South Africa

The Heir Apparent — A portrait of Mmusi Maimane in two interviews

By Richard Poplak 14 April 2015

So check this out: in the span of only four years, Maimane has been the Democratic Alliance’s Johannesburg mayoral candidate, the city’s caucus leader, deputy chair of the federal congress, Gauteng’s premier candidate, the party’s leader in Parliament, and now heir apparent to whole dang show. But wait! Is he? Will he run? Now that Helen Zille has said she will not put her hat in the ring for the party’s leadership come May 9 conference, is Mmusi Maimane The Man? By RICHARD POPLAK

Interview 1

Last May, I arrived a few minutes early for a lunch meeting with Mmusi Maimane, at that time the Democratic Alliance’s ex-Premier hopeful for Gauteng, and heir-presumptive for Lindiwe Mazibuko’s recently evacuated Parliamentary leader position. I couldn’t decide if Maimane had invited to me to a Roodepoort outlet mall because the parking was free, or because there was a metaphor embedded in World Wear Shopping’s endless smorgasbord of factory cast-offs.

I decided that it was the parking.

It was tempting to say that over the course of the previous week, following the announcement of the 2014 general election results, the official opposition had descended into disaster-movie mayhem. Mazibuko, the party’s young, rising “superstar”, had decided to pack off to Harvard. It appeared that she was deliberately sidelined—left off campaign posters, left out of commercials, banned from yelling sweet nothings off the campaign truck.

Ever classy, Helen Zille informed us that Harvard was Mazibuko’s “Plan B”, executed in desperation because there was no way she would win the caucus vote for Parliamentary leader. Such magnanimity added credence to the rumours that Zille and Mazibuko were not SnapChatting as much as they once were. Cue insider op-eds asserting that the “real reason” Mazibuko was leaving for university was on account of Zille being a bit of a dick.

To which: Duh.

That said, every political party has its malcontents. They either circle their wagons and take over the show, or end up howling in the wilderness.

The winner of that round—if you called being a shoo-in for the DA’s Parliamentary leader position a “win”—was Mmusi Maimane. The young politician from Dobsonville was hosed with cash during his run for the Gauteng premiership, and while he worked like a hog, he failed to inspire. No one quite believed Mmusi. Like most members of the DA, he smashed headlong into the Authenticity Wall. He seemed too polished, too packaged, his branding too reminiscent of another black politician who once aspired to the highest office of his land. What got Maimane most excited—macroeconomics!—is the sort of sangoma-in-a-suit babble that everyone instinctively understands is bullshit unless it’s backed up by hardcore policy.

But Maimane believes the DA line. He lives it. He bleeds blue.

We ordered lunch, and I asked whether the DA’s backers might not have expected better numbers from Gauteng, considering they’d blown R100 million on the campaign?

“It stings,” he told me of the loss. “It does. It would’ve been psychologically a very, very vital thing to bring the ANC below 50 percent in the province. If we’d managed, that would’ve been profound.” (The ruling party lingered, like a bad cold, at around 52 percent.)

He wanted me to know, however, that if he were a 14-year-old looking toward a career in politics, he would not be able to ignore the trends. The ANC lost support the last two national election cycles, he reminded me, while the DA grew from 16 percent in 2009 to 22 percent in 2015. A wise, number-crunching teen would notice the fact that the DA offered better prospects for growth, and thus a better political home for his or her ambitions.

And what of Lindiwe doing wind-sprints for Boston?

“Listen, as a young, single South African,” he said, “if you concede she wants to have a long innings in politics—excuse the cricket analogy—this is a great opportunity for her. The truth is, though, that Lindiwe would’ve had to face a contest in Parliament [for the leadership position]. This is how it works. It doesn’t mean that the party is divided.”

True. But it doesn’t mean that the party is not divided.

“Well, this narrative persists, perpetuated by a clan of people like Gareth van Onselen”—ex-DA staffer, now of the Business Day, and Maimane’s slagger-in-chief—“who was quite high up in the party, and who lost power. This is their way of seeking to regain it.” Maimane claimed that analysts tend to examine the DA through the lens of the ANC: if the ruling party was a “broad church,” an “ideological potpourri,” then so too was the DA. If the ANC was riven by factionalism, ditto Helen’s merry band of neo-libs. “My analysis is that we’re growing, and this brings in more people, some who might have different ideas. But on the fact that we’re a party that stands for market-based, non-racial constitutionalism, we’re all in agreement.”

Maimane, as I’ve noted, is far more comfortable geeking out over broad-strokes then getting in the ring with his opponents. He is a natural born hugger. Parliament seemed like exactly the wrong place for him, unless of course he toughened up and started throwing haymakers. As for facing off against the likes of Julius Malema, “I’m not too worried about it,” he told me. “We’re going to have to work hard so that ideas are the contest, and not fashion”.

We come now to the foreshadowing: there was the small sticking point of how the DA dealt with economic transformation and affirmative action. It’s an issue that bled into the mechanics of how the party functioned, how it promoted its young leaders and developed talent. According to Maimane, there was a “meta-narrative” at work, one that simultaneously discredited the party for punting the likes of Mmusi Maimane because he wasn’t ready, while slamming the party for not promoting young, black talent.

