If you happen to see Mmusi Maimane at any point in the next four months – and judging by his schedule, it will be practically impossible to avoid him – you might want to press a can of cold Red Bull into his hand. It looks like he’ll need it.
Ahead of the 2019 general elections, the DA leader has already hit the ground running, with a head-spinning programme of public engagements and campaign events.
The nature of Maimane’s itinerary for this week alone reveals the challenges inherent in the DA’s attempt to be, as one pundit put it, all things to all people.
Tuesday saw him awkwardly joking about dodging a question on black economic empowerment while addressing a predominantly white audience at elite Cape Town member’s club Kelvin Grove. By Sunday, Maimane will be found continuing a Kasi-to-Kasi national listening tour by engaging with communities in the Eastern Cape.
It’s part of an ambitious boots-on-the-ground approach to campaigning which will see the DA attempting to reach around 20,000 South Africans per day before the elections, Maimane said on Tuesday.
Because Maimane himself is not standing for any provincial position – following an abortive proposal to run as Western Cape Premier – it makes sense to spread the DA leader as widely as possible on the national stage. But the party’s frenetic dispatching of Maimane to campaign also suggests two further aspects: that he is viewed as the DA’s major weapon – which could make life difficult for him if the party’s election results fail to meet expectations – and that the DA has a paucity of well-liked representatives who could be considered national household names.
Maimane’s greatest value to the DA is in his adaptability: the quality which allows him to empathise with the fears of the Kelvin Grove audience by telling them he hopes that his mixed-race children will not suffer future discrimination on account of their part-white heritage, while assuring impoverished black communities that his Soweto upbringing allows him to relate to their struggles.
In this sense, Maimane is the living embodiment of what the DA aims to offer voters under its banner of “One South Africa For All”.
This message of inclusivity, intended as a clear rebuke to other political parties seen as stoking racial tensions, means that the DA will probably have to play it even safer on race-based issues over the next few months than it has hitherto.
One indication of this in recent days has been the party’s handling of the Schweizer-Reneke school segregation scandal, with the DA releasing a statement on Tuesday criticising “some parties and organisations at the extremes of the political spectrum who have used this incident to divide and not unite us”.
The party continued: “In contrast to many others, the DA has always sought to act as responsibly as possible in relation to this matter.”
The DA, in other words, will be taking the high road on such matters for the foreseeable future. In the heightened atmosphere of the campaign season, this is a responsible decision – but one which also gambles on an electorate which is fatigued by the use of racial divisions as a political tool.
The problem is that in South Africa, such high-minded voters are often thin on the ground when it comes to question time for politicians.
On Tuesday at Kelvin Grove, Maimane only allowed himself on one occasion to be baited into a forceful response on the topic of race during the Q&A following his address to the Cape Town Press Club.
The question came from a white audience member who termed the DA “unelectable” on account of a too-small voting base, with the clear implication that the base was predominantly white.
The DA’s base, said the questioner, “conflicts with the Freedom Front Plus and AfriForum”.
Maimane called this suggestion “outrageous”. On the basis of “real numbers”, he said, “you could not sustain the argument that only white people vote for the DA”.
He continued: “I’m not interested in the Freedom Front Plus”, describing the party as a “race-based organisation that focuses on a particular race”.
The DA, concluded Maimane with some emotion, is “the only party holding the middle”.
Therein lies the crux of the DA’s gamble: that in a country increasingly fraught by torrents of extremism on both sides of the political spectrum, millions of voters are still hungry for “the middle”, shorthand for a moderate and centrist approach to both economic policy and more personal issues of identity politics.
Within the rarefied corridors of Kelvin Grove, Maimane could be sure of a warm response to his call to South Africans to stop looking back and start looking forward.
“We can do a little about yesterday, but boy, we can do a hell of a lot about tomorrow,” he said.
Maimane could also be certain of a responding chorus of snide chuckles to a quote he attributed to President Cyril Ramaphosa: “Mr Zuma is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met.”
Whether such comments would be met with similar approval at a community hall in the Eastern Cape on Sunday remained to be seen.
On Tuesday, Maimane used the term “liberation movement”, in reference to the ANC, as something akin to a slur. What South Africa needs now, he said, is not a liberation movement but a “governing movement”.
It’s a point that Maimane has made many times before: that throughout Africa, former liberation movements have chequered histories as ruling parties. His call to South African voters is to reject the ANC’s appeals on the basis of its freedom-fighting past and cast their lot in with a party with its eye on the future.
It’s easy to forget that the DA, not too long ago, tried to get in on the historical nostalgia by bigging up its own version of liberation heroes, like Helen Suzman, and using the face of Nelson Mandela in campaigning material. On the basis of Maimane’s Kelvin Grove address, it seems those tactics have now been abandoned.
Forward ever, backwards never: Maimane wasn’t keen even to dwell on the party’s most recent past, refusing to be dragged into a detailed discussion of the DA’s torturous divorce from former Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, when invited to do so by another questioner.
“We had to get over last year,” Maimane said.
The DA will only formally launch its campaign manifesto on 23 February: a very long way away, in the chaotic chronology of South African politics. By that time, Maimane may be in need of an adrenaline drip. DM
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