This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Mmusi Maimane at the opening of DA Federal Congress underway in Pretoria on Saturday. At points he went off script.
Democrats, I want to thank you all for making the journey to be here this weekend. You have made great sacrifices and travelled hundreds of kilometres to be here.
I have never before experienced an energy like this in the DA. I have never felt such an urgency to ensure we get it right; such exhilaration at the prospect of changing the course of history.
We must harness this energy and use it for the good of our people.
Everyone in this room is part of something big. I don’t have to tell you this. You know it.
It is significant that we’re gathered here in Gauteng. This is the battleground for the future of our country. What happens in this province in next year’s election will reverberate throughout South Africa.
The tide is turning in Gauteng.
Seven years ago, we won in Midvaal.
Two years ago, on the 3rd of August, we won in Joburg.
And on that day we also won, right here, in Pretoria.
Many people did not believe the ANC could lose, yet now they are learning what its like to be in opposition.
What started as a ripple here, is building into a tsunami that will wash over this province and turn it blue.
Now, I know that it’s not going to be easy.
Our opponents are afraid of us. And we expect the election to be a tough and dirty fight.
But when they go low, we’ll go high.
When they are trying to buy votes with food parcels, we’ll be talking to voters about our plan for a better South Africa.
While they are trying to intimidate us and threaten us, we’ll be out there winning the battle of ideas.
And when they are dividing the people of this country, we will be uniting all South Africans – black, white, Indian and coloured.
Democrats, we are in for the fight of our lives.
I am ready for it. Are you ready?
It sounds like you are!
Before me, I see a party ready to embrace its destiny.
A party ready to challenge for power. A party ready to build this nation. A party ready for government.
We have travelled a long road, Democrats.
We stand on the shoulders of stalwarts who fought for justice and human rights in our country’s darkest hour.
Stalwarts like Helen Suzman, Jan Steytler, Colin Eglin, Zac de Beer, Frederick Van Zyl Slabbert, Tony Leon and Helen Zille.
I see before me a party that has grown from the small but brave opposition that stood up to the National Party and their apartheid laws all those years ago.
I see a party more vibrant and more diverse than anything this country has ever seen.
I see a truly South African political party; of individuals who believe in something greater than themselves.
A party of true patriots who refuse to let their destinies be defined by the way they look, the colour of their skin, the language they speak or the God they worship.
I see before me the future of this country. Because we are writing a new chapter in the history of this nation!
Today the DA is a party that is working in every corner of the country and speaks for millions of people.
That is the DA I see from this stage.
Our country has changed so much since our last Federal Congress three years ago.
And much of this change is thanks to the hard work of the people in this room, along with our staff and activists spread across the country.
The DA went from governing one metro to governing four metros. More than 16 million people now wake up every day under a DA-run government.
During this time we’ve extended coalition politics to the national stage.
We’ve had to learn to set aside our differences and find common ground for the sake of the people.
Is it easy? I can tell you truthfully, not always. But is it the right way – absolutely – because it is democracy in action.
Even where our partners in government turned on us in the name of racial populism, we have prevailed. And we will continue to prevail, because ours is the good fight. Our cause is just and our principles firm.
We did battle in the courts, where each victory in the fight against corruption has helped secure the freedom of every single South African.
Ten years ago we said we will not rest until Jacob Zuma is held accountable for his crimes. For ten years we did battle against him in every court, and we won. Yesterday, in Durban, his trial started.
That is your victory. That is our victory. It’s not over yet, but at least it has finally begun.
The DA will not rest until we establish the principle in our country that every person is equal before the law.
We were a leading player in defeating an insidious racial propaganda campaign. The cynical PR firm Bell Pottinger had to close its doors thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of the DA. We are proud to be part of this South African victory!
Our governments in Cape Town and the Western Cape, along with the herculean efforts of the people of the Mother City, managed to keep the taps running throughout the worst drought on record.
We set about cleaning up our new metros. This is a massive and difficult task. But our Mayors are doing it with the pride and commitment that people can expect from the DA.
We exposed and rooted out corruption. We gave tens of thousands the dignity of title deeds to their homes, making them real home owners. We electrified neighbourhoods, fixed streets, deployed metro police and bust gangsters and drug dealers.
When I look back at all that we have achieved, I am filled with pride. What an honour to lead this movement.
My fellow Democrats,
Three years ago I stood before you in Nelson Mandela Bay and I said: “Our values will lead us to victory.”
I said this because, although the DA is changing, its values are not. We remain committed to the promotion of freedom, fairness and opportunity for every South African.
In the run-up to this Congress, I noticed that every candidate campaigned on values. I think this is because, although we may differ on many things, we all agree on our values.
It is our values that unite us.
It is our values that allow us to come together from across the divides of our painful history.
It is our values that make us different from every other party.
All of us here celebrate and champion diversity. That is why no other party is as diverse as ours. We are united in our diversity.
We are showing that, despite our country’s brutal history, we can work together to improve everybody’s life.
Because apartheid didn’t end in 1994. We are still fighting its legacy today.
We are fighting against racism.
We are fighting against inequality.
We are fighting against poverty.
We are tearing down the emotional walls between people who were previously divided.
And we are doing it without defining people according to the colour of their skin.
For centuries, South Africa has been a battleground of competing racial nationalisms.
Wherever we turned, walls were being put up between us, separating us.
These walls kept us apart physically and socially. We grew up living in two different worlds.
These walls defined everything for us: the opportunities we would have in life, the jobs we could do, even who we could fall in love with.
So when other parties try to resurrect the walls between our people, we’ll be breaking them down.
When other parties say that only black people can speak for black people, and only white people can speak for white people, we’ll be speaking for all South Africans with one voice.
When other parties obsess about power, we’ll be obsessing about freedom. The freedom of every South African to be who they want to be, and to be the best they can be.
This week we opened our new campaign headquarters in Gauteng, and we named it Nkululeko House, Freedom House. Because that is who we are at our core.
This freedom for the people of our country and the people of our continent can only be achieved through liberal values. Values that put the individual first.
Fellow Democrats, we need to build liberalism in Africa, for Africa.
As African liberals, we have chosen a hard road.
We have chosen to stand up to dictators and bullies of all stripes, even when it is politically incorrect to do so.
We have chosen to defend the free expression of ideas, even for people with whom we disagree and whose views make us angry.
We have chosen to promote constitutional democracy at a time when some people are using the constitution as a scapegoat for our society’s problems.
We have chosen to fight for the principle of equality before the law, at a time when powerful people think that they are above the law.
And 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.
I am a proud black South African. I am a proud Sowetan. I am a devout Christian. And I am the proud son of Xhosa and Tswana parents.
All of these things helped shape who I am today. But, in the end, I chose to be who I am.
Three years ago, in my first speech as DA leader, I spoke of being moulded by my 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.
My blackness doesn’t add to or subtract from my humanity. And it doesn’t define everything I am, because I am secure enough in my blackness to think for myself.
At the end of my life I will be judged on whether I was a good husband, a loving father, a loyal son, a patriotic South African, someone who contributed to society. None of those questions will be defined by my blackness.
But for many, this is a radical and subversive idea, 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.
But this must not deter us.
We must carve out a new agenda for African liberalism.
As African liberals, we understand that communities, customs and tradition play an important role in shaping individuals. We recognise the spirit of Ubuntu – that I am who I am through other people.
As liberals in Africa, we are not colour-blind. We understand that the 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.
As African liberals, we know that poverty is the greatest threat to individual freedom, because civil liberties mean nothing if there is no food on the table. A hungry person cannot claim freedom.
This is why we believe in social welfare and a growing economy that lifts people out of poverty.
I see before me today the people who will fix our country – the future of South Africa. I know the potential of this party, and I know what we can achieve in government.
I know that you and I share a vision for our country: a more equal South Africa; a non-racial South Africa; a South Africa where a person born into poverty has the opportunities they need to succeed in life.
I know we share a vision of a South Africa where the next generation will be better off than the previous one. A South Africa where each child is given a world-class education before stepping out into a world brimming with opportunities.
I know we all share a vision of a South Africa where extreme poverty no longer exists, and where the heavy clouds of unemployment no longer darken the horizons of millions of our people.
But it is not enough that we agree on this vision among us here in this room. What matters is that millions of South Africans out there share it too. It is our job to get them as excited about this future as we are.
Our task is to make sure every South African knows exactly who the DA is, and what they will get in a DA government.
Democrats, you know you are winning the battle of ideas when your opponents manufacture lies to try and discredit you. When they call you names.
