The DA, Maimane and Van Onselen

With the General Election just a few days away, South Africa, yet again, demonstrates why its relatively peaceful transition from Apartheid to democracy is exceptional. The South African ‘miracle’ cannot be downplayed. This election, like every other, will be remembered for various reasons. I will recall it because of the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) interesting response to the targeted criticism of Mmusi Maimane by journalist Gareth Van Onselen.

Van Onselen, who now writes for the Business Day, and who previously worked for the DA, has earned the ire of his former political tribe by taking particular aim at Maimane. Maimane, who burst forth onto the political stage in 2011 as the DA’s candidate for Mayor of Johannesburg, is now the party’s candidate for the Gauteng Premiership. He has, by-and-large, been the focal point of the DA’s election campaign with party leader, Helen Zille, unusually taking a more-supporting role.

As a consequence of his rapid ascendancy and predominance within the DA’s campaign, Maimane has been subject to criticism apposite to his role. His views (whether they are on liberalism, race or Ubuntu) and his campaign (its presentation, strategy and substance) has been described within some quarters as being a game-changer. Other, less generous, critics have argued that it is a meretricious replication of Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. The voters of Gauteng will decide which is true on May 7th.

What is of particular interest in this situation is the way in which the DA or, rather, elements of it, have reacted to Van Onselen’s searing critiques of Maimane. In his latest, amusingly titled, contribution, ‘Mmusi Maimane: The Hollow Man,’ he makes short shrift of, according to Van Onselen, Maimane’s generic (and unconvincing) style and his problematic (though mostly absent) substance. It is the most holistic view of Maimane’s rise and contribution thus far. And that is probably why it has engendered as frenetic a response as it has.

Whether Van Onselen’s damning critique of Maimane is accurate or fair is not my concern. To be frank, I think that Van Onselen’s writing is a touch ungenerous but is impossible to ignore: the intemperate language does not negate the salient detail. The DA’s efforts to rebut Van Onselen have made it come across as shrill and hypersensitive. It is something that I have argued against before. Rather than silence the criticism its frenetic response has conversely underscored it.

Admittedly, the recent letter in response to Van Onselen, penned by Mike Moriarty, a long-standing DA Gauteng politician, is a much more dispassionate treatise. Listing Maimane’s ‘pros’ against Van Onselen’s ‘cons’, the letter goes some way to demonstrating Maimane’s ‘worthiness’ on paper. But it does little more than that. It fails to engage on the issues altogether. It is, largely, a repetition of Maimane’s CV not, as one would expect, a direct response to the complex questions that Van Onselen poses.

Others, like Jon Cayzer, Phumzile Van Damme and Marius Redlinghuys (all of whom are party staffers, the latter two being candidates for the National Assembly) have sought to engage Van Onselen on previous occasions – specifically on Maimane’s interpretation of Ubuntu and how that reconciles with liberalism. But, they too have done so in abstract, largely avoiding discussing Maimane at all. Mabine Seabe, a Maimane campaign staffer, attempted to bridge that divide but, unfortunately, his caustic response paid too much attention to discrediting Van Onselen. All of these are, to my mind, an improvement on Gavin Davis’ reply to Van Onselen’s first serious assessment of Maimane.

Many will argue that politics should not be about personality. I agree. It should be about principle. But, to pretend that the two do not intersect would be foolish. The truth is, in this case, given Maimane’s rise within the DA, and that he is being touted as a prospective leader, questioning him personally is fair game. The influence that party leaders have on their flock and its direction is undeniable. If the party leader is in drift it is likely that the party will drift too. Compare and contrast Mbeki’s agenda for the ANC – misguided as it was – with that of Zuma’s.

What is peculiar about this episode, then, is not that the DA seeks to defend one of its own leader’s against this kind criticism. That is to be expected of political parties.  But, rather, it is strange that it should invest so much time to discrediting one of its critics in particular. Benjamin Fogel wrote a scathing critique of Maimane last year, labelling him the ‘most platitudinous politician in South Africa,’ but his acidic words seems to have hardly drawn any response at all. The same can be said of Khaya Dlanga’s less nuanced, though equally questioning, piece in the Mail & Guardian.

Much is made of Van Onselen’s previous association with the DA. There are assertions of an acrimonious parting of ways and that he is now settling scores. Others suggest that in order to seem balanced, he (falsely) turns on the DA to counterbalance his attacks on the ANC. Apart from the fact that the DA has never objected to Van Onselen’s brutal assessments of the ANC – because it suits them not to – the attitude taken by some of the respondents is ironic. Given that Helen Zille often says that party loyalty is not for life the fact that some seem to expect that of a former staffer suggests, either, that some within the DA do not believe its leader or that they do not listen to her. Either way, a dogmatic expectation of loyalty and an inability to deal with criticism – other than to respond in a paranoid and desperate way – reveals more about how some within the DA see democracy, and free speech, operating. It’s fine when it’s being used against the other guys just not when we are in the firing line.

