'Weak' Maimane faces toughest DA congress yet: Can he rise to the occasion?

Mmusi Maimane speaks at a DA event. (File, Netwerk24)
Mmusi Maimane speaks at a DA event. (File, Netwerk24)

DA leader Mmusi Maimane is going to the party’s electoral conference uncontested for the position, but his ideas for the future of the party will be challenged at a time he desperately needs a win within to cement his grip on power.

It has been clear from day one, since his mentor, Helen Zille, handed him the baton, that he does not have a firm grip on power.

In the past two years, he lost two major battles that publicly exposed his weaknesses. He tried to discipline the errant Zille over pro-colonialism tweets, but was forced to retreat and settle for a political solution.

Now Maimane is battling to overpower another political giant, Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille.

That feud is no longer about De Lille’s actions as she has successfully used her anti-corruption crusade mantle to paint the DA as a bully, determined to remove a coloured mayor who simply won’t toe the line of the white boys' club in the party.

De Lille has lost the political battle after her own caucus overwhelmingly voted to oust her, supported by the DA federal executive. But her credentials as the person who exposed corruption in the arms deal has won her public sympathy. Her fight to have the now-abandoned disciplinary hearing conducted in public has portrayed her as someone who has a nothing to hide, while the DA, a champion of transparency on a number of national issues, wants it behind closed doors.

Few news reports now even refer to the investigations into her alleged misconduct by an independent legal firm and findings by the DA’s own internal probe. Whether De Lille has a case to answer for, has been forgotten. Instead, her disciplinary hearing now looks like a witch hunt.

Maimane is so exhausted from the litigious battle with De Lille that he just wants the party to have powers to recall her, something that could come back to haunt him as the newly proposed DA constitutional clause to recall, includes all party deployees.

But for now he is safe, with neither the "black caucus" nor the conservatives within the party willing to risk a bitter leadership contest ahead of the crucial 2019 elections. There is just not enough time to introduce a new leader to the public and there are more threatening internal battles that have to be won. 

At the last DA congress the only contentious issue was the definition of family, with some liberals arguing the party was pushing a conservative definition of a nuclear family that excluded minority groups.

'Diversity' catch phrase sparks race feuds

But at next weekend’s conference a bitter battle is expected over economic policy, equity within the party, identity and where to position it in the next election. The party will also have to produce a convincing alternative policy on land reform.

The battle over the representation of blacks at the top echelons of the party is inescapable as the membership of the party has changed drastically with its growth within the black community.

Maimane’s "diversity" catch phrase for the conference has already sparked race feuds. He is proposing that diversity be added as a value alongside Freedom, Fairness and Opportunity to begin to counter the persistent narrative that the DA remains all white around a black leader defending white privilege.

He said in an interview with News24, that the conference would be most diverse, with at least eight of the nine provincial leaders now people of colour. But the black members within the party are not so convinced.

Some of the constitutional amendments suggested, include changing the formula of selecting delegates to congress.

The current system gives those wards the party has won in elections higher weight. So you could have an active DA branch in a township but they would not get a delegate to the conference because the majority in that area still vote ANC.

This is a clear sign that as the party grows within the black community, the members are also demanding that the direction of the party no longer be dictated to by white liberals, living in suburbia. 

The battle against 'Ramaphoria'

With former president Jacob Zuma gone, Maimane is forced to take up the difficult battle against "Ramaphoria" on key policy issues such as job creation and land expropriation without compensation.

The DA will be forced to shout louder its own counter policies that should strike a balance between empowering the previously disenfranchised and allowing the privileged to continue enjoying their spoils. It is difficult finding the sweet spot to please both, as 24 years after democracy, when the apartheid economic status quo not only remains but the mismanagement of the economy by Zuma has many more black people now desperate, unemployed and with no real prospect of exiting the vicious cycle of poverty.

Some in the DA, praise Maimane’s nemesis Julius Malema as revolutionary for challenging white privilege head on, aware that complaining about ANC corruption won’t be enough to take on a Cyril Ramaphosa, who is ticking the boxes as he cleans up the mess of the Zuma era.

Maimane rightfully explains that you can’t exclude Ramaphosa from the Zuma tumultuous years, but Ramaphosa’s campaign of a "new dawn" is settling well even amongst those who had lost faith in ANC. This includes the black middle class that has previously shunned the Zuma ANC for the DA under the cover of, "I just want the rubbish to be collected and the pothole to be fixed" or "I am just punishing the ANC for not acting against corruption by its public officials".

While the party’s upward trajectory in past elections has been consistent, this conference will determine if the DA can be a real challenge to the ANC’s grip on the Union Buildings and the rest of the nine provinces.

- Mahlase is politics editor of News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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