“So today, here and now, I challenge Mmusi Maimane to a public debate about the future of our party and the future of our country,” outgoing DA Federal Chair Wilmot James, 61, rather cockily tweeted to his 4,767 followers on April 25 shortly after announcing his intention to stand against Mmusi Maimane for leadership of the DA.
“I am ready to debate anywhere and at any time and let members, and delegates, and voters decided [sic] who is ready to lead our party” James tweeted immediately afterwards, followed a short while later by a last ditch provocation, “I am ready!”
The tweets conjure images of the measured and middle-aged academic standing in the centre of a dusty school playground, his shirt sleeves rolled up, taunting his young opponent (who has around 120,000 Twitter followers) and who is the current frontrunner having been endorsed by DA leaders in four provinces; Free State, the Western Cape, the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. The leaders of the five other provinces have said they’re either “still deciding” or will not “prescribe”.
Standing at the side of the field shouting the odds at James is the determined MP David Maynier, once former DA leader Tony Leon’s Chief of Staff and current vocal Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Veterans. Maynier was also Lindiwe Mazibuko’s campaign manager in her successful bid to oust Athol Trollip as the party’s parliamentary leader in 2011. Maynier is rumoured to have promised that his man’s bid is going to be “brutal”.
Apart from two short-term goals – that Maimane cannot contest for the top spot unchallenged and that his candidate (James) secures the position – Maynier is no doubt also keeping his eye on the long-term game, hoping that Mazibuko will return later from her studies at Harvard to fulfill her ultimate destiny as DA leader.
But for now, the focus is on the “battle” or contest about to spill out into the open over the next two weeks in the lead up to the DA’s Federal Congress in Port Elizabeth on 9 and 10 May, where 1,425 delegates will vote for their preferred candidate as they bid farewell (but not goodbye) to Zille, undoubtedly the party’s most successful leader, well, at least in terms of electoral growth and taking the party beyond its role as opposition and into governance.
So far, Maimane has confirmed that he will break with party tradition and debate James in public on TV. However, the two candidates will face-off on the political actuality programme Insig, broadcast on the Afrikaans language pay channel KykNet on 4 May at 11pm – not exactly prime time viewing, though the debate will be in English. It is also a platform that is inaccessible to the country’s DSTV-less millions who might have benefited from this groundbreaking bit of political campaigning.
The debate on Insig will be over and above the four scheduled others – one that took place in PE on Sunday and three more – in Cape Town on Tuesday, Gauteng on Thursday and Durban on Friday.
Apart from the debates, each candidate and their supporting teams (DA Chief Whip John Steenhuisen is Maimane’s manager) will, of course, lobby furiously behind the scenes. They will personally canvass votes and schedule many meetings. Expect some social media spillover and a few sub-tweets from supporters in the run up.
Of course no campaign is complete without a slogan that encapsulates perhaps the core message of the candidate. In that sense James’ “Ready to Lead” is rather personal and unambiguous, while Maimane’s more Obama- and Oprah-esque “Believe in Tomorrow” conjures wider horizons.
And lest we become caught up in the drama that is bound to occupy column inches in the next few weeks, it is prudent to hold in mind that the transparency of this race for the top DA spot is invigorating for South African politics and would never occur in the ANC. Remember Kgalema Motlanthe’s enigmatic and symbolic non-campaign at the ANC’s 53rd National Congress at Mangaung in 2013, where Jacob Zuma was re-elected as the party’s president?
Some background architecture
Like sharks, political parties also need to keep moving to survive. At present the DA is wrestling with the very idea of “liberalism”, the party’s core ideology, what this means and how it is expressed in policy, particularly in relation to BEE and Affirmative Action. There are those inside the party – the liberal diehards – who are concerned that it its ideological traditions are slipping away and that with Maimane as leader it will begin to sound and feel like the “ANC-lite” – trying to be all things to all people. It is a debate that is hardly new.
There is no concrete definition of what it means to be liberal apart from a few non-negotiables including a constraint on the abuse of power (checks and balances), encouraging a robust civil society and independent media as well as individual liberties such as freedom of speech, religion, association and movement and – at least according to former PFP leader the late Frederik van Zyl Slabbert – “constraining and enabling a market economy to generate wealth and economic development.”
As former DA leader Tony Leon, writing in 2006, suggested, “don’t change the style, change the strategy.”
In 2008, shortly after being elected DA leader, Helen Zille delivered a speech titled “For an Inclusive Society” to the Liberal International Congress in Belfast. Here she set out why she avoided the term “liberal”, one “widely misunderstood and actually used pejoratively by many in South Africa”. She said she preferred rather to describe the DA’s mission as “the open, opportunity-driven society for all”, a vision based on “values”. A vision that was, co-incidentally, conjured to life by the DA’s former key strategist, Ryan Coetzee, currently General Election Director of Strategy for Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats.
