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South Africa

DA Federal Congress: Maimane straddles fine line between embracing diversity and entrenching quotas during opening address

DA Federal Congress: Maimane straddles fine line between embracing diversity and entrenching quotas during opening address

The DA’s federal congress in Pretoria really is DA leader Mmusi Maimane’s show, and in his opening speech he straddled a fine line between embracing diversity without entrenching quotas. He did so by advocating a new form of African liberalism, and while the only fireworks so far were the real ones, there could be a few heated discussions still in the course of this weekend. By CARIEN DU PLESSIS.

DA leader Mmusi Maimane didn’t simply speak when his turn came at the DA’s two-day federal congress at the Tshwane Events Centre on Saturday.

There was a strange and long-winded introduction, summarised as this: “He is a man of honour, a husband, and he fights for us. He is with the people, the leader fo the Democratic Alliance, the next president of Africa Borwa.” And thus he was welcomed onto the stage.

Before that, the leader of each province got up and endorsed Maimane’s leadership in what felt like a staged show of support, but then again, nobody really had the heart to contest a passable leader a year before the country’s next general elections.

And then, in a first for a DA leader at a federal congress, Maimane’s spouse stepped up onto stage to honour him. Natalie isn’t a mind-blowing orator or a politician, but she’s pleasant.

It was easy to be called to honour him, she said, “a man who is above all else my best friend”. She told of how they met (through church) and why she thinks he’s a great Christian, politician and father – and why she stands by his side.

At the party’s last congress in 2015, where Maimane was elected, the party adopted a Values Charter with an emphasis on family, so perhaps Natalie also played into this. She’s also, conveniently, white, and the microcosm of the DA leader’s home fits the diversity narrative the party is pushing.

On Friday the party’s federal council met to reach a compromise in a pre-congress debate (because there will hardly be time to debate this in the 90 minutes allocated to constitutional amendments discussions late on Saturday afternoon) on what it means to have a diverse party. Some feared the way this amendment to the constitution was worded would bring racial nationalism and – liberal shock horror – quotas through the back door.

There was broad agreement, in the end, a member of federal council told Daily Maverick, that diversity must be rooted in the concept of individual freedom, that the party would stand up for the individual against group domination, and that the reference to “replicating diversity” would be removed in the original constitutional amendment as championed by Maimane.

This was the fine balance Maimane had to maintain in his speech, and he did so by telling the 2000 or so delegates: “Fellow Democrats, we need to build liberalism in Africa, for Africa.” This was about carving out “a new agenda” for African liberalism, he said.

Lawyer, MP and leader of Botswana’s opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change, Duma Boko, was also in the house when he said this, and the late Morgan Tsvangirai, Zimbabwe’s former opposition hero, was also honoured.

Maimane then outlined his vision for “African liberalism”, as standing up to “dictators and bullies”, even if it’s politically incorrect, defending “free expression of ideas”, promoting “constitutional democracy”, and “equality before the law at a time when powerful people think they are above the law”.

Then came the diversity stuff. “We have chosen to fight against the domination of individuals in the name of community, tradition and custom. Yes, our communities play a part in shaping us, but they do not determine who we are. Only we can decide who we are,” he said.

Maimane used himself as an example, saying although he’s “a proud black South African”, a Sowetan, a Christian and the son of Xhosa and Tswana parents, “in the end, I chose to be who I am”.

He said in his first speech as leader he spoke of being moulded by his experiences as a black man. “I said if you don’t see that I’m black, then you don’t see me. But the flipside of this is also true. If all you see is that I am black, then you don’t see me either.”

Maimane said his blackness didn’t define him, because in the end he would be judged on whether he was a “good husband, a loving father, a loyal son, a patriotic South African, someone who contributed to society”.

He said this was a “radical and subversive idea” for many “because it is a threat to racial solidarity and groupthink. It is a threat to the politics of divide and rule. It is a threat to the old order of things.”

He said African liberals recognised the “spirit of Ubuntu”, but are not colour-blind. “We understand that racial domination and dispossession of apartheid and colonialism destroyed people’s freedom. We want to fix this injustice without reducing every person to their race.”

Poverty “is the greatest threat to individual freedom” because civil liberties meant nothing if there’s no food on the table, he said.

Maimane punctuated many of his points with an “amandla”, and the delegates cheered.

Maimane’s future job could depend on whether the DA builds on its electoral successes in the 2016 local government elections. His aim in his speech was apparently to map out an identity for the DA with which to woo voters newly-infatuated with Cyril Ramaphosa’s ANC, and also to show the DA as an African party as it comes up against the Economic Freedom Fighters’ pan-Africanist narrative. With the bogeyman of former president Jacob Zuma gone, the electoral fight is set to be tougher, and would have to be on the substance of resurging identity politics and in the arena of policy ideas.

For the next day or so the party will get down to the real fireworks of electing leaders where positions are contested, and of figuring out what it really is. DM

Photo: DA leader Mmusi Maimane addresses delegates to the DA Federal Congress on 7 April, 2018. Photo: Greg Nicolson

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