No more Mr Nice Guy: 'Mmusi unplugged' has arrived
What we are seeing is a young black leader who is finally defining himself and refusing to be the DA’s 'blackface'
One of Mmusi Maimane’s shortfalls is that he is too much of a nice guy.
When a radio station recently reported that he had claimed to be a “mini Mandela”, he took a public roasting.
Maimane did not attempt to explain that the comment was taken out of context and what he actually said was that, like Mandela, people accuse him of selling out.
When the truth emerged, Maimane did not taunt the media or demand an apology.
At the end of an extensive interview I did with Maimane last week, I asked him how he felt about the episode.
“I was livid and hurt,” he responded.I wondered why, then, did he not say anything. I tried to imagine what his opposite number in the EFF, Julius Malema, would have done had something similar happened with him.Perhaps the answer to Maimane’s approach was in what he told me earlier in the interview about how his faith defines him and willingness to want to get things right.
“I’m actually not interested in games politicians play,” he said. “At my core, I do care. Genuinely. The ideals I hold are not only about the DA, I hold them beyond the DA,” he said.
This is in stark contrast to the leadership script we are used to, courtesy of the ANC. It is always that the ANC defines its leaders, not the other way around.This is at the heart of Maimane’s struggle.
The DA is an amoebic organisation, trying to adapt to current conditions in a society grappling with issues of identity and race, while it must remain true to its core liberal values. As leader, he is responsible for how the organisation adapts and the shape it takes.
The fact that Maimane is an easy-going, nice guy is possibly the reason he had a meteoric rise in the party. He was a suave, new-age man who believed in the dream of a non-racial, equal-opportunity South Africa, and most of all, posed no threat to the DA’s traditional constituency, the white middle class.
Maimane turns 38 on Wednesday, and has already served three years as leader of South Africa’s biggest opposition party.
The country has watched him grow into the job, lead the onslaught on former president Jacob Zuma in parliament and the courts, and increase the DA’s voting base. The party now controls four of the country’s metros, and is therefore responsible for governing 16 million South Africans.But we have also watched Maimane struggle, particularly with the DA’s internal battles on race, and contend with controversies over Western Cape premier Helen Zille and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille.
His lack of assertiveness led to people like Zille believing that she could undermine his authority, even when he repeatedly asked her to cease the ridiculous debate about the benefits of colonialism.
The De Lille matter was clearly mismanaged by the DA from the start, leading to perceptions of an intentionally nasty campaign to eject her.
Both sagas have been damaging for the DA, and will haunt the party on the campaign trail.
On top of this, Maimane is facing heat internally over his agenda to transform the DA through more diversity among its public representatives.His pronouncements published in the Sunday Times this weekend stunned many people. For the first time since being elected leader, he was forthright about the state of his party and unapologetic about where he was taking it.
He said that with the benefit of hindsight, it had been a mistake to retain Zille in the decision-making ranks of the party after she stepped down as leader. It is true that this is not a normal practice in political parties, and even in the corporate environment, having the former head hanging around creates confusion over vision and direction.
To Zille’s credit, she did not contest his assertion, saying she understood how it felt as former DA leader Tony Leon had remained in the caucus after she became leader.
While Maimane’s comments about Zille grabbed attention, it was his general bold tone in the interview that caught people by surprise.
This is not the Maimane many people know, mock and undermine.
In truth, “Mmusi unplugged” has been coming for a while now.He has refused to back down on his views on white privilege, diversity and inequality, even with push-back from other leading members of the DA.
He also faced criticism internally for his defence of former Springbok Ashwin Willemse, who walked off the SuperSport set after feeling patronised by his white colleagues.
The evolution of Maimane appears to be disorientating the conservative wing in the DA, some of whom tried to yank him into line.
They are now are convulsing about the abandonment of liberal values.
Maimane says he is pursing an “African liberal agenda”, which they feel is a bastardised version of their ideology.
But this is not about ideology. It is about a young black leader who is finally defining himself and refusing to be used as the DA’s “blackface”.
Those who assumed that Maimane was non-threatening and a safe bet are bewildered. Some would rather believe he was misrepresented by the Sunday Times than accept that this was actually what Maimane wanted to say.Maimane’s struggle is something that is experienced by black men and women across society – those who are expected to conform, excuse racism and correspond with the definition of a “good black”.
The fact that he is standing up for himself and pursuing his agenda makes Maimane relatable to a constituency the DA would otherwise struggle to attract.
Hopefully he will keep his nerve and not bow to pressure to retreat.
From what he said last week, he is not open to negotiation on issues such as racism, diversity and inequality. This might alienate a portion of the DA constituency but it is a gamble he ought to take as they do not have an alternative home outside the party.
Perhaps it is time they realised that when it comes to these issues, we are all bad blacks. Even a nice guy like Mmusi Maimane.