You see, these lies are all they have left to defeat us.
They say we are the party of Apartheid, because they know that we are the only party uniting South Africans of all races.
They say we are a white party, because they can see we are growing in every village and township. They can see – as I do when I look around this hall – a party united in its glorious diversity.
They even say that I am a puppet of white people and, if we win an election, I will be replaced by a white person.
The truth is that I will never be black enough for them. Because they don’t want black people to think for themselves.
They want black people to remain trapped in the politics of race because this is what keeps the ANC in power.
That is the truth, Democrats.
They are afraid of us. They are afraid of a new generation of black South Africans who think differently to them and want to choose their own futures.
Just as the apartheid government feared white South Africans who rejected their racial nationalism, this ANC government is afraid of those who reject their own nationalism.
They are afraid of South Africans of all races who work together to help poor, black people.
Because this doesn’t fit in with their narrative of our history, and it doesn’t help them stay in power.
Every single black leader in this room is here because he or she believes in the DA’s project of building a better South Africa for all, and because he or she has the skills to help us achieve this.
And for those of you who still have doubts, I urge you to follow the example of one my predecessors in this party, Helen Suzman: Come and see for yourself.
Come to any DA rally anywhere in South Africa.
Come and see for yourself by joining a DA branch. Come and see how we care and fight for those excluded. Come and see how we fight to unite our country. One South Africa for all.
Let’s put the lies and deception to bed. Let’s engage with the issues that will move our country forward.
Let’s discuss who has the best vision for our country and the best solutions to our problems. Let’s interrogate policy, values and manifestos.
To all my fellow Democrats I warn you, the stronger we get, the more our opponents will lie and deceive.
We will fight those lies with our values. And we will fight those lies with the proof that, where we govern, our policies work.
If every person who voted DA in 2016 gets just one other South African to vote DA, we will replace the ANC in the Union Buildings.
That will be the fresh start our country has been crying out for.
We don’t need the empty promise of a new dawn. We need total change. We need to dismantle the corrupt system that continues to oppress poor people in this country.
How can we speak of a new dawn when our cabinet is still crammed full of corrupt ministers, and when our Deputy President has a cloud of allegations hanging over his head?
How can we speak of a new dawn when the same government that shot and killed 34 unarmed mine workers, and left 144 mental healthcare patients to die agonising deaths is still in office?
How can we speak of a new dawn when our children are still dying in pit toilets at schools across the country?
How can we speak of new dawn when our farmers continue to be brutally murdered?
This so-called new dawn will happily play along in removing a mayor who is eradicating bucket toilets and making his city safe simply because his skin is the wrong colour.
This so-called new dawn will see our Constitution taken apart and the property rights of all our people threatened simply to mask the government’s failure to return land to the people within the law.
We don’t need a new dawn. We need a plan to put millions of people in jobs. We need a plan to fight drug abuse and gangs in our towns and cities. We need a plan to shore up our borders and curb illegal immigration.
We need a plan that gives people ownership of their land, and then protects the property rights of all South Africans.
But most of all we need a plan to break down the walls that this government has erected between the insiders and the outsiders in our society.
This, fellow Democrats, is the single biggest challenge we face.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Don’t let those with destructive agendas and hateful ideologies define our country’s problems.
When they say they want to cut the throat of whiteness, or kick a hard-working mayor out of office simply because he’s white, they are dragging our country back to a place we should never return to.
Every day we spend putting out the fires stoked by racial nationalists is a day not spent fixing our real problem.
Our biggest challenge is that we are two distinct nations contained in one. There are those that exist inside our economy, and there are those who find themselves locked out.
On the inside are those with jobs, those with connections, those with privileges and opportunities.
And on the outside are all those who simply cannot get a foot in the door. The desperately poor, the unemployed, the unemployable. Those who knock on doors every day hoping for a way in, and also those who have given up looking a long time ago.
Until now, outsiders have been kept out by a system designed to protect the insiders.
Tenders and contracts go to people who have political connections. Housing lists are manipulated to benefit those with the right party membership. EPWP work contracts are handed out to those favoured by corrupt councillors.
Trade unions and labour legislation protect the employed at the expense of the unemployed.
Black Economic Empowerment is set up to re-empower the super-rich, rather than those who have been left out.
If you’re on the inside, South Africa is working for you. And if you’re not, there is very little chance right now of changing this.
