TO Molefe

Why shouldn't we notice Maimane's wife's race?

2014-06-23 10:21

TO Molefe

Admonishments echoed throughout South Africa last week. OK. Well, maybe not throughout. And it wasn't as much an echo as a brief flurry of tweets among the few of us on social media who, much to the annoyance of everybody else on social media, follow and comment about national politics often.

See, last week a big event in national politics took place. It was the State of the Nation address, a dog and pony show taking place against the backdrop of an underreported resurgence in evictions of "squatters" from their homes throughout the country. But forget people being turfed out of their homes. Let's see the new Members of Parliament, decked to the nines and strutting their stuff live on the red carpet.

The issue was that some folks thought it was uncool to raise as something worth discussing the fact that Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the official opposition in Parliament, is married to a white woman, Natalie.

A grey area

Now I'll concede it's a grey area, but every day media in South Africa is littered with news, speculation and commentary that use the personal actions and positions of public representatives to tell us something about their politics or performance in office.

Yesterday, for example, the Sunday Times ran an article on the health of President Jacob Zuma. It quoted people who did not want to be named speculating that high blood pressure, diabetes and a heart condition were why the president had to take leave for 10 days a couple of weeks ago. The subtext was that Zuma's health informs his ability to perform his day-to-day duties and foreshadows whether he is capable of serving his full second term.

And last week, the Mail & Guardian published a reader letter that claimed EFF's representative on the rural development and land affairs portfolio committee, Andile Mngxitama, was spotted swilling wine and whiskey at the Maslow Hotel in Sandton. How double-fisting wine and whiskey could possibly be enjoyable is beyond me, but the entire incident is anyway one Mngxitama angrily denies took place.

I sympathise if indeed it was not him. I, too, am often mistaken for other black people. Apparently we all look the same, especially in red berets. And the Maslow, probably contender for the most kitsch hotel in the world, is where young, black professionals go every Friday night to drink their way into political unconsciousness. No revolutionary worth their salt would be caught dead there, unless they were recruiting.

Navigating SA's racial quagmire

The letter's author, a one Nick Goldberg from Johannesburg, was revelling in the delicious irony of Mngxitama enjoying the fruits of capitalist production on the day the Mail & Guardian published a column in which he warned Richard Branson that the 40 hectare piece of land he is buying in Franschhoek was stolen from natives by white colonial settlers.

Goldberg thought being at the Maslow, "a bastion of capitalism", and drinking wine from grapes farmed on land stolen from black people said something about the authenticity of Mngxitama's politics.

Equally, I think how a public representative personally navigates this country's racial quagmire says something about their politics, which brings me to Mmusi and Natalie Maimane. I would have thought an Obama-style politician like Maimane, who often peppers his campaign speeches with personal anecdote about growing up in Soweto as a way of finding resonance with the issues faced by ordinary people, would be open to talking about how he and Natalie navigate "race" in their relationship.

I'd be perturbed, and sceptical about his authenticity, if they were to say it's never been an issue.

It's obviously not easy for me here in Cape Town to get a clear view of how Maimane ran his campaign for Gauteng premier, but from the reportage, this aspect of his life has barely featured. He only addressed the topic once, in a speech he gave at the Apartheid Museum about "race" and identity.

In it, he told the story of how he and Natalie agreed she would offer to make tea instead of accepting an offer to be served when she visited his family's home for the first time.

"With that gesture, she showed that she did not have a superiority complex, that she was willing to make a gesture, however small, to gain acceptance," he said.

Power relations

The personal anecdote was a revealing exposition of the complex racial power relations we all navigate in our everyday lives. He used it to make the point that if we are to reconcile, we should all display a high level of consciousness and respond thoughtfully to how this power dynamic affects our daily interactions.

I found this endearing and instructive. It certainly was more useful than the poster created by the DA Students' Organisation featuring a white man and a black woman in a shirtless embrace, with the tag line: "In OUR future, you wouldn't look twice".

It's obviously up to Mmusi and Natalie to decide how much of their experiences navigating "race" they reveal. But it certainly shouldn't be considered taboo to ask.

- Follow TO Molefe on Twitter.

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Read more on:    da  |  eff  |  andile mngxitama  |  mmusi maimane

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