Why Maimane should quit
He tried to tackle privilege and racism in the DA, but he failed. Now he just gives them a black facade of legitimacy
When Lindiwe Mazibuko quit the DA for academia in 2014, many people were stunned that a talented, formidable young leader had decided to walk away from politics at a time when her career could have switched into high gear.
She had been the DA’s parliamentary leader and distinguished herself as an impressive and fearless politician who was able to hold her own against experienced leaders, including former president Jacob Zuma.For years, she had refused to cow to bullies in the ANC who had tried to demean her. For some reason, however, she decided to throw in the towel after a fallout with the DA elite.
Mazibuko walked away with her dignity intact.
It is unclear whether the same would be said for DA leader Mmusi Maimane after the power barons in his party are done with him.Three years ago this week, Maimane became leader of the DA after being the favoured candidate of the party’s decision-makers, including the outgoing leader Helen Zille.
Maimane had reached the pinnacle of South Africa’s biggest opposition party after a meteoric rise, from mayoral candidate for the City of Johannesburg, national spokesperson and Gauteng premier candidate before replacing Mazibuko as leader of the opposition in the National Assembly.
He seemed to be the favoured candidate for any available position of prominence, and willingly stepped up whenever the seniors snapped their fingers.
Unfortunately Maimane opened himself up to being the black face through which the DA’s old guard could continue to control the party while creating a façade that the party was being transformed.Without a black leader, the DA had reached its growth ceiling and the only way to expand its support base was to attract urbane, aspirational young black people to a modern equal-opportunity party seemingly led and controlled by people like them.
That has now been exposed as a pretence.
Over the past three years, Maimane has spent much of his time fighting fires and having to dance on hot coals, mostly through the race politics of the DA and because he is clearly not the person calling the shots.To his credit, Maimane has made some effort to assert his authority but those who control the party from the shadows are always able to override him.
After the Penny Sparrow racism controversy in January 2016, Maimane announced interventions to tackle racism and transformation in the DA. Among these was an anti-racism pledge that members had to sign, permitting that their membership could immediately be revoked if they were found to be in violation.
Maimane said he was also introducing measures to ensure more diversity among the party’s public representatives.
“My objective is to ensure that, by 2019, our parliamentary and legislature caucuses, and our decision-making structures at all levels, reflect the diversity of our complex society,” Maimane said then.He also said he wanted to introduce a DA policy document on a focused plan to overcome the structural inequalities in the country. This would include black economic empowerment and land reform. Topping off his wish list was a series of race dialogues that would unpack uncomfortable issues in the party and in society.
What Maimane had in mind at the time, a few months into his term as DA leader, and what has ensued has exposed that he is clearly not the person in charge. It is evident that he will not be allowed to pursue objectives antithetical to the interests of the core constituency of the DA – the white middle class and established elite.He is unable to assert discipline, as was exposed with the charade over the Dianne Kohler Barnard and Zille disciplinary matters.
Despite Maimane expressing personal distaste at Zille’s senseless crusade to proclaim the virtues of colonialism, he is unable to extricate his party from the mess she continues to generate.
Maimane’s goal to change the complexion of the DA’s public representatives is also unattainable as this will upset the power balance in the party and dislodge the sentinels who watch over the interests of the primary constituency.
Similarly, the race dialogues Maimane envisaged never took off as these were bound to cause discomfort for the old guard as well as the party’s core support base.
So it came as no surprise that Maimane would be challenged on his views on white privilege by leading members of the DA caucus.
South Africa is the last country on the planet where white privilege can be contested or ought to be in dispute. But Maimane is on such a short leash that he is unable to express himself on something so obvious to the vast majority of the population – and an issue that connects him to the very constituency the DA hopes to attract.But there is a history of tempering Maimane’s ambitions to transform the party and the task of those around him is to constantly keep him from upsetting the status quo.
The dilemma for Maimane is that he must lead the DA into the 2019 elections campaign knowing that it does not represent him or what he had aimed to achieve as leader.
He has tried and failed to tackle privilege and racism in his party, and now has to continue to front for it.
President Cyril Ramaphosa expressed solidarity with Maimane in parliament this week, saying: “We will be the first to defend Mmusi Maimane against those in his own party who deny racial inequality.” Maimane looked on downcast, obviously not knowing how to react.
It is a difficult spot for the young, clearly worthy leader to be in. He is the first black leader of the official opposition and it would not be easy for him to walk away when he is at the crest of his career.
But Maimane should not allow himself to be used by a powerful lobby that does not have real confidence in his beliefs or leadership abilities.
Black skin should never be used as an instrument to protect or prop up white privilege.