Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane’s big speech on race and identity could have been a massive cringe fest. Taking place at the Apartheid Museum, it could have been performance art – the “Obama of Soweto” showpiece. While there was some theatre to it, Maimane’s speech was bold and hit the right notes in confronting the issue of race in his party. It is a gamble too, as there is a risk that opening up the issue might cause disaffection and unsettle the DA’s core constituency. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
The big takeaway line in DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s speech on Tuesday was: “If you’re a racist and you are thinking of voting for the DA, please don’t. We are not the party for you.” He opened a conversation that could backfire for South Africa’s biggest opposition party or help in shaping a mature national conversation on race. Of course it could also disintegrate into a messy bun fight.
Watch: Mmusi Maimane on race (eNCA)
Maimane was scheduled to deliver a speech on race, identity and transformation at the end of November last year but the event was postponed. Had it been delivered then, it probably would have carried less weight. The speech then would have been in the context of DA Member of Parliament Dianne Kohler Barnard’s expulsion, which was subsequently overturned.
But the furore over racist incidents in the first few days of this year gave the statement by the DA leader greater significance. Penny Sparrow, the KwaZulu-Natal estate agent who set off the chain of events, was a member of the DA and placed the party in the predicament of having to explain its position on race.
Race has always been a sticky issue for the DA. Most white South Africans support and vote for the DA, and its leadership has been predominantly white. Under the leadership of Helen Zille, the DA has tried to extend its reach amongst black voters and to elevate black leaders in the party – sometimes artificially. Last year, Zille made way for Maimane to take over in order to further change perceptions of the DA as a party that preserves white privilege.
Maimane was thrown into the deep end – first as Leader of the Opposition in Parliament as a novice MP and then as DA leader. He has faced much criticism, accused of being too “packaged”, engaging in political stunts to compete with the Economic Freedom Fighters and being too “light weight”. He was dubbed by CNN as the “Obama of Soweto”, a label used to taunt him because of his tendency to mimic the US President’s speaking style and mannerisms.
But Maimane’s decision to make a statement on race and identity came at a time when no other South African leader has raised their head to provide leadership. Race in South Africa is a minefield. It is risky for any political leader to have to navigate issues like systemic racism and white privilege without treading on toes.
When President Jacob Zuma was asked in a television interview about racism, he said the matter was being “exaggerated”. He said it could not be said that South Africa was racist “because five people make racist statements”. He said the ANC had “defeated racism” and South Africa was a “rainbow nation”.
Although the ANC’s history is defined by the fight against racial discrimination and is best placed to lead a societal debate as the governing party, it has not stepped forward to do so. As a result, discourse on the issue is unstructured and taken over by mockery, vitriol and sarcasm on social media.
It was therefore a brave move by Maimane to venture forward, knowing whatever he would say would be open to criticism and could offend constituencies in his party. The DA has also been fuzzy on black economic empowerment, with its mayoral candidate Herman Mashaba tripping over the issue this week. Maimane could not attempt a speech on race and identity without being definitive on such issues.
It was anticipated that the speech would be peppered with Mandela quotes, animated Obama-style declarations and corny lines. There was some Mandela, though Maimane spoke of him but did not name him, some Obama (but less so than usual), and some Mbeki with shades of the famous “I am an African speech” in the first few lines.
Mostly it was Maimane, trying to find his voice and his place in South African politics.
Maimane walked to the podium with the anti-apartheid protest song “Weeping” playing on the loudspeaker, opening the way for a cringe fest. Luckily that did not follow. Luckily also, Maimane did not attempt the “I am colourless, I do not see race” line that some in the DA have tried to sell.
“I stand before you as a child of Soweto, a proudly Black South African, a son of the African soil,” Maimane said. He knitted his own identity and life experiences throughout the speech.
“I remember growing up how we used to refer to successful black South Africans as ‘ngamla’ (a white person). And I cannot tell you how many times I am told by black South Africans that I have ‘done well’ because I happen to be married to a white South African.
“Apartheid was so dehumanising that, too often, even today, white people remain the benchmark that we set ourselves. How can this be?”
He said it was time to “draw a line in the sand against racism”. “This far and no further.”
Maimane announced that he would soon be introducing an anti-racism pledge that every new and returning member would have to sign when they join the DA. “Members found to be in clear violation of this oath will have their party membership immediately revoked, no questions asked,” he said.
Maimane also announced a process to change the complexion of the party’s public representatives. “From today, I will require our structures, at constituency, regional and provincial levels, to set targets for the recruitment and development of candidates for public office. These targets, and the progress made towards achieving them, will be reviewed regularly by the Federal Executive.”
“My objective is to ensure that, by 2019, our parliamentary and legislature caucuses, and our decision-making structures at all levels, reflect the diversity of our complex society. And we will do it without resorting to dehumanising quotas that reduce human beings to statistics,” Maimane said.
He said he would also be introducing a policy document for adoption at the DA’s Federal Council that would contain a focused plan to overcome the structural inequalities in the country.
“At its heart is the recognition that the majority of black South Africans remain locked out of opportunity. The policy identifies the key obstacles to redressing this inequality, including: our unequal education system, skewed patterns of land ownership, uneven access to justice and the concentration of capital in a few hands,” Maimane said.
He said the policy would include black economic empowerment that benefits poor black South Africans and an efficient and sustainable land reform programme.
Maimane intends to keep the conversation going with a series of dialogues on race, which he said would involve South Africans from all walks of life. “These dialogues will not be dominated by public representatives, nor will they be conducted under a party political banner. People have had enough of politicians telling them how to think and what to feel. It’s time to let people talk for a change.”
All these provide the DA with a way out, an escape from accusations that it has failed to confront the issue of race thus allowing people with racist attitudes seek refuge in the party. Maimane gave guidance to his members on how to deal practically with racism.
“For every incident of overt racism, there are thousands of instances of casual, everyday racism: talking down to people, laughing when people pronounce an English word incorrectly, not bothering to acknowledge people, believing somebody’s accent is a sign of their intelligence. These are all subtle forms of racial superiority, and it is time we all acknowledged how damaging they are. Repeated over time, they erode the goodwill that once existed between us.”
He said no DA member “must ever turn a blind eye to racism, no matter how subtle or coded.” “We need to call people out on their behaviour, even when confronting them makes us feel uncomfortable. We have a duty to stand up and speak out for our values.”
While all these statements signal bold leadership, they could anger conservatives in the DA. While few people would identify themselves as racists, the uncomfortable conversations and policy positions might cause some in the DA’s traditional constituency to feel under attack. It means everybody who wants a place in the party would have to embrace policies like black economic empowerment and get used to the fact that more black people would be elevated in the leadership ranks. And the axe of expulsion hangs over those caught expressing racist sentiments.
On the other side of the spectrum, Maimane’s assertion that black people are also capable of prejudice could alienate those who believe only white people can be guilty of racism.
The speech was designed to be a seminal moment in the DA, and perhaps it might turn out to be. If Maimane’s gamble works, it could help change the image of the DA as a white party with a few well-behaved black people. If it doesn’t, the DA could shed members who feel alienated.
Whatever happens, Maimane should be credited with providing leadership on an issue where there is none. South Africa is hard. Race is even harder. Mostly because it is not about politics but an evil that lurks inside of us all. And if there is any issue that can make our fragile nation explode, it is that. DM
Photo: Mmusi Maimane, the first black leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), addresses a DA election rally in Johannesburg, in this picture taken May 3, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings.