OPINION: Maimane punished for trying to change the face of the DA

Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille at the press briefing on Wednesday. (Sarel van der Walt/Netwerk24)
Mmusi Maimane and Helen Zille at the press briefing on Wednesday. (Sarel van der Walt/Netwerk24)

Mmusi Maimane, who resigned as leader of the DA on Wednesday, must take responsibility for his short-lived career in the DA, writes Tshidi Madia. But we must also acknowledge that he was punished for trying to change the party from within.

"The strength of the DA lies in the party being able to say: 'I don't need to share your race, your gender or your orientation to be able to deal with issues.' I've got to be a proud South African who defends you," Mmusi Maimane said at a press conference last Sunday when he was still the party's leader.

Next to him sat a visibly smug Helen Zille, who had just made a comeback, winning a contest for chairperson of the DA federal council by a very tight margin.

Fast-track to Wednesday when a relieved Maimane told South Africa the DA was no longer the vehicle to achieve the vision that he has championed as its leader.

READ | ANALYSIS: Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert, Mmusi Maimane and the crisis of liberalism

We've had weeks of fascinating behind-the-scenes political jostling in South Africa's second-largest party, resulting in a historic outcome where its youngest and first black leader stepped down. He also resigned as the party's parliamentary leader and as a member.

A few things have become clear to many voters who will probably be forced to reconsider the DA's offering in the 2021 elections and years to come.

First, the ever-present race issue that the DA often tries to underplay simply won't go away. And it will remain so for as long as attempts to groom black leaders results in their heads being chopped off when they are seen to be taking some sort of stand or assert themselves within the party.

"South Africans are too bogged down in race," Zille told News24 over the weekend.

READ | Elevated too early, Mmusi Maimane struggled to shape a new vision for the DA

Also, former chief whip Douglas Gibson told SAFM that white people, in a country still so unequal and in favour of the white minority, were tired of black people "yapping" about race.

And this from a party that has, as many have noted, the most vigorous affirmative action programme in place or, as Professor Somadoda Fikeni said on eNCA, "microwaves" black leaders and parachutes them to the top.

Secondly, Zille must figure out where her actual lane is and then attempt to stay in it. She is a noted political tactician and looked positively frustrated as she waited to speak after Maimane and Athol Trollip, who resigned as federal chairperson, announced their departure from the party's leadership on Wednesday.

Perhaps her frustration stemmed from disbelief when Trollip also resigned. She and her supporters expected – and were more than happy – with Maimane's resignation. But when Trollip also left, it created a leadership vacuum and forced the party into another leadership contest, way before the expected congress in April.

Trollip, mind you, is yet another example of how clueless the white leaders of the DA are when it comes to the real state of South Africa. He spoke of the struggle of rebuilding his life as a white male in South Africa after his stint as leader.

And then there was the pastor turned politician, Maimane. I think his announcement on Wednesday was a hell of a clever chess move. He threw the party into complete disarray when he relented and walked away from a position he held for four years.

It might have taken him very long to get ballsy, but he did at the very end.

A quick study of video interviews conducted by Maimane and Zille over the years is fascinating to watch because it's the former's face that twitches and lips that tighten. His eyes often told a story of frustration and of someone who was not given a space to lead with Zille hovering around.

Maimane's anger was also visible when he and Zille held a media briefing in Rosebank when she was forced to apologise for her tweets in which she said not everything about colonialism was bad.

But on Wednesday, he gave South Africans a glimpse into some of the battles he faced as leader.

He tried to change the party's position on diversity, he had to navigate those colonialism tweets, he tried to convince the party that black emancipation did not mean white enslavement and he moved the DA's headquarters to Jozi.

And for all of this he was lambasted by a review panel consisting of former leader Tony Leon, former party CEO Ryan Coetzee and Capitec founder Michiel Le Roux.

While for some it is harsh and feels painful to see yet another black leader fall in the DA, while affirming to others in the majority that this is not a party for them, Maimane has a lot of things to think about.

The panel review report described him as indecisive, inconsistent and conflict-averse – not an unfair description of his leadership style. These are things Maimane has to consider, more so now that he has removed himself from the party and as he plots his next move.

Maimane was complicit in his own demise. He must mull it over and accept some responsibility for his short-lived DA career.

He doesn't have a lot of time to do so, though, if he wants to remain relevant and achieve his mission of "one South Africa for all".

For now, Maimane finally gets to breathe after having his back against the wall for months while the DA finds itself stuck in internal battles.

- Madia is a senior politics reporter for News24.

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