An Assessment of Mmusi Maimane

2013-08-13 15:35

In an unwittingly prescient feature, Drum dedicated a few pages to the Gauteng Premier, Nomvula Mokonyane. In the spread, she showed off the Premier’s official residence. Given it came so soon after Maimane’s election as DA Premier Candidate, many social media users wondered whether this was a sign that soon, Maimane would be “No.1” in province.

Much has been made about Maimane’s story. Indeed it should be. Maimane grew up in Soweto, was a supporter of the ANC and, like a fair number young(er) black South Africans, left the ANC to find a new political home as the party drifted from the moral high-ground it once occupied.

That he found a home in the DA is significant. As the mainstream media likes to, incorrectly, dismiss the DA as a “white” party, the fact that Maimane, a well-educated, erudite and established black man, could become a prominent leader of the “party of white suburbia” speaks volumes.

Of course he and others like him, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Joe Seramane to name two, have been characterised as being black stooges and a sell-outs. I don’t know if he has an equivalent of the “tea girl” epithet, but be sure that it will come.

(Needless to say that form of racialised thinking is wholly inconsistent with a democratic South Africa. It probably is a reaction to the worrying trend that the ANC’s struggle credentials no longer work)

Candidate Maimane has an immense task ahead of him. While the DA has been projected to do better than it ever has done, it has not been predicted to win. Rather, the predictions are, correctly, more along the lines that the province is the ANC’s to lose. Between now and May next year, Maimane will have to take on a better-financed, slightly nervous ANC: and that is no easy feat.

But Candidate Maimane, as Verashni Pillay of the MG put it, is set to wage an “Obama-esque” campaign. Whether the narrative of hope and the simple promises of a better Gauteng are as a result of famous Clinton-era pollster, Stan Greenburg, joining the DA is unknown. What is evident though is that the campaign narrative will be focused on delivery and heady with inspiration.

Maimane will use his story and the general feeling of frustration that urban black voters may feel with the ANC. Maimane’s candidacy allows the DA to break out of its (perceived) political straight-jacket. His race is but one factor that will allow the party to do so. It would be a mistake to think though that his race alone will tip the scales in the DA’s favour. Connecting with (young) black voters is an absolute necessity – it is the only way that the DA, which has maxed out its minority support, can grow. Judging by the speeches Maimane has delivered since his election not even a week ago, and the targeted messages being aimed at an aspirational young voter, it seems that the DA and Maimane have hit the ground running.

It is a careful strategy that Maimane will have to follow: he needs to be big on ideas to inspire voters, but also offer them a compelling vision with sufficient detail. Failure to do so will either make voters treat him like a lightweight, or worse, insincere. He has to do this while all the while not giving away the policy game to the ANC.

When he was contesting this position against Jack Bloom, one of the criticisms that Maimane faced was that he lacked “experience” and “policy” know-how. Whether this is true, I cannot say. But Maimane certainly has an impressive CV that allows one to believe that he has a good head on his shoulders. (That isn’t to say that academic qualification alone makes a great political leader)

ANC Gauteng Chairman, Paul Mashatile, picked up on this theme the day after Maimane’s election and said something dismissive  to the effect that given Maimane has only been in politics for four years, he has little to offer in terms of substance.

While Maimane may have only been in politics a short while, that narrative is not particularly helpful to the ANC (or anyone wanting to criticize Maimane on these grounds).

Firstly, the ANC had no experience when it came to government in 1994. Incumbents may try to use this to their advantage, but like Obama’s and the ANC’s elections prove, when history is in the making, and voters are made to feel like they are on a tipping point, they care little for “experience” and prefer the outsider who speaks to them in a real and personable way. They like them a lot. Just watch what happens if Hillary runs in 2016.

Secondly, “experience” is used to favour an incumbent, the effect being that a newcomer, notwithstanding their other meritorious qualities, should be kept out. But people who bang on about experience often make a fatal mistake: being a benchwarmer for 20 years means nothing when you cannot show anything for it. Many voters reject the ANC with all its experience precisely for that fact – the experience the ANC has amassed has come at the voters’ expense. In circumstances like these, change and believing in change sound great.

Thirdly, politicians are hardly ever experts in a portfolio that they manage. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is a doctor but headed up Foreign and Home Affairs to great acclaim. Conversely, Manto Tshabala-Msimang was a medical doctor but through her AIDS denialism condemned millions to their death.

The point is a great political leader need not be the absolute best at their portfolio. They need to be a shrewd operator that knows how to maximise their Cabinet’s best qualities, limit their poor ones and manage people properly. In essence, they need to be a team leader that has clarity of thought and can be consistent over time, someone who can make tough judgment calls and hold their nerve when things get tough.

Nothing comes to mind which suggests Maimane cannot do that.

Fourthly, even if Maimane is a terrible people manager, has no policy ability and is just damned awful, it would not matter. Not only would the DA move to contain it, as the ANC does with President Zuma, but failing to deliver in Gauteng, if the DA wins, would be political suicide.

The DA’s strategy since 2006 is a simple one: through hard work it would show that it is better at governing and use that as the basis to extend its support base. Its survival depends on its credibility; its credibility is inexorably linked to delivery. And that is why the DA will deliver irrespective.

It won’t hurt Maimane either if, in the run-up to the elections, he gets more publicly involved in the policy process.

What will be interesting to see is who the ANC chooses to bat against Maimane.

Mokonyane is one choice. She is the incumbent with the experience. But she has very little political capital within the province having being beaten to the Chairman’s post by Mashatile.

Mashatile represents a difficult choice for Zuma (who, in his capacity as ANC President, has immense say over the ANC’s Premier candidates). Mashatile was, after all, one of the key lieutenants in the campaign that tried, and failed, to oust Zuma at Mangaung. Mashatile may be able to better lead a divided ANC (his cronies are in the majority), but he comes at too significant a cost to Zuma’s continued power.

And don’t forget about Tokyo Sexwale. Tokyo is distrusted by Zuma for his ambitions to occupy Zuma’s chair are well known. Whether Zuma likes it or not, Sexwale is thought of as a great deliverer, and someone to aspire to, with significant portions of the electorate. That may only be true for Sexwale the businessman, but it is his personal credibility as a captain of industry that allows him to project an aura of confidence, that he may not have, and that other ANC candidates lack entirely.

Whomever the ANC chooses, Maimane’s candidacy comes at an interesting time in politics. If all goes well, he may just be the break-through candidate that the DA hopes for.

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