We cannot trust this government to meet this challenge, regardless of who stands at the helm. This much we’ve learnt.
All we can do is focus on our own efforts, because we have also learnt that our own efforts can achieve mighty results.
We triumphed in the fight against a corrupt president and his handlers because we were angry at what they had done. We were angry and we believed that justice would prevail in the end.
We must now summon that same anger and direct it towards the system that keeps more than half our people trapped below the poverty line.
The fact that children go through twelve years of school only to find themselves completely unprepared to step out in the world and secure a job should make us angry.
The fact that half our learners drop out before writing matric, or that half our students drop out without completing their degrees should make us angry.
The fact that we have the highest youth unemployment rate in the entire world should make us angry.
The fact that 17 million social grant recipients can barely eke out a living on a tiny monthly income should make us angry.
The fact that investors are taking their money and their businesses elsewhere because they can’t trust our government to protect their rights and their property should make us angry.
We could be Africa’s biggest economy. We could set the tone for this continent’s development. We could eradicate extreme poverty in a generation.
The fact that we’re not doing these things should make us furious. This anger is an energy that we must channel correctly.
Our country needs a complete change. A new beginning. We need a tomorrow we can believe in.
I believe it is possible to break down the walls that divide our society. I believe we can open the doors of our economy to the millions who still find themselves locked out.
But it will only be done if we get three things right: One, we need to find ways to get South Africans onto the jobs ladder; two, we need to create an environment conducive to new jobs; and three, we need to have a plan for those who are at risk of being left behind.
The first of these tasks – getting people into work – is all about preparing South Africans for the world or work.
Ours is a cradle-to-career approach that includes early childhood development, fixing basic education, offering post-school opportunities for all, re-skilling older workers and harnessing the lost skills of those who have already retired.
But we cannot prepare all these people for jobs that don’t exist. And so our second task is to create an environment where job creation can flourish.
At the heart of this lies city-led economic growth.
All over the world cities are increasingly setting the pace for economic growth. Here in South Africa, 80% of our output is produced by cities and large towns, and almost 70% of our people live there.
The City of Johannesburg and the Western Cape alone contribute more than half our country’s GDP.
Local governments are better placed to deliver the infrastructure required for growth, and they are also more directly accountable to the people they serve.
Our challenge must be to enable our cities to drive economic growth, while also ensuring that our rural communities benefit from this growth.
But even with the best plans and execution, there will always be people who are left behind. And that’s where the third part of our plan comes in.
While the private sector must drive job creation, government still has a role to play in helping those left behind to secure a job and an independent income.
This role includes interventions like a national civilian service, an extensive government internship programme and the establishment of job centres.
This, fellow Democrats, is how we will empower people with the independence that comes with a job.
This is how we will build one nation with one future.
But to do so the DA has to be present and active in every single community.
Whether we are in government there or not, we must offer the kind of leadership that makes a vote for the DA next year the obvious choice.
If we want to be the government for all South Africans, then every action we take must demonstrate this.
We have always prided ourselves on our delivery track record. It is what sets us apart, more than anything else, from our opponents. People vote for us because of what we do, not what we say.
We have been gifted a rare opportunity to demonstrate this difference in cities and towns across the country. We dare not fail to live up to the high standards the public expect from us.
I know we will succeed in our mission because we will never abandon our liberal values. Our party has been built over many decades as a political home for all South Africans.
While others unashamedly drive wedges between races or speak only for minorities, we will never do so. This will always remain the clear blue water between us and our opponents.
Ours is a mission to unite the people of this great country.
Ours is a mission to build an economy and a society that is shared by all.
Ours is a mission to break down the walls that keep so many of our people trapped in a prison of poverty.
Ours is a mission to bring change.
It is a mission that will demand sacrifice and sweat from each and every one of you in this room.
It is a mission that will need you to be outraged by the daily hardship and struggles of so many of our brothers and sisters.
Martin Luther King once said: “If I wish to compose or write or pray or preach, I must be angry. Then all the blood in my veins is stirred, and my understanding is sharpened.”
I want you to be angry, fellow Democrats. I want the blood in your veins to be stirred and your understanding sharpened when you think of the injustice in our society.
And then I want you to direct your anger towards building a South Africa that is free, fair and full of opportunities for all our people.
That is our mission. It is a mission that cannot and will not fail. DM