South Africa

South Africa

The Interview: The unflappable Mr Maimane

The Interview: The unflappable Mr Maimane

At this point in the ANC’s history, you’d think that all an opposition party has to do to prosper is – well, nothing. But is the DA capitalising on the ruling party’s failures as it should? DA leader Mmusi Maimane sat down with Daily Maverick to talk about allegations of DA infighting, what keeps him up at night, and why he thinks President Jacob Zuma has actually been a gift to the ANC. By REBECCA DAVIS.

South African politics is full of big personalities. Mmusi Maimane is not one of them.

This makes the DA leader both a joy and a torture to interview. A joy, because his seemingly authentic lack of ego renders him unfailingly affable, courteous and reasonable. It is literally impossible to imagine Mmusi Maimane storming out of an encounter with a journalist in a rage. If there is a diva-ish essence to Maimane, it is hidden very deep indeed.

The process is simultaneously torturous, however, because it is startlingly difficult to get a sense of the real person behind the politician’s mask. Maimane laughs frequently, but without a great deal of conviction. He delivers perfectly crafted sound bites about his party’s vision – or “brand”, as he terms it at one stage. He has an impressive command of facts and figures, and rattles off statistics about South Africa’s status quo at the least provocation. Later, it is hard to recall offhand much of what he says.

Maimane can be almost painfully earnest. When asked what his two small children would say if we asked them what their father does all day, he replies: “We have a mantra, so they would try and recite it – ‘We’re trying to make South Africa a better place’.”

In case it’s not clear, Mmusi Maimane is an extremely nice man.

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But politics is a tough place for good guys, and Maimane now finds himself at the helm of a party which has seen more than a few hints of disarray this year. There was the public spat between Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille and councillor JP Smith over upgrades to De Lille’s private home. There was a leadership battle for the DA Western Cape which at points turned ugly. There has been mudslinging and tension in DA-led coalitions. There have been some inexplicable parliamentary decisions, such as the DA’s move to bid to dissolve Parliament while abandoning their opposition partners. There has been the ongoing Western Cape water crisis, and there has been Helen Zille.

Little wonder, then, that there is something more tired and heavy about the Maimane of today when compared with the Maimane who bounded around Parliament a few years ago. As he sits down to our interview, he pours himself a Stoney’s ginger beer. He needs the sugar lift, he explains.

Broach the topic of factionalism within the DA, however, and he becomes instantly animated.

I think there’s contestation in the DA. I think people contest for positions in the DA; it’s part of what makes our brand fair,” he says. “Anybody can put up their hand and say: ‘I want to stand for this position’. There isn’t such a thing as tradition, and this one must follow that one – no. There’s been contestation. But the thing that the DA has prided itself on is that once that contestation is done, the organisation focuses behind our new leader and we move on. Sometimes people misinterpret a contest [as evidence of the existence of] factions.”

About perpetual rumours of conflict between an “old guard” and a “new guard” in the DA-run City of Cape Town, Maimane says that account is “too reductionistic”. Interpersonal conflict, he believes, is one of the inevitable hallmarks of a growing organisation.

He describes his decision to suspend Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille and Councillor JP Smith from their political duties as motivated by a desire to “take away the personalities… and say: Focus on delivering for people. Focus on the water crisis that’s before us.”

The matter of De Lille’s house upgrades looks unlikely to disappear quietly, with the opposition ANC chanting “pay back the money” at the mayor in the Western Cape legislature on Thursday.

Maimane is satisfied, however, that De Lille has no case to answer. “There is in our view – obviously – no evidence to suggest wrongdoing with regards to [De Lille’s upgrades] and therefore we await now what the Public Protector will do. But I’m comfortable, as I sit here: I would never, as leader of the DA, have stood up strongly to protect any wrongdoing by any individual.”

De Lille is one of the aforementioned “big personalities” in South African politics. On Thursday, for instance, she reportedly informed journalists that she had so much money that not only did she not need to screw the City of Cape Town out of finances for her home’s upgrades, but she could lend the City some cash to deal with its water crisis.

De Lille takes her place alongside a cluster of DA elders – Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Athol Trollip and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille most notably – who have at various points over the past year been perceived to have “gone rogue”. In Trollip’s case, there were allegations that he had personally interfered with leadership succession in the Eastern Cape. In Zille’s case, there were her now infamous tweets about colonialism.

Is it fair to say that Maimane struggles to rein in the forceful older personalities in his party?

Anyone who wants to say they can control people has some supernatural powers,” he replies. “What you’ve got to do is make sure you are in control of the systems within an organisation: the systems that produce good people; the systems that hold people to account. When I’ve needed to hold people accountable, I’ve done so. It doesn’t matter who it is.”

Maimane continues: “I’ve always been very intentional about saying politics by its nature and essence sometimes produces interesting characters. Your job as the leader of an organisation is to remain sure your values remain intact, your systems are safeguarded, and you as a leader can execute. I’ve never been one who is animated by dictators.”

Ask Maimane about the DA, and he inevitably ends up referring to the ANC. This is, of course, one of the main critiques of the blue house – that they define themselves entirely in opposition to the ruling party. From this perspective, the retirement of President Jacob Zuma may leave the DA somewhat rudderless, after years of pointing to the president as the embodiment of everything that is wrong with the ANC.

But Maimane takes issue with that line of thinking. “While Zuma might be seen as a gift [to the opposition], he’s also been a gift to the ANC,” he suggests. “He’s a gift to the ANC because 53-million of the people in this country live below the poverty line; 9-million are unemployed.” He goes on to cite sexual violence, inadequate policing and the student fees crisis as further characteristics of ANC governance.

What in effect happens is that the ANC has been spared from that discussion, to have a discussion about Zuma. I’m sad that we’ve woken up daily thinking about Zuma and what his next move is going to be, because I think he’s shielded us from having the real, genuine questions about South Africa and where our country is going.”

Maimane won’t be drawn into speculation about which ANC figure will emerge victorious in the party’s electoral congress in December. “I think all the current leading candidates are compromised. But you know, my big anxiety is not who wins in the ANC.

Actually, the things that keep me awake at night are twofold. One is whether the 2019 election is going to be free and fair; and what then happens in a world where South Africa gets downgraded?”

When Mmusi Maimane says that the problems of South Africa keep him awake at night, it’s possible to believe he means it literally. DM

Photo: DA leader Mmusi Maimane addresses allegations of DA factionalism in an interview with the Daily Maverick in his office at Parliament. Photo: Diana Neille for Chronicle

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