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South Africa: Why Mmusi Maimane and the DA engine has failed to fire

Current Affairs

South Africa: Why Mmusi Maimane and the DA engine has failed to fire

Although on paper the Democratic Alliance under Mmusi Maimane, ticks all the racial and ethnic boxes, on the ground it has failed to gain the sort of support it needed to mount a challenge to the ruling ANC. Rafiq Raji sets out to find out why.

From an ethnic and racial perspective, Mmusi Maimane, the leader of South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, has all the credentials to be popular with the country’s multi-cultural society.

He is black and so should appeal to black South Africans and since he is married to a white woman, one would expect whites as well as coloureds to warm up to him as well.

But that has not been the case. In other words, Maimane’s black heritage has not proved too much of an asset, which the DA probably had hoped.

Ironically, President Cyril Ramaphosa, Maimane’s counterpart in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), ticks most of the boxes on the key traits the DA sought in their leader.

Ramaphosa has mass appeal with blacks, whites, coloureds and Indians in South Africa – yet this should ideally be Maimane’s forte.

What the DA has going for it as a party, however, is a reputation for service delivery. It has demonstrated this in the relatively better-run Western Cape Province, which it has been governing since 2009.

But why is this excellent reputation not leading to more popular support? One of the reasons is that memories of Apartheid still run deep. The DA, despite Maimane’s position, is still largely regarded as being more concerned about white interests than those of the blacks, coloureds and Indians.

There is hope that this might change in the future, however.

Younger South Africans, who have only vague memories of Apartheid, might eventually buy into the DA’s message; especially if the ruling ANC continues to flounder on the provision of basic public services and does not succeed in checking the corrupt activities of its cadres. But that future is probably still a long way off.

Thus, Maimane is probably resigned to the fact that the DA may not be a ruling party at the federal level for a long while yet and that if it ever does attain that pinnacle, Maimane is unlikely to still be leader.

Failure to capitalize

What do experts think? New African asked Roger Southall, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg for his opinion. Southall has written an incisive report on the subject.

“The Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, had sought to divest itself of the tag of being the party of white liberalism by becoming more racially diverse and progressively transforming its free-market into a social market orientation,” he says.

“However, for all that it had increased its vote share and representation in parliament from one previous election to another, it had proven incapable of taking advantage of the ANC’s dismal record of governance and an upsurge of popular ‘Zuma must Fall’ sentiment which had swept thecountry during the latter years of his Presidency.”

Although the DA had played an important role in demanding accountability by Zuma in parliament and via the courts, the party was outshone in this regard by the theatrical performances of the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters], Southall adds.

“Despite the many scandals of the Zuma administration, the DA’s likeable but ineffectual leader, Mmusi Maimane, failed to capture the public imagination.

“Worse,” says Professor Southall, “his predecessor, Helen Zille [who remained Premier of the DA-ruled Western Cape] had antagonised vast swathes of the black public (whose support the party was desperate to attract) by a long series of ill-advised tweets which highlighted what she regarded as the constructive aspects of colonialism.”

While a solid party performance in the 2016 local government elections had led to ANC defeats and the forging of coalitions between the DA, the EFF and smaller parties to run Johannesburg and the Nelson Mandela metro in Port Elizabeth, “these were soon to come under severe strain”, argues Southall.

“Indeed, the latter one collapsed in a racially-charged dispute in August 2018. Most damagingly, the DA fell out with Patricia de Lille, its own mayor of Cape Town, in an extended fractious battle in which unspecified charges of corruption were rebutted by equally unspecified charges of the party being run by a white cabal.”

De Lille’s eventual resignation from the DA, after various court battles, argues the professor, threatened to fracture its hold over the Western Cape’s coloured community and, as a result, its control over the province which it had swept in 2014 with 59% of the provincial vote.

Embarrassing faux pas

Why has Maimane thus far failed to capture the public imagination? Southall says: “Maimane is a bit stilted. To be fair, it’s a difficult role he has to fill. And as an opposition leader, he has to compete with Julius Malema, who is bombastic, full of fiery speeches, makes a public spectacle, and is always in the news. In fact, he creates news, Maimane doesn’t.”

Recent incidents shows why Maimane is not considered top leadership material by the majority. First, he made an embarrassing slip of the tongue when he said “forty four out of ten South Africans don’t have a job” on the campaign trail in March.

Then came the faux pas during Ramaphosa’s question and answer session in parliament in early March, when he attempted to ask a question in the local language, and failed to use the right protocols in his reference to Goodwill Zwelithini, the Zulu king.

MP Mandla Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s grandson, was quick to pounce and reminded him of the difference between King Zwelithini and a tribal chief like himself. King Zwelithini is addressed as ‘His Majesty’.

Thereafter, national assembly speaker Baleka Mbete asked Maimane to “be sensitive to the protocols”, amidst laughter by some of the black MPs. Maimane asked the remainder of his question in English.

The slight error on the protocol masked the substance of Maimane’s question, which was on land expropriation. But to be corrected on such small but very important local nuances is probably evidence of why Maimane does not have very much appeal to many black South Africans. He should not have to be corrected on these things.

Upcoming elections

So what are the DA’s chances in the upcoming elections in May? Langelihle Malimela, Johannesburg-based Senior Africa Analyst at IHS Markit, says: “The DA is unlikely to progress much further than the 22% that it managed in the 2014 poll.

“This is largely because the DA has done the majority of its growth over the years by eating into the share of other smaller parties, rather than into the ANC. In this regard, they have probably approached a ceiling and are unlikely to grow a lot more, at least for the time being.”

“Where the DA has tended to fall short,” says Malimela, is in the realm of Black Economic Empowerment (or BEE).

“Given that the DA is a historically white party, it has always been equivocal in how it approaches this matter and voters have tended to pick up on this.”

Despite the erosion of public confidence in the ANC, it seems unlikely that the party will have much to fear from the DA – at least, not in the short term.

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