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Interview: In the wake of the storm, Maimane works to s...

South Africa

South Africa

Interview: In the wake of the storm, Maimane works to steady the DA ship

Last week, the Democratic Alliance has suffered a series of nightmares. First, a Facebook blunder involving praise for PW Botha. Then, a DA-affiliated hereditary leader was found guilty of serious criminal charges. Then, they lost a ward in their Western Cape stronghold. Maimane has been driving for five months—how is he going to bring his ungainly political rig back onto the road? RICHARD POPLAK spoke with him in order to find out.

Among a certain sector of South Africa’s braai society, PW Botha is enjoying something of a revisionist moment. Once reviled as a racist, murderous hyper conservative who nonetheless behaved like the commies he protested to loath, he’s now valorized as our very own Ronald Reagan. The problem with die Groot Krokodil, the reasoning goes, was due to his poor bedside manner, some bad PR, and a politically correct foreign media who couldn’t see apartheid’s manifold upsides.

For example:

facebook-post-by-DKB.jpg

Please come back PW Botha, as if die Groot Krokodil—a rabid Luddite—routinely uploads Facebook from his perch under Satan’s ballsack. The original post came courtesy of Paul Kirk, the second journalist this year to have an encomium of an apartheid leader publicized on a DA platform. The first was veteran scribbler Allister Sparks, who included Hendrik Verwoerd on a list of “smart politicians” when he addressed the DA conference in Port Elizabeth—the very same gathering that saw Mmusi Maimane anointed in as leader.

How time dims our memories! Perhaps this surge of sunset-tinged revisionism was buzzing around DA MP Dianne Kohler Barnard’s subconsciousness as she uploaded Kirk’s post onto her own, now gutted Facebook profile. Perhaps she instinctively shared anything derisive about the current government with her 4,963 ANC-hating “friends.” Perhaps her finger slipped while she was mixing a martini. Regardless, her post continued a trend of high-ranking Democratic Alliance leaders taking the qualifier “democratic” a little too much to heart whenever they picked up their smartphones.

Kohler Barnard’s flub should’ve been the worst thing that happened to DA leader Mmusi Maimane last week. As it happened, it was but one of three disasters that washed over the official opposition like the contents of a busted sewerage pipe. The first concerns King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo of the Thembu, who was in 2013 handed a DA t-shirt to go along with his newly minted membership. Quid pro quo: he was asked to deliver votes in the Transkei, Eastern Cape, a region in which the DA has very little presence. Problem was, King Dalindyebo had already been found guilty in the Mthatha High Court of extra-monarchical activities ranging from arson to kidnapping. This Game of Thrones-like badass was the kind of character the DA routinely insists the ANC is comprised of; last week, he lost his Supreme Court appeal and will soon be locked in a prison cell from where he vows to pursue “a war” on an independent judiciary the DA routinely fetishizes as the country’s Last Great Hope this side of the sainted Public Protector.

Very embarrassing. And what was all of this worth to the party voting terms? A jaw-dropping one percent uptick in DA-loving Dalindyebo constituents.

Next up, a ward loss in Theewaterskloof municipality in the Western Cape, the DA’s supposed stronghold. The loss was slim—about eighty votes, according to the party—but it was a loss nonetheless. Now, the DA will have to cobble together a governing coalition with the Congress of the People (COPE), who might be less amenable to joining hands with a party of Verwoerd/PW Botha superfans.

One screw-up: shit happens. Two: lots of shit happens, frequently. Three: your organisation is in crisis. What’s a leader to do? Five short months into his tenure, Mmusi Maimane has a plan, or rather a bunch of converging plans that loop back on a wonkish strategic platform. They reveal the type of leader he hopes to be, and the type of organisation he hopes to run—if only his members and their Samsungs don’t sink his non-racial democratic-socialist pro-market constitutional boat before he’s able to float it.

