She was in a euphoric state. “The DA will govern South Africa. The DA will govern South Africa.” Tears ran down her cheeks. She may have scripted Mmusi Maimane’s meteoric rise over the years, but when the moment finally came, the Iron Lady of South African politics simply melted into an emotion-filled wreck.
Remnants of lipstick and make-up on her face properly told the story of Helen Zille’s moment, as she hugged and kissed her way from the main stage. Her successor was dancing, posing for pictures, as the confetti came down.
The feeling of disbelief hit Maimane a few moments later as he prepared to deliver his maiden speech.
Backstage, with his wife, he fidgeted, impatient, and totally submitted to the moment as he kicked around like a boxer waiting to jump into the ring.
The speech had an unbelievable text to it. It had the words “Federal Leader of the Democratic Alliance”.
Right there and then, Maimane was equal to Zille and Tony Leon.
One could stretch it to argue he had just acquired keys to an office whose status could be compared to that of Helen Suzman, the DA’s foremost ideological ancestor, who led the Democratic Party under difficult times, opposing apartheid rule.
Maimane grabbed the moment. He had two enemies. Racism and Jacob Zuma. He fired out of both sides of his mouth.
“If you don’t see that I am a black man, you don’t see me at all,” he said.
To the Prince of Nkandla, there was a warning too. “President Jacob Zuma, if you are watching: we are coming for you.”
The 2015 conference in Port Elizabeth was a predictable affair, at least in terms of the outcome, where Maimane walloped his opponent, Wilmot James, claiming almost 90% of the votes. What was not normal was the DA spending time discussing the content of its strategic positioning or ideological stances.
In the past, South Africa’s main opposition locked itself inside conference rooms to discuss ways it will “slaan terug”, or “fight back”, or such similar stunts as it sought to grow through fighting the ANC.
This time around a considerable amount of time was spent discussing liberalism, and the kind the DA wanted. It went beyond sloganeering about Hagel as a counter to Marx. The likes of Athol Trollip were at the centre, arguing for an African version of liberalism. Their camp asserted the need for the family, and not just the individual, to be at the centre of the African liberal ethos. Trollip goes by the name Nyawuza, from the Faku royal house under the Mpondo Kingdom. Presumably, this is a clan name he earned growing up on farms in the Eastern Cape. Nyawuza, or the Bull of Bedford, as he is otherwise known, explained exactly his view on the history and nature of the family in the African sense.
This invited counters from ideological snipers who argued they had no families, besides their dogs and cats, and that only the individual mattered. And that communities themselves were formed of individuals.
The debate was hot, in the DA’s sense of hot. So interesting was the conference that one of the guest speakers, veteran journalist Allister Sparks, made remarks that landed him in trouble. He said apartheid mastermind Hendrick Verwoerd was a smart politician.
Maimane might have missed this statement as he ran around from a conference hall to the dining rooms in the adjacent hotel. He looked like a man with the keys to the booze fridge at a traditional gathering.
So split was his attention, as he literally ran between rooms and buildings, that he had no time to take a question from this journalist. Or the issue went over his head as he betrayed a sense of bewilderment (he later sent an SMS with his reaction, that he “abhorred racism”). I let him go, as the keys to the fridge might have been a more important issue than me getting his comment on the Verwoerd matter.
I turned around. There was Zille with Sparks outside the hotel. And Zille got it immediately as I asked him for comment. “Ag nee” – and she ran away. Sparks was his belligerent self and lambasted me for asking questions with no notepad in sight. It did not matter that I had thrust my cellphone (with audio recorder) in his face. And he stood by his remarks.
This is the environment in which the Maimane leadership of the DA was born. And try he did to put his own imprint on the party that has struggled with its racial orientation.
Maimane is a product of Zille’s drive to grow the DA out of its cocoon of white support. She had some successes, and grew the party from the teens to almost a quarter of the share of votes before she stepped aside.
Her critics saw the advancement of young leaders in the DA as a superficial campaign. It was neither organic nor strategic, they argued. Their opponents, such as Gwede Mantashe, the ANC’s secretary-general, celebrated the arrival of the young turks. He saw an opportunity out of it all, as Maimane simply did not have Zille’s tactical nous, or grit.
Maimane went around signing pledges to fight racism. As though a contract was the solution to deep-seated issues such as race and racism.
His authority was tested. And in 2016 he missed an opportunity to show that he was boss, when MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard shared a Facebook comment praising apartheid president PW Botha.
Instead of burying her right there and then, Maimane chose a conciliatory route, and she was fined and sent for social media etiquette training. As though she was just a kid who had broken a glass at a family dinner.
That is the moment Maimane showed he feared the DA establishment. And this moment came to haunt him when Zille was herself embroiled in a Twitter racism scandal. After a few days in Singapore, she waxed lyrical about colonialism and its benefits.
And the fact that the infrastructure she was in awe of was built in the post-colonialism Singapore was totally lost on her. It was the kind of statement that Steve Hofmeyr would make, say, praising the Green Point soccer stadium as a sign that not all was bad under apartheid.
Maimane could not bring himself to discipline Zille properly. He settled. Yet another contract. She would stop being Zille. She would not pronounce herself on party matters. Not on Twitter. Blah blah blah.
Jiki-jiki, as they say to mean “out of the blue”, Maimane had a “PDL” problem. Patricia de Lille had to be hounded out of the Cape Town mayor’s office. And his faction did everything to drive her out. Eventually, she quit. No wonder she is now a minister in the Cyril Ramaphosa administration.
That was a strategic blunder for Maimane, as he opened himself to vicious attacks from the likes of Zille, who are now baying for his blood. Maimane could claim some successes over his tenure. It was during his stewardship of the DA that Jesus visited the three cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Port Elizabeth, where the ANC was relegated to the opposition benches. Some will argue that the 2016 electoral outcome was a reflection of the mess that was the ANC under Zuma, and that even a donkey would have led the DA to a good showing. Or it was just of the momentum built under Zille.
But defending the DA’s dull performance in the 2019 general elections will remain a difficult task for Maimane. It might as well reflect a failure to build a party whose interests went beyond just one man: Zuma. It would also mean Maimane failed to tackle his other priority: race.
Zille’s return from the political wilderness shows that, actually, she does not see Maimane at all. Whatever the outcome, the party will struggle to dig itself out of the hole it has dug for itself over the past decade. That Zille parachuted Maimane and others such as Lindiwe Mazibuko into leadership positions was on its own a strategic blunder on her part. Despite their intellect, they still lacked the experience to take on the ANC.
What made things worse was that they were held back by the DA itself, as it sought to present a black face without a meaningful realisation of the content of blackness as a political reality, or racial equity itself, beyond just Maimane or Mazibuko’s skin colour. She is back to cause more damage to her standing and credibility, carved over decades of toiling as a journalist and later a politician.
One person who will smile as this happens is none other than Cyril Ramaphosa, whose stock is bound to rise in the run-up to the next general elections. As for the DA … well, the past is bright. Is the ghost of Sparks visiting the DA again? What sane person would do this? Oh well, the DA’s past will always look brighter. DM