Mmusi Maimane: The man of the moment

DA leader Mmusi Maimane speaks to the media at the IEC results centre in Tshwane on Friday. Picture: Leon Sadiki
DA leader Mmusi Maimane speaks to the media at the IEC results centre in Tshwane on Friday. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Mmusi Maimane has ‘seen history in the making’. Now it’s time to get to work and prove that the voters made the right choice, writes Hanlie Retief

Mmusi Aloysias Maimane says he woke up in a new country on Friday.

His colleague Phumzile van Damme tweeted that it’s now a country in which President Jacob Zuma will go home to a council governed by the Inkatha Freedom Party; to Parliament in a DA-controlled city; and to the office in a capital city governed by the DA.

“Talk about a ground-breaking moment,” he laughs.

When Maimane opened his eyes as he usually does at 4.45am, he quickly grabbed his cellphone to check the results.

“And then I saw history in the making. I can’t tell you how deeply delighted I am about where we now stand as a party.

“I am proud of our nation. Our people. I am in awe of what has happened. It’s, ja, the best description that I have for it: in awe.”

In a lot of ways, it was actually a referendum on Zuma, he says.

When everybody said the DA had no real power, that it couldn’t do anything about Zuma, when people last year felt so powerless after former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene was unceremoniously fired by Zuma in December, he told them: it’s okay, the voting booth is waiting.

“And we have used our most powerful weapon – our X.”

He laughs boisterously, which is rather unlike him.

“Who could’ve imagined that the city named after Nelson Mandela would be governed by the DA! There’s a newspaper headline for you: The DA stole Nelson Mandela and his bay.

Maimane is also tired of hearing that the DA has reached a glass ceiling, and that the party will never crack the hard core of the ANC.

“When we took over in Cape Town, people said ‘never in the Western Cape’. Now we have Nelson Mandela Bay and people will say ‘never in the Eastern Cape’. I’m telling you: we will.

“The idea that you have to be a black party to attract black voters? No. You have to be a South African party to attract South African voters.”

The map of the country is still ANC-green, that’s true. In other countries, 54% is a major victory. But for the first time, conversations are not about how much the ANC is going to win, but if it is going to win at all.

“We broke through in wards where it seemed impossible five years ago,” he says.

On Thursday night, coalition talks began at the Independent Electoral Commission results centre in Tshwane.

Pieter Mulder of the Freedom Front Plus, Gwede Mantashe of the ANC, and Dali Mpofu and Floyd Shivambu of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) sit in a little circle.

Maimane sits with Bantu Holomisa of the United Democratic Movement.

“Yes, I spoke to him and a bunch of other leaders. We have to be ready for any eventuality. My conversation with Bantu was specifically about Nelson Mandela Bay,” Maimane says.

But coalition at any cost? Definitely not.

“If a coalition is not going to serve our voters, we will walk away from it. The core of a coalition should be the people, not the politicians.”

Like the EFF, the DA won’t go into coalitions with the ANC – even though, ironically enough, the ANC in Gauteng is ideologically closer to the DA than the EFF.

“Look, the ANC comes out of a leftist socialist ideology. It’s a state-orientated approach. How on earth are you going to form a coalition with a party where patronage and corruption tinkle like Chivas on ice in their glasses? I can’t do business with people like that.”

And the EFF?

“We will have to decide on a plan of action. If we’re the biggest party, we control key aspects like finance and service delivery,” he says.

“Remember when the DA was in a seven-party coalition in Cape Town with party ideologies ranging right across the spectrum – from the Pan Africanist Congress to Al Jama-ah?

“South Africans have to learn this the hard way: to make our democracy work, coalitions are a means to an end. We have to seize it, learn from it, take the blows and deal the blows – and if it doesn’t work out, there is nothing wrong with walking away. But we can’t not try.”

And if the ANC forms a coalition with the EFF?

“Good for them. If they can manage that, those two. But there is the issue of integrity: the EFF is on record saying that it will never go into a coalition with the ANC.”

And if the ANC fires Zuma and offers Julius Malema a Cabinet position?

“Let them! It will show what they are for once and for all. Your deeds expose you. We have always served the people of South Africa from the opposition benches.”

But the DA is desperate – with an eye on the 2019 elections – to prove that it can govern outside the Western Cape. For that, it will need Gauteng in particular.

“Yes, we do. But we are not desperate. With this election, we have already shown that where we govern, we grow. Look at Midvaal, look at Cape Town, where we now have a two-thirds majority. Why are we growing? Because we can govern.”

He doubts the ANC is going to show Zuma the door at this stage. “Everything now depends on [which ANC faction] is going to strike first.”

Zuma will probably disband the top structure of the ANC in Gauteng after its “poor results”, Maimane predicts. The ANC’s stronger results in Zuma’s traditional support base in the Free State, Mpumalanga and North West will pave the way to the party’s 2017 congress.

“You’re not really seeing anybody put their hand up for the job. Indeed, it’s Zuma himself who worked [former president Thabo] Mbeki out.”

He laughs and says one thing is certain: “I’m grateful I’m sitting here today and not in that camp.”

Today, the DA deserves its blue balloons, but Maimane is under no illusion about the “massive task” waiting for the party. “When I think about the desperate conditions that the people of Nelson Mandela Bay are living in ... I went door to door in the townships, people invited me in and said they were going to vote for us. They trust us. We dare not disappoint them.”

He’s also under no illusions: with a national defeat in 2019 suddenly on the cards, the ANC cannot afford to let the DA look good in government.

Expect the rockiest of roads possible from a resentful ANC.

“And that’s putting it gently. Johannesburg is going to be particularly rough. Destabilisation is all the ANC really knows how to do.”

But his party is ready to take over, he insists.

Workshops have been finalised, training done, action plans for the first 100 days are in place.

What a week. After this, one imagines, there’s a blue sentence at the bottom of the IEC’s big election board: vindication for Maimane.

Initially, loads of enemies, both inside and outside his own party. And labels. A snake. Stooge. Rented black. Token. Hollow man.

“First, they ridicule you, then they laugh at you. Eventually, they work with you,” he says.

So for him, the election is a personal victory. “And not just that, it gives me courage.”

He’s also been vindicated about the direction he’s taking the DA in. The old liberals’ warbling about how “pure liberal ideology” was bartered for black votes are eating their words these days.

“The DA is a party for all South Africans. And we stay true to our principles. What are they suddenly calling us ... a mainstream party!”

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