1. The End of Stupidity

I caught up with Maimane on the phone on Sunday evening. He sounded tired. It couldn’t be helped: I wanted to know how he hoped to put a stop to entitled DA members posting offensive inanities on social media. And why hadn’t he revoked Kohler Barnard’s membership with immediate effect?

There was a pause on the other end of the line. Then: “No, look—first of all, I thought the post was indefensible,” he told me. “I had to make a decision. Is this a violation of our processes and our social media policy? And I think it is. But it’s not my job to investigate her actions. That’s up to our federal legal commission. So that’s exactly what has happened. This is about separating powers, and it was within my power to remove her from her post. Which I did.”

Indeed, Kohler Barnard’s snafu has resulted in a shadow cabinet reshuffle, in which she was demoted to deputy spokesperson of the public works portfolio, replaced by her former deputy Zak Mbhele. But Maimane has a blessed and unquenchable appetite for legal processes. He isn’t going to can anyone until the lawyers have done their work.

“The disciplinary hearing must come to a decision,” he said, “and must be allowed to do so. So I’ve gotta await the disciplinary hearing. The only way I’ve been able to explain it—and it’s a terrible analogy—is that this is sort of like the Zuma/Mbeki scenario. If you feel there’s prima facie evidence against a parliamentarian in your party, you have to through the process without subverting it. No leader should have the capacity to say that this one or that one loses their membership.”

Which is to say that Mmusi Maimane loves due process. I’d argue that he’s addicted to due process. (I’d even argue that he should pay the occasional visit to Due Process Anonymous.)

“As a party, you want to uphold your constitutional provisions,” he continued. “I’ve acted where I’ve had the power to act.”

As a party, the DA has not always upheld its constitutional provisions. (See: Ramphele, Mamphele). But it’s nice to hear that Maimane will play by the rules. Five months isn’t a long time to change a culture. But the clock is most certainly ticking.

2. Warding off a Trend

Lose wards in your stronghold, and you’ve got yourself a problem. What the heck happened? As Maimane pointed out, Theewaterskloof has changed hands three times in three years, “and it was always going to be a close call.”

What’s he going to do about it? He’s going to Maimane-ify it, which mostly means math.

“We’re doing some analysis about what’s happening in rural communities in the Western Cape—it’s certainly something we don’t intend happening as a trend.

I think I want to avoid any form of complacency that can emerge there.”

This is the DA under Mmusi Maimane—if it can’t be analysed, then it didn’t happen, and if it isn’t analysed, then it won’t happen differently next time.

3. King Wrong

The DA is something of a specialist in poorly conceived marriages, and the nuptials with King Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo of the Thembu has ended in another messy divorce. Dumb move, bringing him into the fold?

“Look, you know, if you go by the view that people are innocent until proven guilty…. But we were clear that should lose his appeal, he’d lose his membership. If on another day, he decided to join the DA online, we have no way of saying to him no you can’t or can based on ideology. We have people from all sorts of backgrounds in the DA. He wasn’t a leader in the DA, he wasn’t a working for the DA. He was in a sense an ordinary member of a party, with a profile.”

Yes, but his “profile” was prostituted in the press; he wore DA t-shirts like they were Prada; and he was a frigging king—to say nothing of his serious rap sheet. As a scare quotes liberal, constitutional party, how could they get in bed with a dude like this?

“Well, our policy platform has a view on traditional leaders—we’re a constitutional party that concentrates powers in the state. Looked at now, we might take a different view on this situation. But there’s also a question of access, access to communities, access to the Transkei. Still, you can’t say that all people who join the DA are going to come from the same background. It’s inevitable that as we grow, we get diversity. I don’t agree with everything the unions say and do, but we have union members in the DA. This is a growing party, and we learn as we grow.”

But instead of myopic political expediency regarding scumbags—again, exactly same thing the DA accuses the ANC of regularly pursuing—shouldn’t the DA be concentrating on the hard work of building structures on the ground?

“Sure, this incident has punctuated the point that this is a long road. When we put our own troops, if I may use that word, on the ground, it’s better. But some traditional leaders are resistant to that. I made it clear that everyone on the ground is an activist.”

