South Africa

HANNIBAL ELECTOR: The anti-Malema — is Mmusi Maimane real enough to rule?

By Richard Poplak 20 February 2014

On the day that Gauteng Democratic Alliance Premier hopeful Mmusi Maimane gave what may be the defining speech of his career, he also visited a community of supporters in Alexandra township. RICHARD POPLAK went along for the ride.

During dinner time on this late summer Thursday, Mmusi Maimane will tell a crowd assembled at Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum that “reconciliation should not just be a casual interest, it should be a conscious reality for all of us”, and that for him “reconciliation lies in each individual recognising the unique identity of every other individual”. Over lunch, he’ll roll into the township of Alexandra to address residents gathered in front of a mound of recently burned garbage and say, “under the DA, people must own the land, because it is your land!”

But right now, he is dying from a toothache.

He sits in the swivel chair installed behind the desk in his campaign bus—Mercedes Benz is doing just fine from this election—while his assistant Mpho Rasivhetshele hunches on a bench covered in frilly vinyl. Mmusi points to his mouth.

Just killing me,” he says. “I feel like I’m getting toothache right before tonight.”

You should rub Grandpa on it,” Thabo says, baring her teeth and making a circular motion. “It will sort it out.”

Mmusi looks doubtful. Topical palliatives don’t strike me as his thing. He’s a systems guy, a 30,000-foot high flyer, a sketcher of grand designs and planner of enormous futures. He doesn’t just want Gauteng to function, doesn’t just want water to flow into its thirsty communities, he wants the province to be at the forefront of Africa’s inexorable techno-economic ascendancy. It’s easy to roll one’s eyes at this sort of thing, but in a country utterly denuded of ambitious leadership Mmusi Maimane is like a champagne spritzer after a long game drive.

Which is part of his problem. But more on that in just a moment.

While we bump through Jozi, I ask Mmusi what he’s most passionate about, and he’s quick: “Macroeconomics. That’s what I studied for my Masters,” he tells me, “and one day I’d like to do a PhD. What are the factors that create development? What creates growth? How do we create an economic output that suits everyone? I think Zuma’s biggest failure isn’t that he’s corrupt—it’s that he doesn’t get how the economy works.”

And while Mmusi loves the macro, he does occasionally cast his eyes downward to the micro. According to his publicist, Mabine Seabe, the Blue Bus has traveled 27,000km since the campaign began in early January. “A lot of communities we’ve hit three or four times,” Seabe says. “We do a fifteen-minute address and then a Q and A session. A lot of misconceptions are being cleared up, like the DA is not a white party, and people will not lose their social grants if they vote for us.” Subsequently, the DA believe that Mmusi is in with a shot; they know that the ANC’s own internal polling put the ruling party at 50.2 percent before e-tolls were instituted, and that the Blue Army are making inroads in communities where before they didn’t stand a chance.

And so Mmusi Maimane, Man of the People. Sort of. He’s Dobsonville, Soweto, born, and yet his accent is northern suburbs. He’s undeniably black so far as I can tell, but married to a white woman, and has two mixed-race children. It would be marvelous to say that none of this matters, but this is South Africa, and all of it matters. What else explains the ersatz Obama election posters, Mmusi’s face rendered in Warhol-esque relief, staring upward into South Africa’s multiracial, neo-liberal future? Instead of a “Yes We Can” or a “Hope”, Mmusi offers us a “Believe”. The poster, laden with all sorts of references to a politician far away, begs a question: Is Mmusi Maimane real enough?

Even he isn’t sure. When the campaign bus passes by EFF election bunting covering rubbish bin after rubbish bin, he is impressed. “How do you think Malema is doing?” he asks me, a touch of doubt in his voice. I tell him. He nods. He knows exactly how much of a threat the Fighters pose, because no matter how much bullshit they spew, those berets scream “revolution”.

I think they’re right and they’re profound,” he says, leaning forward in the swivel chair, looking much younger than his 34 years. “But I think their solutions are weak and unworkable. The idea that for us to create employment we need to hand assets over to the state via nationalisation? Nah. Take the State Owned Enterprises, break them down, give people shares in them. We need eight percent growth to create jobs. More than anything, nothing the EFF suggests will create the right investment in this country.”

Nothing the EFF suggests even hints at creating investment in this country, and that’s mostly because they want to string White Minority Capital up on the nearest acacia tree. But that’s barely the point. Mmusi believes that policy and high-minded rhetoric will save South Africa. But how, I want to know, will his nuanced truthiness compete with the EFF’s raging raginess?