Back then Zille explained that the DA needed to achieve this “open opportunity society” in the context of a deeply divided society in which “ethnic and cultural differences are far more complex than simplistic racial categories suggest, but which still largely coincide with the contours of poverty and wealth.”
“Since being elected leader of the Democratic Alliance a year ago, I have reached the following central conclusion: Unless liberals, in a plural and unequal society such as ours, can find credible ways of accommodating diversity and addressing poverty, the ceiling on our growth will remain very low. The need to deal with poverty and diversity requires addressing majority aspirations and minority fears. These often seem contradictory imperatives, but they must be attained simultaneously for the liberal project to succeed.”
Using this vision as its core “branding”, Zille grew the DA and in the process transformed the party, recruiting young, new black blood, catapulting many into leadership positions. These are the leaders she now hopes will take the party beyond the ceiling she believed and understood her leadership would one day reach. Today the DA is a party rich in diversity while it continues to face charges from its opponents that its “core” is white.
It is Maimane’s youth – he is 34 – and his remarkable trajectory in the party which apparently concerns those members who do not believe he has had enough political experience or possesses the savvy or gravitas to lead the country’s best-resourced and highly efficiently run opposition party into the future.
Apart from a new “values charter” that is due to be circulated before the federal congress, Maimane released a statement at the weekend, setting out his vision, which pivots on “non-racialism”, shared “values” as well as “protecting the constitution and redressing the legacy of Apartheid”. All of which fall broadly within a liberal tradition.
And then the very issue that lies at the core of South African political life and that liberals in the DA are grappling with: “race”. Ironically the party knows, in its heart, that voters – particularly those who “vote with scars”, as journalist Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya suggested in 2011 – as are more likely to vote for a party led by a South African who is thought to understand the nature and depth of those scars.
“We must recognise that race shaped our identities and opportunities, but we mustn’t keep people trapped in racial boxes. Our end goal must be to transcend race so that all may be truly free, both socially and economically,” said Maimane.
In that sense Maimane then is as liberal as our constitution. While he might be black he is non-racial and seeking to transcend race. All this in an increasingly racially polarised political milieu.
He would focus, Maimane added, on education, entrepreneurship and individual empowerment.
“I want the DA to become the champion of small business, the party with the best ideas and the best policies to make South Africa a ‘start-up’ nation. Our empowerment programmes will be truly broad-based, so that small businesses benefit, instead of the super-wealthy. We will ramp up infrastructure investment, delivering the critical infrastructure our economy needs to thrive again. We will slash unnecessary red tape to make it easier to start, run and grow a business.”
James, who comes to the Democratic Alliance from the world of academia, like Maimane, is not steeped in the party’s liberal tradition. He joined the DA in 2009 and became the party’s Shadow Minister of Higher Education before being elected, unopposed, as federal chairperson in 2010. (James is currently Shadow Minister of Health.)
On Monday James released what he termed a “mini manifesto” titled “A New Direction” and that he circulated to delegates who will attend the conference. In it he set out the principles he believed the party stood for including “the advancement of freedom, respect for diversity, non-racialism, a market economy and a welfare net for the poor.”
In a set of bullet points James said the party should become “principled”, “unified”, “growing”, “a winning party”, “a fully-funded party”, “a party of new ideas” which should become “an alternative to the ANC, not an alternate ANC” (which suggests his camp believes Maimane is ‘ANC-lite’) and that the DA should not “flirt with the ANC’s National Development Plan”.
The candidates – leadership trajectories
In some quarters in the DA they are speaking of Maimane’s candidacy as the party’s “Clause Four” moment. This in reference to the British Labour Party’s decision in 1995 to revise a 1918 Clause in its constitution and which could have been (and indeed had been) interpreted as the party’s traditional commitment to socialism and nationalisation.
It was Tony Blair who suggested a redefinition of the party’s socialism to reflect a “set of values” more suited to a “modern” political landscape and economy. After being elected leader in of the party in 1994 Blair helped to redefine Labour as a “social democratic” party. The revision of Clause IV is regarded as the turning point when Old Labour became New Labour. In political circles, a “Clause Four Moment” has come to signify the need for the “recasting” of a political party’s principles and attitudes.
Tony Leon was 38 in 1994 when he became the leader of what was then the Democratic Party. The difference between Leon and his successor Helen Zille, is his “liberal” political DNA. Having worked for the Progressive Party from the age of 18 and in so doing being steeped in the traditions and ethos of the party, Leon brought to the position this history and deep institutional knowledge.
But each political leader takes office facing a unique set of historic and political currents. At the time, Leon understood he needed to grow the party and opted to appeal to minorities to garner support. His “fight back” campaign, as much as it was criticised for its offensive and exclusive message, helped him grow his party from 1.8 percent to around 12 percent, turning it into a small but vocal official opposition.
