The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s biggest opposition party, has a new leader. The DA has traditionally failed to gain much support among the black majority. Edward Tsumele profiles Mmusi Maimane and asks if the party’s first black leader can use liberalism to breach the divide between the party’s current supporters and the new ones it needs to win over.
South Africa’s biggest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), leapt into the future last month by electing Mmusi Maimane, a 34-year-old black man from Soweto, as its leader. Maimane comfortably beat out other contenders for the position, adding leadership of the party to his role, assumed last year, as Parliamentary Leader and, therefore, Leader of the Opposition.
Maimane replaces Helen Zille as party leader. Zille, who remains Premier of the Western Cape province where the DA is the ruling party, was DA chief for eight years. She is a white woman of German and Jewish descent who steadily grew her party’s support base. Under her leadership, the DA has become the ruling party in the Western Cape and increased its support from 12% at the 2004 general elections to 22% last year.
Despite these successes, the ANC remains the overwhelmingly dominant party in the country. The DA’s electoral base has to date been mainly in the white and coloured communities of South Africa, which combine to make up 18% of the population and a slightly higher percentage of registered voters. The party has failed to make significant inroads into the majority black population.
Zille made it an explicit policy of her leadership to promote black figures to the forefront of her party. Maimane is a beneficiary of this strategy that at times backfired, such as the botched merger with Agang and adoption of its leader, Mamphela Ramphele as the DA’s presidential candidate just before the 2014 elections.
Maimane only joined the DA in 2009 but rapidly rose up the ranks. He formed a double act with Lindiwe Mazibuko, who was also born in 1980. He served as the party’s National Spokesman; she led the party in parliament. The future leadership of the party was widely seen to be a competition between these two young politicians. However, after last year’s general elections, Mazibuko resigned her position in the party to pursue further education at Harvard University in the United States. The path was now clear for Maimane, who ran a high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to become the Premier of Gauteng, South Africa’s richest province, in those elections, to be Zille’s natural successor.
South African Obama?
Maimane was born in Krugersdorp to a Tswana father and a Xhosa mother and grew up in Soweto in a relatively middle-class family. He holds two masters degrees, one in Public Administration from the University of Witwatersrand and another in Theology from the University of Wales. He is a preacher on the weekends and met his white wife Natalie at church.
He has been dubbed by some supporters as the Obama of Soweto due to his rhetorical skills. Some critics have also fixed on the moniker to highlight his high style, low substance #BelieveGP campaign to become Gauteng Province’s Premier.
He certainly has political skills. His performances in parliament since becoming DA leader in May 2014 have been assured. He has kept up the scrutiny on the government, especially around the expenditure of state funds on President Jacob Zuma’s private residence in Nkandla. During this year’s State of the Nation Address, Maimane led his caucus out of parliament in protest at police being used to remove parliamentarians from the smaller, leftist opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters,
with whom Maimane has formed an unlikely alliance over
This short-term alliance between the parties sitting to the right and the left of the ANC is indicative of the long-term challenge Maimane and the DA face. The interests of the party’s historic supporters, who have tended to be much whiter and richer than the average, will not always be consistent with those of the millions of voters the party needs to win over from the ANC if it is ever to govern at a national level. For example, many black party members are supportive of Black Economic Empowerment policies. Many white South Africans are critical of these policies, in part due to fears of losing privileges, some of which can be traced back to apartheid policies. In general, black and poorer South Africans, who form the majority, will be more receptive to strong government intervention to right the wrongs of the past. White and richer South Africans, will tend to be more resistant.
The DA’s ideological background is in liberalism, which can be used to support government action to challenge or protect the socio-economic status quo. Maimane will ultimately have to choose which liberalism is his and use it forcefully to build a united political identity, ideology and policy platform that can both appeal to more of South Africa’s diverse population and present credible solutions to the country’s many structural problems.