ANALYSIS

There’s no place for decency in the SA political establishment. Just ask Mmusi Maimane

By Stephen Grootes 28 October 2019

Mmusi Maimane steps down as the leader of the DA on 23 October 2019 in Johannesburg. (Photo: Chanel Retief)

It should not be forgotten that politics needs a bit of bite, that nice people might finish last, and that SA politics is not for sissies. But it is still worth asking whether our politics has entered a space in which only the tough, rough and shamelessly nasty survive.

The resignation of Mmusi Maimane as leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) is part of a series of different dynamics that are affecting that party and others in SA politics. There are important reasons why he felt he had to resign last week. However, in the dust, finger-pointing and sometimes scorn, one major point should not be forgotten: Maimane is a decent, upright man. And if someone like him is not able to survive in our political arena, what could that mean for our politics and our medium-term future?

To claim that Maimane, a politician, is decent, is surprisingly uncontroversial. The ANC has remained relatively quiet on his resignation. The party that is ideologically opposed to the DA, the EFF, referred to him as “capable, non-corrupt and absolutely ethically upright”. It claimed that his resignation showed the DA is unable to transform from being a white party.

Maimane’s back-story helps to understand what appears to be his fundamental decency. In an era where religious leaders are standing trial for human-trafficking and sometimes pour petrol into the throats of their congregants, he is a pastor who genuinely appears to practise what he preaches. While there was a time when it was considered the height of political humour to compare him to former US president Barack Obama, in one respect this was absolutely correct: there has been not a hint of scandal around him.

Even when his own internal critics tried to make a claim against him, he was cleared within days.

And yet, despite that, and the obvious advantage it gave him in a political arena almost defined by corruption (Jacob Zuma, Ace Magashule, the EFF and VBS, just about everyone in the ANC) he has not been able to stay the course.

It should not be forgotten that politics needs a bit of bite, that nice people might finish last, that you need a spine to stab someone in the back and that SA politics is not for sissies.

It is worth asking whether our politics has entered a space in which only the tough, and perhaps the nasty, survive. And, if that is the case, what does that mean for our future?

There can be no denying that SA politics has become more brutal over the last few years. While race has been a feature of the arguments between the ANC and the DA since the days of Tony Leon’s “Fight Back” campaign, the conversations around race have become much more difficult, perhaps because they have become more honest too.

Sections of the ANC, particularly during the Zuma years, started to use “Radical Economic Transformation” and “White Monopoly Capital” for particular political agendas.

The EFF and its rhetoric have only added to this radical shift.

It may also be that contestation in our political parties has sharpened.

Certainly, a brief look at what happened in the ANC before Nasrec (and after…) suggests that internal battles are fought more ruthlessly than before. The increase in the number of killings linked to politics in KwaZulu-Natal may also be evidence of this.

It does appear that contestation in the DA is conducted more viciously than in the past, and this may have contributed to Maimane’s resignation.

Internal battles in the political parties seem set to sharpen even further (the EFF has so far been immune, but it is due to hold a conference in December, and there are indications that its chair, Dali Mpofu, will not return to his position). This may be tied to a “winner-takes-all” culture, even if the party involved is badly damaged, as the ANC was in the Zuma years, and the DA over the last few days.

There are rising fights over patronage and the importance of patronage. South African politics is becoming more about the spoils than about ideology, and this will have far-reaching consequences.

Those who could be considered “decent” are unlikely to be attracted to political roles, and this would leave the arena open to rogue characters that can never be even approximate to “decent”.

However, there is another way of viewing this.

The swift rise of Maimane to the top of the DA and the public persona he held was partly because of his fundamental decency. The middle-class, racially diverse (within limits) constituency that the DA was aspiring to at the time appeared to respond well to this image. This indicates a gap may be emerging for a “decent” politician.

Given the religious nature of our society, it is entirely likely that someone could emerge from this sector. There is a large constituency looking for someone to fill this gap, a politician they can trust their children with. Whoever can do this is likely to meet with much success.

In the meantime, Maimane can take comfort from one important aspect. He has been able to lead one of SA’s two major political parties, occupy a position near the centre of our national stage and escape without tarnishing his reputation. While it may be cold comfort to him for the moment, that is still an important political feat. DM

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