Rhodes Must Fall, Mustn’t He?

If that’s the case, where was the DA presence during various Rhodes Must Fall protests? (In which students at a number of universities have demanded the removal of Cecil John Rhodes paraphernalia, the basis of a larger transformational movement.) And where has the party been on Open Stellenbosch? (In which black students have demanded a fairer, more inclusive university with less instruction in Afrikaans.) I can hear you guffawing, but I get paid to ask these questions. When it comes to transformation, especially in this country’s contested universities, non-racialism gets sticky real quick, no? Where does the DA stand?

“Movements like Rhodes and Open Stellenbosch—there are difficulties, because these can become movements about race polarization. It’s easy to say, I’m for this race. My question is, How do we build a reconciled South Africa based on fairness?”

Excellent question.

“Why do say we need to destroy this statue and that statue?” asked Maimane. “There are things that may be offensive to me personally. Personally, I don’t like to go to Kirstenbosch, and you’ve got a plaque saying that Cecil John Rhodes bequeathed the land back to the people?”

So what has he done about this stuff?

“I engaged with Stellenbosch rector [Wim de Villiiers], and said, Let’s build an inclusive university, let’s open opportunities to more people, not less. It’s an engagement that’s an alternative to the populism. I’m not saying that the language issue is populist, but some of the elements are.”

Indeed, over the course of his short career, Maimane has displayed an enduring distaste for populism, for the grand gesture. These movements put him in an impossible situation: the party’s financial powerbase remains the white Stellenbosch mafia, and the white alumni of South Africa’s other tertiary institutions. And so Maimane is doing what comes naturally to him: talking softly about non-racial conciliatory solutions, behind the scenes.

Good luck with that.

5. New Sheriff in Town

Which brings us to the proactive element of Maimane’s short time at the head of what his opponents have come to call the Demonic Alliance. What has he so far changed in the party? What does he hope to change further?

“I have spent my time transitioning the party to an activist organization based on non-racialism,” he said, warming up. “If you look at us now, we’re not just a party based on what we oppose, but what we stand for”—he was referring here to the party’s Vision 2029 document, which stands for a bunch of stuff—“ and I’ve taken the view that I’m involved in all aspects of the organisation. I speak to all the provincial leaders. We’ve asked them to account. They understand that the DA is now led by a different spectrum of people. Meanwhile, we’ve registered more people than we ever had before. And I’m working through a fairness document, one that I’m spearheading. What does fair education look like, what does a fair economy look like. I believe that SA has an unfair bias, and it’s driven on a race-based level. How do we build the society we want to build?”

But what about the persistent perception, ballasted by PW Botha Facebook love poems, that he is just a stooge, and DA is a party of white people, for white people?

“You work at it this over time” said Maimane. “We’re building a diverse brand. It’s a tougher task to say you’re building a party for all South Africans. There are people who now say, Mandela betrayed us by pursuing reconciliation? But at the end of the day, I will always stand up for a non-racial party, long before I racially polarize this society.”

And the Zille thing?

“When people say Zille is still running the party, I frankly find it offensive and ridiculous. I find that a bit rich, and a bit offensive to a broad spectrum of black South Africans, that some people feel it’s not plausible for a black person to lead a multiracial organization unless white people are pulling the strings. I find that offensive to black South Africans. The question for me is, How do we build the society we want to build?”

I suspect that Mmusi Maimane already knows the answer. He is doubling down on what makes the DA the DA, and adding his own obsessions with data, with process, with order. Despite the odd passionate speech, Maimane clearly distrusts passion—even his own. Will this approach work? Too soon to tell. But if he has many more weeks like his last, there won’t be a party left to lead. He needs to yank the reins. He needs to yank them now. He needs to yank them hard. DM

Photo: Democratic Alliance parliamentary leader Mmusi Maimane speaks at a news conference at Parliament on Friday, 14 November 2014. Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht/SAPA

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