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The DA leadership battle: It is Maimane’s to lose

Helen Zille’s announcement that she was no longer available for re-election at the DA’s congress next month was met with immediate headlines shouting that Mmusi Maimane was going to be the party’s next leader. To outside analysts, it seems impossible to believe that it could be otherwise. How did this happen, and what kind of leader would Maimane be? And, to put it bluntly, is he old enough? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

I remember the first time I met Mmusi Maimane. It wasn’t that long ago, actually. It was during the 2011 Local Government Elections, at one of those slightly odd DA meet-the-press-over-drinks events. It was at Turbine Hall in the Joburg CBD, a slightly dark place, but with wonderful service and drinks. I said at the time that he was “young, and wields an iPhone”, and had one child. He now has two children, is no longer as young as he was, and has kept faithful to the iPhone brand. Back then, anyone saying the name “Mmusi Maimane” would have been met with a “huh?” Now, on, if you type in “Mmusi”, there is no need to put in the name “Maimane”.

Much can change in five years.

Back then, I remember asking Helen Zille how on earth the electoral college within the DA could choose someone who was so new to politics to be the face of the party’s Jo’burg campaign. Her answer was that he “blew [them] away at the interview”. His fans would now argue that he’s been blowing them away ever since. His critics would say it’s just hot air.

He is now the leader of the DA in Parliament, a step that many people thought was happening too quickly. At the time I suggested it may be the wrong move because it could see him being eclipsed by Julius Malema, unable to campaign for what could be a plum post as Jo’burg mayor (plum in that could actually happen in 2016) and simply a step too soon. However, that, with hindsight, was probably wrong. Despite Malema’s antics (and they have grabbed more headlines than anyone could have predicted) Maimane has shone through. His critique of President Jacob Zuma being “a broken man, presiding over a broken society” was world class by any parliamentary standard. And it led to Zuma responding with a tongue-lashing of his own. Which certainly appears to be evidence that it was a critique that hurt. And considering how the ANC used to simply ignore anything to do with the DA, could in itself be evidence that Maimane is succeeding in getting under their collective skin.

But to the future, why is Maimane is so obviously positioned to be the next leader of the DA? In a perfect world, a future political leader of the opposition in this country would have a few simple attributes. Most obviously, they would have to be black, they would need legitimacy, some kind of “struggle credentials” would be helpful, a good track record in leading organisations over a long time would be useful; they should be an excellent parliamentary and media performer and, of course, they would need to have a strong natural constituency of their own, a group of people in the party who would back them no matter what. (One Zwelinzima Vavi is probably the first person who comes to mind, but he is likely to be unavailable). It’s that constituency aspect that gives Zuma his strength; the constituency of the ANC’s biggest province, KwaZulu-Natal. These attributes allow a leader to lead with confidence.

Maimane, of course, has much of that: he is, well, black, he has legitimacy in that he grew up in Soweto, he’s too young for the Struggle bit (but perhaps that can be spun into some kind of “new generation” theme), too young for the leadership bit, excellent in Parliament and the media… But he does lack that natural constituency. He has, obviously, been a project of Zille, in a way she has made him. He has his own free will and has exercised it, and obviously they work together, but she has as obviously been the leader, and he the follower. Now things are likely going to be different, and he does lack that group of people who would follow him into fire. Of course, once he becomes leader, he can create that group, and it could well come in time.

But it’s worth asking why everyone is so certain it’s going to be Maimane in the first place? Is it because of what he has, or because there is no one else. Well, of course it’s both, but answer the question, if not Maimane, then whom? It can’t be anyone white; Luthuli House will throw the biggest party in history if that were to happen. Lindiwe Mazibuko has said she’s not available, and won’t be forgiven for the way in which she left Parliament. Patricia de Lille… perhaps, but not really. It’s really hard to think of anyone else who could lead the DA right now.

Some people will immediately claim that’s bad for the DA, and that it is wrong that they have let it get to this stage, that there is almost no one who can take over. The obvious plus, of course, is that with a virtually uncontested election, it’ll all be over in a few weeks with very little damage being done to the party’s internal relationships. Presumably, many of the party elders will be looking for a quick and clean coronation at that congress next month.

But then what? The biggest test of a party leader is often not how they deal with other parties, but how they deal with people within their own parties. For the ANC, sometimes winning an election can be easier on Zuma and Gwede Mantashe than assembling a cabinet afterwards. This has really been Zille’s strength; she’s managed to grow structures, and to strengthen them, while growing leaders as well. It requires real knowledge of society, of people, and of how they work – the kind of thing that one really only gains with age.

It’s here that Maimane may find his toughest challenge. For the DA to continue to grow, it needs to keep this momentum behind its structures. And that is surely going to require experience, especially at times when his leadership is going to make all the difference.

That said, political leaders do appear to be getting younger and younger (if not necessarily in the IFP). David Cameron became leader of the Conservative Party at just 39; Maimane would be only four years younger than that, should he make it. And it’s worked out relatively well for the Tories so far. Maimane’s fans (and there are plenty of them in the DA) would also point out that whichever job he’s been given up until now, he’s succeeded in it. Those who say he has never finished a term anywhere would be met with the rejoinder that he has always been promoted or elected to a bigger post.

That said, there will be a lot of people in the DA who are older that Maimane, who may now never get a chance at the top job (it’s a standing rule in caucuses everywhere that some people will always vote for the older person, because they are more likely to leave the post sooner, and thus they will also get a chance).

Still, Maimane seems unbeatable within the DA right now. It is his to lose. But it’s only then that the real work will start. DM

Photo: Members of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), greet their National Spokesperson and Premier candidate for Gauteng (C), Mmusi Maimane, as he arrives at an election rally in Johannesburg, South Africa, 05 December 2013. EPA/KIM LUDBROOK


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