Both the DA and the ANC have had extremely incompetent and weak leaders, in the persons of Mmusi Maimane and Jacob Zuma.
Granted, this statement may be considered somewhat extreme, especially when comparing Maimane to the controversial Zuma. However, it is appropriate, given that Zuma’s removal as ANC leader saw the gradual decline of Maimane in the DA.
It is now appropriate – especially in the light of the upcoming elections – to take stock of the damage that Maimane, as leader of the DA, could cause his party at the ballot box.
Zuma’s depravity served as cover for Maimane’s inability as politician and party leader. However, Cyril Ramaphosa’s appointment as ANC leader and head of state has exposed Maimane’s shortcomings earlier than expected.
Maimane’s election as DA leader in 2015 took place against the backdrop of the DA’s avowed intention of taking over the government of the country.
In this regard, Helen Zille, previous DA leader, was far-sighted: she realised quite early that this ideal could be realised only with the aid of large numbers of black DA votes. She contended that the election of a black DA leader was the only way to realise this ideal.
Millions of black voters who were beginning to feel alienated from the ANC because of the brutal removal of Thabo Mbeki and the rise of a traditionalist like Zuma were ripe for the picking.
However, by 2011, Zille faced a colossal dilemma. The DA did not have prominent black leaders to reap that harvest. Zille then opted for Lindiwe Mazibuko (then only 31) as candidate for the position of parliamentary leader.
However, the peace between Zille and Mazibuko was short-lived, allegedly because they clashed over controversial caucus decisions. Be that as it may, many political commentators and politicians inside and outside the DA were sceptical of whether she met the requirements for this challenging job, on account of her youth and lack of parliamentary experience. In 2014, Mazibuko exited, unheralded.
As if Zille had not learnt from the Mazibuko experience, she then turned to another young black DA member, Mmusi Maimane, to gather the ripe harvest of black voters.
In May 2015, allegedly at Zille’s insistence, Maimane was elected in her place as DA leader.
I was already sceptical at the time, because his election was proof that the DA had bought into the trend, evident internationally and also locally, that political parties move away from the “far right” or the “far left” to the moderate and acceptable centre of politics, merely to win elections.
Ideas then cease to take centre court, which leads to the gradual erosion of the intellectual gene pool in political parties and also in communities. Deeper interpretation and the intellectual grounding of concepts recede or become extinct.
It is clear that bread-and-butter issues – or the economy – are key priorities for communities.
Worldwide, workers are experiencing an economic decline, mainly because they feel left behind by globalisation. This feeling was strong among marginalised voters in America in 2016, and played a crucial role in Donald Trump’s unexpected victory over Hillary Clinton.
The “centre right” results of the European Parliament elections in 2014 and the British elections in May 2015 were clearly influenced by the economic concerns of Europeans and the political shift to the centre right over the previous 14 years of European politics.
In South Africa, the focus on radical economic transformation has deteriorated into the relentless pursuit of resources and the plundering of state coffers. The direct causes of this are reckless populism among the youth and the erosion of the much-needed intellectual class in both the ANC and the DA. The removal of Mbeki, an intellectual and economist, to make way for the unskilled Zuma, and of the highly regarded intellectual Wilmot James in favour of the inexperienced Maimane, are practical examples.
Through Maimane’s election, the DA overturned everything – experience, their classical or neo-liberal ideas and intellectual ability – just to be able to compete with the ANC at the centre-left spectrum of politics. This was not only short-sighted, but also opportunistic. It was done purely to attract more black voters in order to win elections, without giving serious thought to the challenges and the future of the country.
Despite this criticism, Maimane initially resonated with many South Africans, because he was new, young, fresh and black to boot – in sharp contrast to Zuma, who was regarded as incompetent, corrupt, arrogant and bored.
A lively orator, thanks to his years behind the pulpit, Maimane soon got the better of Zuma in parliament, labelling him a “broken” president, to the delight of many. Focusing on Zuma’s faults and shortcomings served him well for a very long time, hiding his own inability and shortcomings. However, this could not last forever.
Maimane has been accused of limited knowledge of the Constitution, after making ambiguous comments to explain his stance on the death penalty.