Zille, who also cut her political teeth as a volunteer for the PFP, was more of an outsider. Her political education occurred in extra parliamentary anti-Apartheid activism with the End Conscription Campaign as well as the Black Sash, the Open Society Foundation and other NGOs and she only joined the DA in the 1990s.
Against the advice of many party stalwarts, Zille opted to occupy the dual positions of Mayor of Cape Town (and later Western Cape Premier) as well that of Federal leader while not acting as the party’s leader in parliament. Zille was able, during her term as mayor, to forge and hold together a delicate coalition government.
Each leader also inherits a party with its factions and its machinery and needs quickly to establish authority and to “draw red lines”, so to speak, about what is negotiable and what is not.
In that sense Maimane (or James) may inherit a divided party that will need steady steering at a critical moment in the country’s history, 21 years into democracy and as the ANC faces growing internal fracturing and increasingly diminishing support.
In November last year Zille was awarded the Friedrich Naumann Foundation Freedom Award and in her speech at that occasion said that the Democratic Alliance was a party that had embarked on a political marathon and not a sprint. She hinted that the future of the party lay in coalitions with other parties to temper and challenge the ANC’s dominance.
“Within the next ten years, our party, the Democratic Alliance, will form the nucleus of a new majority coalition that will work within our fine constitution, to continue with all the stops and starts, the journey up the escalator towards Denmark.” (Denmark is a reference to political scholar Francis Fukuyama argument that liberal democracy is the universal political destination of humankind – a metaphorical Denmark.)
From the start Zille’s ultimate goal – and this will be her legacy – has been the establishment of a sustainable multi-party democracy in South Africa. In order to do this she fulfilled an ambitious vision that the DA would govern (often in coalition) and not only act in perpetual opposition. It was a leap of faith that many in the old guard did not believe she could pull off.
Political leaders need to be able to also see around political corners and no matter what the general criticisms of Zille’s style – her hands-off leadership, apparent quick temper and impulsivity, her sometimes abrasive social media presence – she successfully transformed the party into what it is today. Her disastrous attempt at parachuting in Mamphela Ramphele as leader, while perhaps more politically damaging for Ramphele, also indicated a willingness to relinquish control for a perceived “greater good”.
Mmusi Maimane, should he win this race, begins with an advantage no other leader in the history of the party in its various permutations has ever had – he is black. Theoretically speaking Wilmot James too is black but in the convoluted quagmire of race classification and racial solidarity that still permeates political life and choices in South Africa, he may not be regarded as black enough (or young enough, for that matter).
Should the DA not be able to grow its centrist support or convince the electorate of its vision with a black leader at the helm, it will be forced to re-evaluate its role and relevance. The country’s political landscape has never been more fluid and there is a new generation of voters who do not feel beholden to anyone for the gift of democracy.
There is criticism from within the DA that Maimane’s focus on President Jacob Zuma and Nkandla has diverted attention from more important policy issues such as the stagnant economy and endemic unemployment, to name just two.
Both the Julius Malema’s EFF and the DA have tactically opted, for now, to highlight the corruption in the ruling party under Jacob Zuma’s watch. And while it might appear politically expedient, it is certainly an instinctive rallying point not only for opposition parties but the electorate. Nkandla teeters at the top of a pile of alleged ANC corruption and mismanagement so eye-wateringly widespread that the tally in squandered billions trotted out in media reports swims in and out of focus for the weary electorate.
Of course, the bigger challenge for opposition parties might arrive the day Zuma and Nkandla no longer dominate the political discourse and when (or if) the ANC will ever be able to salvage some of its reputation from the ruins of a Zuma Presidency.
But when it comes to drilling down into party policy, few voters really bother with detail. This is left up to economists, business people, academics, journalists (well, a few of us) and political pundits. For the average voter out there it is more about tone, the party’s perceived DNA and its emotional connection and how it is able to identify with the broader struggles of the black majority that matter.
Superficially it’s about the berets, the music, the spectacle, the theatre and the rhetoric, underpinned behind the scenes, of course by policy, squadrons of party activists as well as the funds that will enable a party to accomplish its vision.
The DA’s federal congress, apart from choosing a leader, will also vote for another powerful key position in the party; that of National Chair. Eastern Cape leader and Mayoral Candidate Athol Trollip (who is on the Maimane ‘slate’) is vying for the position with current deputy Federal Chair and Shadow Minister for of Human Settlements Makashule Gana (on the James ‘slate) and DA MP Masizole Mnqasela.
If we were bookies we’d suggest you put your money on Maimane to come in at 7 to 3. After that, brace yourselves for a new era in opposition politics. DM
Photo: Mmusi Maimane (EPA), Wilmot James (Daily Maverick)
"Authority without wisdom is like a heavy axe without an edge - fitter to bruise than polish." ~ Anne Bradstreet
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