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Why some fish are noticeably bigger in the Democratic Alliance’s small, white pond


Marianne Thamm has toiled as a journalist / writer / satirist / editor / columnist / author for over 30 years. She has published widely both locally and internationally. It was journalism that chose her and not the other way around. Marianne would have preferred plumbing or upholstering.

A look at the party’s popular white politicians reveals they are young, authentic and approachable.

There’s no escaping that, in a country as diverse as South Africa, a minority within a minority — pale males — are the public face of the DA.

There are about 4.6 million white South Africans, according to 2022 estimates by Statistics SA, and Wikipedia informs us that, “for every 100 females, there are 94.0 males”. So, men are a minority within a minority, if you get the drift.

Though there are many inspiring, young black leaders in the DA’s ranks, its embodiment swims, for now, in this small population pond.

How these men have manifested in an overwhelmingly black, multilingual society and how some have found resonance with majority voters in the regions where they stand out in political life is intriguing.

The DA would certainly describe itself as a progressive party. Its pale members are not the FF+ brand, with that party’s traditionally white, male Afrikaner roots. The DA projects itself also as a cosmopolitan party with a cosmopolitan sensibility. In Cape Town, we have streets painted rainbow colours.

Unlike the EFF, which is Pan-African in outlook as opposed to worldly, and has Lulu de Beer of Kempton Park, who scored a ward recently, with fine dreads, we remind you. And a woman.

ActionSA’s Michael Beaumont was born and bred in Durban. We leave that there. When he’s in a suit, even as the chair of the young party, he still looks a bit like a DA guy (he once worked for it as managing director in KwaZulu-Natal). His move to African shirts and casual wear clocks him as sartorially fluid.

Then there is Jacob Zuma’s best white, Carl Niehaus. Both geriatrics of the ANC (Niehaus since expelled) are supported financially from time to time by “businessman” Louis Liebenberg.

The former president’s daughter Duduzile has given Liebenberg the official seal of approval, saying that, because he was willing to give her father money and cows, he is an acceptable white man. Especially since he grifted the money off other white people.

It’s a masala.

The outliers

The Cape Town mayoral race in 2021 was described as a “dry white season” by colleague Rebecca Davis. Three pale candidates, Brett Herron of Good, Geordin Hill-Lewis of the DA and Cameron Dugmore of the ANC, were poster men for their parties.

Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis Photographer: Brenton Geach/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Hill-Lewis promised Cape Town that “spring is coming”. With the DA getting 58.22% of the vote, he was sworn in on 18 November that year. The 34-year-old has since become ubiquitous on social media and in real life. He is widely respected even by those who might not view the DA as their political home.

So what’s the alchemy?

Hill-Lewis is an excellent example of a self-reflective politician who is aware of and able to breach the separations in Cape Town, a dismally unequal city, like every other.

Did we mention young?

On the first day of his mayorship, he inspected sewage spills in Khayelitsha and Milky Way Pond, in Phoenix, that contribute to environmental degradation. He’s been at it ever since.

“Um … Lewis or George” is how two young Capetonians responded to Hill-Lewis, who was filming them for his Twitter feed during a recent winter walkabout in Cape Town. This was in reply to the question: “Do you know who Cape Town’s mayor is?”

When they realised that standing before them in his black K-Way puffer was the mayor himself, one said: “So you’re just like a normal person walking around Cape Town?”

“Hundred per cent.”

Years ago, Pravin Gordhan, the Cabinet minister everyone loves to hate to love, would repeat, whenever he could, that government officials should work for the “greater good”. That Gordhan himself keeps going is remarkable.

The “greater good” is a philosophy that Hill-Lewis, too, has espoused. His Twitter profile carries a subtle statement of faith: Soli Deo Gloria (Glory to God alone).

There are times when Hill-Lewis looks like a cherub in a Renaissance painting. He possesses a youthful energy that carries him from pillar to post across the metro, his cheeks often flushed red.

Sports days, drain cleaning, garbage removal, flood damage, rolling blackouts, crime, homelessness, construction cartels, organised crime, taxi shenanigans.

Then there is the mayor in a suit. Approachable, always polite, engaged, self-aware, intelligent, savvy and with a personal “bias for action”, as they say in the political self-help books. And, most importantly, authenticity. One never gets the feeling Hill-Lewis is playing or acting a part.

Many tongues make light work

We turn to the DA mayor in uMngeni, Christopher John Pappas, 31 years old and gay, so a minority within a minority. How’s that for democracy.

Christopher Pappas, mayor of the uMngeni Local Municipality (Photo by Gallo Images/Darren Stewart)

It was Charles the Great (Charlemagne and not King Charles, son of the late Queen Elizabeth) who said “if you possess a language you possess another soul”.

Pappas is fluent in isiZulu.

Viewed as one of the most popular mayors in South Africa, Pappas, appearing on Annika Larsen’s My Guest Tonight and responding to how he has made it politically “when all odds were against you”, said “a deep desire for change”.

“Being able to communicate with the people I grew up with,” he replied, adding that it was “an obligation I feel to the privilege I have had”.

A second or third language enables the speaker to inhabit several identities. Johnny Clegg in isiZulu was a different man. And Pappas gets this. “There is emotion in a language. I can empathise, I can hear the emotion behind what is being said,” he said.

The ANC leader in KwaZulu-Natal, Siboniso Duma, has called Pappas “a racist little boy”. Boohoo. Anyone is “little” next to the burly, bearded Duma, especially Pappas, who is delightfully slight of stature.

And finally

DA leader John Steenhuisen was also born in Durban and spoke from the podium of the Tropicana Hotel on the night he was elected in November 2020.

DA moonshot

John Steenhuisen celebrates after being elected leader at the DA Federal Congress in Midrand on 2 April 2023. (Photo: Supplied)

He’d like to project JFK vibes, but he is too much of an oke for that. His former wife he described as “roadkill”. Steenhuisen is 47.

Pugnacious is what comes to mind. A bruiser. It’s not a good look on a white guy who is the leader of the official opposition. Oh, and the carping (which Malema, who is 42, does so well too) grates the average human ear, and elicits and stirs vexation more than reassurance. Bouncing from carp to carp in political discourse is so last season anyway.

What season will 2024 bring for our white flowers of the nation? DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    South Africa will never reach its full potential until it gives up its obsession with the shades of colour of people’s skin.

  • Peter Geddes says:

    Great descriptions of these guys who are so committed to Project RSA, and also of those more committed to themselves.

  • Hennie at Work says:

    You forgot Alan Winde. I find him – along with Geordin – the most inspiring politicians in the country. Just getting on with the job – not seeking the limelight, not playing games. Just getting the work done in what little room they have to wiggle around in. I am not a fan of Steenhuizen and I honestly cannot understand how he, along with Zille, are at the top of the DA pile.

  • Ian McClure says:

    OMG .
    It is 2023, and articles such as these, founded on race, are still persisting in reputable publications !!
    ( Put the – racist – shoe on the other foot, and imagine a discourse of the calamities inherent in the ANC related to race/colour/ religion/ sexual preference !! The author is aware .)
    Two other things :
    1 . Remember the Population Registration Act – one of the 3 pillars of apartheid ?
    2 . Singapore – having failed with BEE ( their Singaporean/ Chinese version ) has adopted the ( very successful ) triumvirate of principles : Pragmatism, Meritocracy and Honesty – no race issues .
    Sorry for the fact that Helen Suzman, the founder of the party was historically ” white ”
    This is the time to save a failing state – prioritize forgetting about race.
    Get over yourself already !!

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