The euphoria of the 2016 municipal elections, when the ANC lost three large metros to the DA-EFF coalition, soon made way for DA infighting and racial debates, making enormous demands on Maimane’s leadership ability.
The water crisis in Cape Town, the DA’s falling-out with Patricia de Lille, as well as Zille’s contentious tweets defending the consequences of colonialism, catapulted the DA into a crisis. Maimane’s announcement in October 2016 that the DA would diversify its leadership, so that all party structures, from branch to national level, would set targets for the recruitment and development of exceptional black candidates for public office, added oil to the flames.
“Going black” was, however, in line with Maimane’s approach to race – as former journalist-turned-academic Christi van der Westhuizen stated – which meant a break with the DA’s liberal tradition.
Actually not that surprising, because liberalism has become problematic in South African history, especially because it is based on colour-blindness, which is not in line with our colonial and apartheid realities.
Maimane’s statement that “if you don’t see that I am black, you are not seeing me” is indicative that he intends to confront the (neo-)liberal traditions of the DA head-on, because despite the failures of neo-liberalism, the DA’s faith in it is unshaken, and it regards any attack on it as an attack on whiteness.
This has split the DA into two groups – the one, black (social democrats), and the other, white (liberals/“liberal core”) – who are engaged in a fierce battle for the soul of the DA.
In an attempt to entrench the social-democratic and black nature of the DA, Maimane appointed the young and well-spoken Gwen Ngwenya (29) as DA MP and head of policy. This was a tactical error, because Ngwenya, who was tasked to develop a new DA policy directive on Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE), is actually an arch-conservatist who is opposed to BBBEE.
This poses a major dilemma for Maimane, because the DA is rudderless and without any usable ideas or policy to provide answers to the complex post-apartheid political, social and economic challenges. What makes matters worse is that Ngwenya, just like Maimane and Mazibuko, is too young and inexperienced for her position. She also has no significant power base in the DA.
To date, Ngwenya, who recently resigned her position as DA head of policy, has failed to formulate any new DA policy – something for which Maimane will be paying a high price in the future. This will happen, because the “liberal core” proponents within the DA, including Ngwenya, do not embrace a race-conscious and transformative political outlook in their election offering.
In addition, Maimane is under pressure from two minority groups (white and brown Afrikaans speakers) who for years have kept the DA alive at the ballot box. Whites, particularly, are concerned that the DA has not taken any stance on the systematic abolishment of the Afrikaans language, and also about Maimane’s remarks about white privilege and black exclusion. The coloureds are worried about affirmative action and how this has affected them, especially in the Western Cape.
Over recent years, the DA has attracted South Africans of different backgrounds with diverse ideological views. Maimane is under enormous pressure to keep these different interest groups with different backgrounds happy in the party. These groups are now locked in battle, unashamedly competing to represent and promote their interests inside and outside party structures.
Maimane is caught between a rock and a hard place and is battling to navigate his way through the pitfalls and landmines of the political landscape.
The lack of credible black leaders in the DA saw Maimane being catapulted from his comfort zone behind the pulpit into the political arena. He is essentially a reluctant political participant who has never really had a well-seasoned political strategy or vision. Maimane operates, like most clergymen and theologisers, with a theological frame of reference, which has little or no space for other social influences.
His task to grow the DA has, in addition, been complicated by the election of a credible, modern technocrat in Ramaphosa, who is getting rid of the Zuma baggage and building a new ANC.
Make no mistake: Maimane is young, dynamic, well-spoken and intelligent. But intellectual ability must be accompanied by political experience. However, he is inexperienced, with little or no parliamentary experience. Maimane has consequently been criticised for being a stylised politician without any real backbone.
The latest Ipsos opinion survey indicates that the DA will receive only 14% of votes in the upcoming elections – compared with 22,23% in 2014 – which is possibly proof of Maimane’s inadequate leadership.
Maimane has also failed to command the authority and respect of mainstream black political parties like the ANC and EFF. Worse, he has failed to maintain authority in the DA itself. Against this background, it is probably not difficult or unfair to conclude that this must be at least partly because Maimane is black.
Erstwhile British politician Enoch Powell stated that most politicians’ careers end in failure. Time will tell whether Maimane’s political life will follow suit.