South Africa

Two days in PE usher the DA new age, but what will it be?

By Greg Nicolson 11 May 2015

The Democratic Alliance has a new leader. It's a new chapter in the story of opposition parties in South Africa and GREG NICOLSON walks through the issue of race and the DA over a weekend congress.

“I’m sick and tired of the ANC”, says Brandon, driving his cab from the airport. DA posters and EFF placards remaining from Julius Malema’s May Day address hang from the street lights. Raised in Joburg, Brandon moved to PE because he was tired of the crime. “You’ll see, next year the DA will run this city,” he says, wearing a Mmusi Maimane badge while he tailgates a Corolla.

Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality is a symbol of expansion for the opposition party. For every opposition party. It’s the low hanging fruit. Get a metro in 2016, run it well, and it’s the first step to taking the province. Here, support for the ANC fell under 50 percent in the last elections. DA students run the local university and further away have won at Fort Hare. The council is in shambles requiring constant ANC intervention, almost giving the city away.

At the Boardwalk, where high school students on group dates take selfies by the fake lake and try to drink at the array of bars, the water show begins. Blaring over the speakers, the music – imagine the score to the noble Starks’ their quest to take the Kingdom in Game of Thrones – rises to a crescendo as the water squirts in matching beats. It’s the DA’s time, an historic event by the sea, preparing the party to ride in and take the throne. It’s a momentous occasion everyone keeps saying, or, as Helen Zille might describe it, a key stop on the journey to saving the continent.

But Alistair Sparks stole the show. He’s all we’re talking about on day one. His admiration of Hendrik Verwoerd, the apartheid leader directly responsible for many of the laws that oppressed black people and almost destroyed the country, has somehow trumped Helen Zille’s final speech as DA leader and a congress of almost 1,500 delegates who think they will soon be running this town.

The screw up is everything the DA don’t want. Sparks, respected as he is, should have known calling Verwoerd a smart guy and comparing him and a list of white leaders to Zille would piss people off. (Doesn’t he know any clever black leaders, even those during his time as a journalist?) This might be the Boardwalk, but the rainbow has faded and whiteness is continually being checked. Why? Because of Sparks’ attitude. White arrogance is celebrated and criticism is blamed on “manufactured outrage”. Black expression is continually suppressed and transformation, change, seems as hopeless as those drowning in the slot machines at the Boardwalk Casino. Mandela kept the country from suicide, but everyone’s realising reconciliation was a myth and white people still have more wealth and power than everyone else.

The recent radicalisation sucks for the DA, trying to take official power but with a traditionally white supporter base, but slowly becoming more inclusive, and it has to adjust or resign itself to the doldrums, like the Freedom Front Plus.

Enter Mmusi Maimane, day two of the conference. Helen Zille’s leadership was defined by growing the party. Her sole challenge was transforming the perception of the DA. It’s seen as a white party and as a white party can never govern significant parts of the country, can never be a true opposition to the ANC. Zille has succeeded, in part. The DA has increased its share of the vote and during her speech on Saturday the delegates were diverse. The party has a crop of young black leaders eager for transformation. Sure, there were many more white people than you see at an ANC conference but there were black delegates too, as though the rainbow has equally sized stripes. The DA looked like many corporations – white-run but with smatterings of black employees and a few black executives.

Maimane was always going to be elected leader. Neither he nor Wilmot James, who he ran against, were ideal candidates. But Maimane is young, talented and black. He has the story to connect with voters and the national exposure, but little experience. James has more experience and takes a clearer position on issues, but as he showed on Saturday during a debate on the party’s new values charter, he is exceptionally boring. The debate was about liberalism and the values that will supposedly tell who the DA are and why members get up in the morning. Like Maimane’s “BELIEVE” campaign, it neatly packages the party’s values in words that transcend race, slogans no one can really disagree with: Freedom. Fairness. Opportunity.

Zille stands on stage on Sunday with a piece of paper in her hand. The winner is: Mmusi Maimane. (It was later announced he won almost 90% of the vote.) DA congresses are a little like evangelical churches or American political conventions on a much smaller scale. It’s equal part politics, entertainment, and faith. There’s an MC who yells “huyahuya” every time he feels the crowd is getting quiet. Before the results announcement a band rocks the joint as though it’s a wedding. Zille then stands there, paper in hand, as young DA members surround her, cheering for their new leader. Fireworks shoot gold sparks front of stage as Mmusi ascends the throne, the first black leader of the DA.

“It is healthy for us to engage in robust debate. But, equally, there is no room in this party for those who seek to divide or those who seek to mobilise on race,” he says in his maiden speech as party leader. He’s quick to preach unity and turns to why he was the right leader for the DA. He’s black and his lived experience can connect with the lived experience of many South Africans. Mmusi has a cousin, he says, who didn’t finish matric, is unemployable and has been involved in drugs and crime (and to add to the mix is the new symbol of what’s wrong with the country while his cousin is waiting to become president).

“We cannot pretend that apartheid never happened. We cannot ignore the face that apartheid was a system that defined us by the colour of our skin,” says Maimane. “These experiences shaped me, just like they shaped so many young black people of my generation. And that is why I simply don’t agree with those who say they don’t see colour. Because if you don’t see that I’m black than you don’t see me.” The difference between him and Zille, and her friend Sparks who’s listening in the VIP seats, is striking. Perhaps it is just the face, but as leader Maimane can say the DA is not just a party for whites and it’s believable. Helen made it happen, but her word could never take the party the final step.

After his passionate speech, and the moment on stage with his wife, Maimane and his new leadership team come into the media centre. He looks elated but drained. So strong on race issues in his speech, now he is emphasising diversity, how positive it is to have a diverse leadership. He says he disagrees with Sparks’ comments (a step Zille refused to take) but calls for greater engagement and an acknowledgement of the veteran’s career. Maimane says much without saying much at all. That could be his downfall one day. Zille, as frustrating as she can be, has force. Her strength was that her tireless dedication to the cause was believable. Often a pain, sometimes a powerful leader, she was natural. Maimane still doesn’t have the same conviction. He is talented, can win votes and can deliver a speech. But the DA election race highlighted his flaws. He has been around long enough for all to know, but we’re still asking who he is and what he stands for.

Some believe he’s an empty vessel for certain powerful white males in the DA to fill with campaign slogans. Others think he’s the last ingredient needed to turn an opposition party into a governing party, the guy who’s the answer to their incredulous question: how can the ANC be so messed up and still win such a majority? It’s in the face, Maimane’s got it and with the right amount of fund raising and campaigning that face will go to the Union Buildings. Or at least go somewhere further than Zille could have.

But Mmusi Maimane’s win isn’t about the Union Buildings. It will help the DA in the 2016 elections in Nelson Mandela Bay, Johannesburg and Tshwane. But more importantly, having a black leader is a tiny step for the opposition party (the country is majority black, after all) in starting to ask what it is and where it belongs in the South African story. Race-based decisions are both an antithesis and fundamental part of the DA. A black leader doesn’t mean the party can embody the ideals of most South Africans and it certainly doesn’t equate to transformation. But Mmusi Maimane’s leadership can force the DA to start asking itself more questions and lead to more transformation in the future.

The question is whether they can take Port Elizabeth and other cities while they figure out what that future might be. And if they take them, can they make them better cities than the ANC can? DM

Photo of Mmusi Maimane by Greg Nicolson.

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