/ANALYSIS: Elevated too early, Mmusi Maimane struggled to shape a new vision for the DA

ANALYSIS: Elevated too early, Mmusi Maimane struggled to shape a new vision for the DA

Mmusi Maimane, who resigned on Tuesday as leader of the offical opposition, was recruited into the DA a decade ago. He didn’t grow up in the tradition of the party and its forbears – the Democratic Party, Progressive Federal Party or the United Party – and was a staunch supporter of the ANC until much later in his life.

Despite his meteoric rise in the party, elevated from newly joined ordinary member to parliamentary leader in less than four years, he was another victim of the organisation’s obsession with identifying and fast-tracking talented black politicians into senior positions in order to become more acceptable to the country’s largest and most influential group of voters: the black electorate.

He followed in the footsteps of Lindiwe Mazibuko, who became parliamentary leader at the age of 31, only to resign shortly before the 2014 general election ahead of losing a referendum on her leadership. Maimane replaced her and became a project of then-DA leader Helen Zille.

“The ANC worked very hard under former presidents Mandela and Mbeki. We were on track. In fact, in 1999 I still voted for the ANC.” – Maimane in an interview with Marida Fitzpatrick of Beeld, August 25, 2013

He appeared on the scene shortly before the municipal election in 2011 but became a national political figure ahead of the 2014 general election, when he was appointed national spokesperson for the DA – which enhanced his visibility – as well as the party’s candidate for premier in the province.

Maimane, then a councillor in Johannesburg, during an interview in 2013 in Soweto. (File)

It was clear at the time that he was being groomed for a bigger stage, and Zille’s project to add racial and gender diversity to the party’s leadership structures was gaining traction. Along with Patricia de Lille and Mazibuko, the party’s most visible leadership positions were occupied by women, two of them black and coloured respectively.

Maimane, who impressed in his public appearances early on as articulating the party – and Zille’s – vision of an “open opportunity society for all” – clearly, was becoming the main subject in the leadership’s attempts to “grow our own timber”.

“For you, Honourable President, are not an honourable man. You are a broken man, presiding over a broken society.” – Maimane, in his reply to the State of the Nation Address by then president Jacob Zuma, February 17, 2015

By the time he stood opposite then-president Jacob Zuma in early 2015, the ANC was easy pickings. It was fatally embroiled in grand corruption and had to fend off scandal after scandal, with the Nkandla debacle quickly followed by regular revelations about the Gupta family and the emergence of state capture.

Maimane took over the parliamentary leadership from Mazibuko and, under the guidance and prodding of Zille, proceeded to clear out a dysfunctional caucus leadership. John Steenhuisen became his chief whip and confidante, and the party’s backroom operations were re-staffed and beefed up by a number of talented young officials and MPs.

At full throttle in the National Assembly. He won plaudits for his “broken man” speech in 2015, when he launched a scathing attack on then president Jacob Zuma. (File)

Maimane’s “broken man speech” was undoubtedly the highlight of his parliamentary career. He flayed at the ANC’s dishonesty and corruption and reduced the normally unperturbed Zuma to nervously twitching about in his front bench.

“If you don’t see that I am a black man‚ then you don’t know me at all.” – Maimane, on his election as DA leader, May 10, 2015

In April, two months after the media and analysts praised Maimane for his tour de force during the opening of Parliament, Zille stepped down as DA leader because of her fears that the party wasn’t moving quickly enough down the road of introducing black leaders. Athol Trollip, who was ousted by Zille’s original great black hope, Mazibuko, refused to stand back in favour of a black candidate for federal chairperson, while James Selfe was still ensconced as chairperson of the federal council.

Zille, who tried to reconcile her commitment to non-racialism with the need to shape and cultivate black leaders to take over the party, opted to promote Maimane’s candidature instead, and helped secure an overwhelming victory in May of that year.

But whereas Zille attempted to remain true to the party’s views and values on race – i.e. that it should not be a determinant of progress, redress, disadvantage or advantage – Maimane immediately made his race the focus of his personal political philosophy.


Maimane is congratulated by Helen Zille on his election as DA leader in May 2015. She worked hard to ensure his victory. (Gallo Images)

Initial consensus was that Maimane must be given the space to grow into the role of DA leader, with the accompanying history and ideology, and that his approach, if he could marry it with the party’s central ideological tenets, could be a pragmatic way of positioning the party as more palatable to hitherto reluctant black voters.

During Maimane’s tenure a number of young, black party members came to the fore and started occupying more starring roles in his parliamentary caucus. The party was undergoing rapid change and Zille’s vision of an “open opportunity society for all” was soon replaced with a nebulous theory about “one South Africa for all”.

Maimane also wasn’t afraid to flirt with the ANC and the governing party’s history, showing vocal admiration for Mbeki and later on laying claim to Nelson Mandela as one of the country’s most revered sons – something which drew mockery from inside and outside the DA.

“That mandate is not for us to work for DA people, that mandate is to deliver for the city and therefore I will be tasking the team there to make sure they work hard.” – Maimane declaring victory in the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality after municipal elections, August 4, 2016

If the “broken man speech” was his personal highlight, then the DA’s bullocking performance in the local government election of 2016 was the zenith of the organisation’s performance during his tenure.

Exploiting the national outrage and anger about state capture, the party fulfilled the vision set by Zille, which was to break out of the Western Cape and become a party of government in the northern parts of the country.

Thanks to the ANC crumbling under the weight of the Zuma government’s corruption, and with the aid of partners in the EFF and other minority parties, it took charge of the mayoralties of Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg and Pretoria.