“The DA suffers because we stand by this principle of merit,” he told me. “I find it a little sinister that people are always like, ‘Eish, look how they’re advancing black South Africans.’ Elections take place, those elections produce results. Of course we’re going to assist candidates of colour. Of course we’re going to promote diversity.”

We finished lunch, and Maimane took a flight to Cape Town, into the most bruising Parliamentary session in this young country’s history.

***

Interview 2

Flash forward to Day Three of the campaign for the leadership of the Democratic Alliance, eight months after our Roodepoort lunch, and I caught Maimane on the phone in his office in Parliament. He sounded mellow and sanguine, mostly because he always sounds mellow and sanguine.

It had been a long run since last we spoke. How has Maimane fared in Parliament? Mixed bag, really. He made a fine speech following the SONA debacle, which sold him to a bunch of people who had previously remained skeptical. But there were too many occasions when he was outplayed, when he seemed to defer to the ANC poobahs. But his brief was to act as the “rational alternative,” and that seemed especially dull when placed against the EFF’s balls-to-the-wall pyrotechnics.

But who cares? Is he running for Helen’s spot?

We’ll get to that. First, though, I wanted to know how the DA’s fanboys were supposed to process the last Sunday’s mess, during which God-fearing, church-going journalists were made to wait outside a conference hall in an airport hotel for a super-important announcement from Helen Zille. The confab leading up to the press conference ran an hour overtime, and when Zille’s announcement came, it arrived as something as an anti-climax.

“By ANC standards it was fairly punctual,” Maimane says. “It was important that members of federal executive reflected quite deeply on the decision—it was Helen’s decision to make. As difficult as delaying it was for the media, it was important for the discussion to unfold as it did.”

The way Maimane paints it, the Decision came as a shock to everyone. “Helen has always been inspired by what’s best for the DA,” he told me. “As you can recall, if you reflect on her career, she’s wanted to accelerate the change in the DA, and she’s given opportunities to others in the party—sometimes those have not worked out well.”

Ouch.

According to Maimane, the DA will launch massive new “value set” at their May conference, one that will guide the party for the next 10 to 15 years and into a DA-led government. “I suppose Helen thought it might be helpful to get a new leaders for this, and what I like best about Helen is that she puts the DA first.”

But leaving only 29 days for prospective leaders to campaign for the leadership of the country’s second biggest political outfit seems like an odd parting gift, does it not?

“Look, timing is of course everything,” said Maimane, following a lengthy sigh. “So let’s assume Helen had withdrawn her application earlier. The party then enters campaign season way too early on. The ANC has started to get into on a succession debate today [for their 2017 conference], and all the news is about who will be next.”

But it’s a decision that certainly benefits certain members of the party, those certain members being Mmusi Maimane. And there’s another question: did Helen jump, or was she pushed? She got into a bunch of Twar tangles with journalists over the past few months, efforts that made her look simultaneously amateurish and insane. The party seemed mismanaged, adrift, run by a leader in the midst of a career crisis.

And then there was the insider scuttlebutt that insisted Maimane was planning to run for the leadership, regardless of what Zille did.

“It wasn’t like I was sitting in the wings waiting. It was her decision to make,” protested Maimane. “Before this, she was standing. She was fundraising. So I had no idea. That her decision was about me is frankly wrong, because anybody has a chance.”

Okay, so is he running?

“I’m still thinking about it, to be honest. I think Helen leaves a massive, massive legacy for anyone to step into. She’s well-loved within the party, and I’d have to think whether I’m up for that task. The DA has to maintain its current membership, and grow into new markets. It’s a massive party to run. It has massive implications for my life, and I have to speak with my own family and discuss what impact this would have at home.”

Would Maimane be “loved” within the party? Certainly not at first. He has his supporters, but he has few devotees. Some folk outright loathe him. But with Mazibuko keeping it real in Harvard, no one can raise the funds, no one can muster the support, no one can contest him, no one comes close.

Still, is Maimane that bad? Is he that callow? Do his ambitions outweigh all of his strengths? I don’t think so. With the DA doubling down on hardcore neoliberalism, and the EFF focused on nationalisation, South African voters would be offered alternatives to an ANC that has no economic policy to speak of. This would be real comparative shopping, and it could—which is not to say that it will—lead to some genuine political fireworks that go further than the usual “Zuma is a thief” campaign nonsense.

After all, Zuma will be gone in 2019. Beating Dlamini-Zuma will require different tactics. Does Maimane possess them, hidden somewhere in a secret arsenal? Five years ago, Mmusi Maimane was a political zygote. Now, despite his faux-misgivings, he’s about to lead the official opposition. Those are some serious chops right there. At the very least, he runs his Twitter account like a sober adult. And who can say—maybe his macroeconomic brain powers the DA into an unbroken string of glorious election victories that transform South Africa into a non-racial Sweden on steroids, a Singapore on EPO.

Too soon to tell. But Mmusi Maimane has himself a powerful political brand. His mentors are leaving him the farm. What he reaps after 9 May is entirely up to him. DM

Photo: Mmusi Maimane at the DA march, 23 April 2014, Johannesburg (Greg Nicolson)

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