The themes of these and other DA members’ responses was highlighted in an engagement I had with the fiancé of a serving DA MP who had, at one time, worked for the DA herself. While she did not engage with me in any representative capacity of the DA, her attitude is shared by many within the party – including those who have written publicly on the matter. Responding to those issues, as she raised them, seems germane – even though she subsequently deleted her comments from my Facebook status.

One of the knee-jerk reactions is that Van Onselen’s writing is ‘anti-Maimane.’ Apart from the fact that Van Onselen is a political commentator and, thus, is entitled to be as ‘anti-Maimane’ as he likes, that label is utterly useless for its lack of meaning. Even if, as it is suggested, Van Onselen has a personal vendetta against Maimane, his partisan critique is not discredited by his supposed bias. Of course, bias is a serious issue when one considers factual news reporting but opinion and comment are different. Compare and contrast the SABC’s deplorable decision to ban the DA’s Ayisafani adverts – when impartiality is crucial – with the opinion pages in most newspapers – when it is not. The DA should not be concerned with Van Onselen’s supposed bias – it should engage him on the questions he raises. By focusing primarily on his supposed bias, and seeking to discredit him because of it, the DA’s cacophonic response drowns out the answers which are so desperately needed.

Because nothing that Van Onselen has written is irrational nor unreasonable. It may be disagreeable – to Maimane supporters – but it is not frivolous and deserves a response. It may pain the DA to do so – as it may involve some admission of defeat or failure – but self-awareness and self-criticism do better for the party’s longevity than batting down the hatches and refusing to engage substantively. As Leszek Kolakowski put it in Metaphysical Horror ‘A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading.’ Serious politicians and serious parties question themselves all the time and guard against group think and believing its own spin.

Moreover, labelling journalists as ‘anti-Maimane’ and even suggesting that the Business Day is complicit in allowing one of their writers to peddle a personal agenda is worrisome. It is reminiscent of the attitude that the Mbeki administration notoriously developed towards journalists that did not buy wholesale what Mbeki was selling. That the pretence of Mbeki’s competence to govern is praised by the DA in the face of Zuma’s outright ineptitude is an unfortunate; that it could be replicating some of his administration’s worst behaviour shows the preoccupation with him is case of Stockholm Syndrome that seems to only be getting worse. As a liberal party committed to free speech the DA would do well to guard against this form of silencing dissent.

The DA must also guard against its own hypocrisy when it comes to the media. Often, the DA complains that it is a serious contender for government and that it deserves better coverage. It also argues that the existing coverage of the party is poor – for various reasons; some of which is true. That demand is both fair and reasonable. The DA is a serious political force in South Africa and although it may not be in national government tomorrow, it is the official opposition. And that brings with it a certain amount of respect, gravitas and consideration.

But more and/or better coverage does not mean getting an automatically sympathetic hearing. Even if it is being compared to an organisation as bad as the ANC. The media can – and must – be critical of them both. That includes coverage by former insiders with intimate knowledge of the party’s internal affairs who bring its dirty laundry into the open. As much as it may cause the DA discomfort when that happens, that is part and parcel of political journalism and it should do well to resist the temptation to responding in a self-serving though unprincipled way.

Because the DA vehemently defends journalistic freedom and often rebukes the ANC when it deploys similar strategies against journalists. It has never, to my mind, defended ANC politicians who are pilloried on a daily basis by some journalists who could also be said to have, if we used the DA’s conduct as the yardstick, vendettas against the ANC. It revels in that kind of criticism because it hurts its political opponents. Now that it or, rather, one of its favourite sons is subjected to similar scrutiny it should not schizophrenically forget that commitment to principle and carry out the same tactics it supposedly deplores.

The DA cannot have it both ways: it cannot want to be considered as seriously as the ANC by the media but then complain when it is held to the same critical standard that the ANC is. If it wants to be taken so seriously it must also be ready to withstand this kind of criticism and, in so doing, distinguish itself from how the ANC behaves when it is against the tightropes.

As a DA supporter, who served on various structures within the party, I expect that some of my former colleagues and DA friends will look upon this with consternation. They will argue, possibly, that this kind of debate should not be had until after the election. But as with death and taxes there are always elections around the corner. If this election is going to be as big a game-changer as it is said to be – and Maimane could become the next Premier of Gauteng, a role in which he can expect opprobrium by the bucketful – then now is the perfect time. The DA, or rather elements of it, does itself and its proud liberal history a disservice by reacting in this way. It must distinguish itself not only in its governance but in commitment to the principles of liberalism – of which free speech is a vital component – even when it hurts them. Now, as the party stands on the precipice of something greater – at a time when it is most vulnerable to forget – is the perfect time to remind it to be true to itself. In the desperation to win in the short-term, it must not compromise itself in the long-term. And if Mmusi Maimane has to be roundly criticised everyday by Gareth Van Onselen then so be it.

As Evelyn Beatrice Hall put it in her biography of Voltaire, and which is sometimes incorrectly attributed to him, ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’

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