete her second term as Western Cape premier, which ends in mid-2019. She was elected to this post in May 2014.

Maimane said this was a "massive announcement" for the DA, which he needed to take in still. He described Zille as his hero and praised her for her contribution to the country.

'Timing a surprise'

DA federal council chairperson James Selfe said he knew about Zille's decision before Sunday.

"I was one of the people that Helen consulted ahead of the time. I was shocked when I first heard."

Selfe said he did not have a new candidate for the position of leader at present.

"I'm sure people will come to the fore... [and] I will wait till that announcement is made."

Selfe said under Zille’s leadership the party became the most diverse political party in the country.

Wilmot James, DA federal chairperson, said of Zille’s decision: "She had clearly given it a lot thought. The timing was a bit of surprise but the fact that she was thinking about it doesn't come as a surprise."

James said Zille had been speaking about bringing in a new leader for a long time.

'Big shoes to fill'

James said he had never thought about standing as DA leader, and would also not say if he would throw his support behind anyone.

"We'll have to see what comes out in the wash. Clearly there's some big shoes to fill and leading a political party is not an easy job," James said.

Earlier this year, James announced he would not be standing again for federal chairperson.

DA Gauteng leader John Moodey said he was approached on Sunday morning and was seriously considering it becoming a candidate for the top job. However, he also had someone in mind who he thought would be a good DA leader.

"I will be approaching that individual and if that individual says yes I will give my full support to that individual. [But] if that individual says no and there is no one else that I see and my backers see me as a viable alternative then I will seriously consider putting my name in the hat," Moodey said.

He also first heard about Zille's decision at the Sunday morning meeting.

"It was the first time I heard it this morning and indeed it comes as a shock for myself. For me it was about a matter of timing and that's why we deliberated around that particular point of the timing."

Moodey said the executive argued for and against Zille's decision during the meeting, but in the end it was her decision and he supported her.

"We need to move the party forward so that we show South Africa that things are done differently in the DA."

Makashule Gana, DA deputy federal chairperson and an MP, said Zille's decision did not change his mind about running for the position of federal chairperson.

"The announcement does not in any way change my plans... the people who say they are supporting me have not abandoned my campaign as a result of this announcement. We continue to make sure we go to PE and I come back as the chairperson of the DA."

Gana said the next 24 hours were key in deciding who to back as the party's new leader. He said he would hold consultative meetings on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning.

"Now that the decision has been made that Helen is not standing, [and] I was on record saying I'm going to vote for her... which means my vote now is up for grabs and I have to go out there and ask some other people to avail themselves.

"The next 24 hours is key, I think, and in the next 24 hours the decision will be made."

He said Zille's decision to not stand for re-election came as a shock to him.

"Helen has led us successfully for the last eight years. It's her decision at the end of the day," Gana said.