Poor people are not stupid,” he tells me. “They’re just poor. They understand economics, they understand that land is an asset. There is this question of restitution. Land is an emotive issue. But the EFF are going to struggle. Without personalising this to Malema,” he says, “he’s left the ANCYL in serious debt. And now he’s asking the EFF to bail him out of his own debt? I just find that”—Mmusi pauses—“strange.”

By now the Blue Bus has carried us into Alexandra. We alight near a clearing on a rise where a sea of shacks fades into the distant skyscrapers of Sandton. About fifty supporters are gathered in dusk-blue DA t-shirts, dancing and singing. The strategy of these town-hall style meetings is several-fold: “I want to meet the communities,” Mmusi tells me, “and I want them to meet me. It gives us an opportunity to mobilise our own structures. And I think there’s legitimate authority in saying I’ve been to these places.”

mmusi speaking to people of Alex

Photo: Mmusi Maimane in Alexandra township, Johanneburg, 19 February 2014. (Richard Poplak)

Just before the meet and greet, Thabo delivers the day’s talking points: housing, unemployment, violent crime, and rats. Rats so big they unabashedly move into shacks, biting babies, sitting down at tables and finishing off platefuls of sadza, celebrating their bounty with a resounding burp. Politics are local, Mmusi reminds me, and rats are a big deal in Alexandra.

With that, he steps into the crowd, grabs the loud hailer, kisses the newborns, hugs the gogos. I stand beside a terrifying concrete sculpture that depicts three people holding a disco ball above a blob-like baobab tree, with several screaming faces trapped in the mass of the trunk. It strikes me as the finest sculptural evocation of township existence I have ever seen.

Mmusi, meanwhile, is sticking to his talking points. A DA win will not automatically mean jobs for DA supporters—“my simple message is this, let the most qualified person get the job.” He is also worried about foreigners, but that’s why our borders need to be policed, our customs posts tightened, our corrupt officials fired. Under the DA, he says, people will need to remain in their RDP houses for eight years, so that a housing market is created. “Then you can sell here, make a profit, and move to Sandton”, he says, pointing east. He will build economic zones in townships, where small businesses will enjoy lower rates and taxes, driving employment locally. “We want to build an employment centre where ubantu can register their skills here, so that we are looking for workers here.”

He digs into the muck of these people’s problems and offers them DA-mandated solutions, and they nod and yell “Yebo”. He is charming, but not Zuma charming, or Malema charming. He is polished, but he consciously (or unconsciously) tarnishes some of the sheen—his accent is no longer Morningside; his swagger is less swaggerly; his big wristwatch the only sign of his prominence. He is engaged, but we can tell his mind is elsewhere—on higher matters, on Big Ideas.

Which is our cue to toggle violently through space and time, which is the way of things in a divided country. We are no longer sweating in the sun in a township, but addressing a very different crowd at the Apartheid Museum, and employing a very different accent to do so. The speech is entitled “On Race and Identity”, and Mmusi is saying, “Our politics does not have to be a choice between black and white, rich or poor, Zulu or Xhosa. We can forge a new kind of politics based on a shared identity that takes nothing away from the individual identities we choose for ourselves.”

Is that true? Are there grounds for such a statement? I’ll warrant that Mmusi understands that we are all actors in the great South African drama, angling for either “authenticity” or “reconciliation” or one of the many fifty-rand words that are three generations from our reach. Mmusi himself is forever rehearsing the roles our great-grandchildren will play if this place doesn’t slide into the abyss. He doesn’t have it anywhere near as easy as Julius Malema, because Juju doesn’t have to flit between classes, between races, between universes. Juju doesn’t have to marry striations of self with layers of policy jingo and Kumbaya catch phrases. Mmusi, however, is constantly shape-shifting. He’s a man and a politician trying to justify his choices and his outlook to a country carved up by the narrow ruts of race, and in turn sell those justifications to an electorate too battered to look for subtleties.

Sure, we get to choose our own identities. But our “freedom” means that we also get to proscribe an identity to others. And Mmusi’s identity, I suspect, will not be defined by himself, but by his enemies.

Which, it goes without saying, is a tragedy.

The speech, though, is not really meant for the people of Alexandra. It’s meant for those with checkbooks and pockets deep enough to hold them. It’s meant to calm the edgy and claim the moral high ground. It does that and more, because it’s a fine speech, a meaningful speech. “We are part of a new generation with a new historic mission,” he says to those in the Apartheid Museum. “Our mission is to craft a vision for the future that recognises the forces that shape each of us, without keeping us imprisoned by them.”

Maybe. But the rats of Gauteng’s politics are coming for Mmusi Maimane. And they’re hungry. DM

Photo: Democratic Alliance Gauteng premier candidate Mmusi Maimane speaks while a new billboard against e-tolls (seen in the background) is unveiled along the N3 highway in Germiston, Thursday, 21 November 2013. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA

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