For Maimane it was a triumph – although the success in Gauteng wasn’t bargained or budgeted for. The DA scrambled to identify enough competent officials to deploy to Tshwane and Johannesburg, even considering the idea of leaving those cities to the ANC. In the end the lure of power was just took much, and the party plunged head-first into stormy arrangements with Julius Malema’s EFF.

Maimane decided the gambit was worth it, even recruiting a businessman with unknown political convictions, Herman Mashaba, to take the reins as eGoli mayor.

“We felt that it was crucial that Helen Zille should apologise to the people of South Africa which she had, and must step away from all leadership roles of the party… I believe it is the best way to deal with reconciliation project if we are going to have that project succeed.” – Maimane in an interview with Stephen Grootes on Talk Radio 702, June 13, 2017

Amid trying to make the three newly acquired metro municipalities working, his relationship with Zille started to fray. They first came into conflict with the emergence of the #FeesMustFall movement two years earlier, with Zille agitating for a more intolerant line against violent students, and Maimane comparing their protest with the heroics of the 1976 Soweto uprising.

And although she was still a party doyenne as premier of the Western Cape, it was clear that they differed on the way forward. For Maimane a closer alignment with ANC type redress policies was the answer, and for Zille a dogma of strict non-racialism was the only way.


Maimane explains the deal he reached with a stoney-faced Zille after her infamous tweets about colonialism in 2017. (Gallo Images)

When Zille, after an official visit to Singapore, tweeted about how the legacy of colonialism wasn’t all negative, Maimane saw a grand opportunity to neuter Zille and finally take charge of the party. She reluctantly recanted on live television about her remarks – construed as an apology for apartheid – and agreed to step down from all party structures and restrict her public statements to the provincial government.

It was a big moment in Maimane’s attempt to mould the party into his vision.

“The clause around diversity not only says the party must strive, but that it must actively go out to promote diversity.” – Maimane, at the DA’s federal congress, after his attempts to change the party’s constitution was rejected, April 9, 2018.

Emboldened after the municipal election and in the wake of Zille’s banishment, Maimane decided to go a step further: he wanted to entrench his vision for diversity and representation in the DA’s leadership ranks in the party’s constitution.

Whilst trying to keep coherence in party policy, Maimane wanted a clause inserted to the effect that the party will ensure racial diversity in its leadership ranks. His opponents however defeated his attempts, arguing that racial quotas or appointments made on the basis of demography was anathema to the organisation’s raison d’etre, and a watered down clause committing the party to promote diversity was adopted.

The cracks had started to show.

“Nobody…no leader enters a race looking for a loss. We could have succumbed to populism narratives … Even though we’ve lost some votes, I can guarantee you that we held the centre.” – Maimane at the results operational centre in Pretoria on May 10, 2019

The party was ill-prepared for the end of the Zuma presidency. Maimane got swept up in the national sense of relief with the election of President Cyril Ramaphosa in February 2018 and was reluctant to attack the new president for fear of alienating exhaling and content South Africans, positively numb after years of corruption.

But frustration was growing in his inner circle, with some saying that the momentum that was built up over the last two years ebbing away quickly because of Maimane’s indecisiveness in how to approach Ramaphosa, who was billed as the country’s saviour. The DA, used to pummeling the inept and corrupted Zuma, was unable to launch against Ramaphosa, and Maimane was being blamed for the party’s inertia.

The results of the general election were an abject disaster.

Mmusi Maimane tydens die verkiesing vroeër vanjaar

A sombre Maimane leaves the results operational centre in Pretoria after a testy confrontation with journalists following the general election in May 2019. (File)

It could neither gain the support of new black voters, nor could it retain all of the support of its traditional voters. Shedding almost half a million votes, the party was in shock in the immediate aftermath, dismissing lost votes as “racial nationalists” who don’t belong in the party, and styling the result as a “winning loss”.

It failed to launch in Gauteng, the country’s most valuable province and the most vulnerable to takeover, and its Northern Cape efforts came to nought. In a low-turnout election, the DA’s support shrunk – the first time in a quarter of a century it lost voters in a general election.

But the malaise ran deep. The party’s election campaign was built on a hastily compiled manifesto that tried to be everything for everyone, without being something tangible for someone. Its approach to black economic empowerment was in flux, with internal divisions preventing a coherent policy from taking shape, while its economic policy was dragged by analysts and opponents alike.

“I want to congratulate Helen Zille on her election as chairperson of federal council, and I look forward to the new energy, ideas and vigour that Helen will bring to the leadership collective of the party.” – Maimane on the election of Zille as chairperson of the DA’s federal council, October 20, 2019

A subsequent party review panel identified Maimane’s leadership as the single most important reason for the DA’s tribulations, and said although he’s passionate and committed, he is also indecisive and doesn’t like confrontation. This led to policy drift and uncertainty, as well as internal dysfunction and distrust.

Helen Zille

Maimane looking defeated next to Zille after her dramatic return to active DA politics in October 2019. (Sarel van der Walt/Netwerk24) 

The review coincided with the dramatic return of Zille to the national stage when she was elected as chairperson of the DA’s federal council, a powerful position where she was put in charge of the party’s operations.

It was a massive blow to Maimane, who followed a pragmatic, flexible approach to party ideology by putting growth among black voters at the centre of his agenda. This was clearly at odds with significant power blocs inside the party – who backed Zille’s return – who were convinced that Maimane was moving too fast, too quickly and too far away from the party’s founding ethos.

In the end he was unable to materially change, position and unite the party for growth under his self-proclaimed pragmatic vision of embracing an approach to race that isn’t traditional DA policy.

Perhaps it was a function of being thrust into the role unprepared and too early, and an unwillingness to forge a shared, practical and attainable vision.

But it might also reveal a party unwilling to embrace the future and a refusal do what needs to be done in order to obtain power.

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