Mmusi Maimane and Race

2015-05-13 18:53

Mandela and Maimane

Mmusi Maimane’s election has generated a lot of media attention. That is largely attributable to the fact that he is the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) fist non-white, and specifically black, leader. Ever. At home and abroad, this has been heralded as a game-changing moment. Indeed, the well-respected CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour interviewed Maimane in a segment that referred to him as the ‘Obama of Soweto.’

That, and other narratives around Maimane’s race, are discomforting. Shortly after his election, a meme (pictured) seemed to compare him to Nelson Mandela (Maimane was elected on the same day Mandela was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratic President, 21 years later). It carried the slogan ‘a leader to save South Africa.’ The intention could not be clearer.

These are disgraceful acts of race reductionism.

On the one hand, they force Maimane as an individual into the preconceived ideas of what a black leader should be. Obama and Mandela’s legacies now seem to serve as the blueprint for any black leader. That Maimane may differ with Obama on gay marriage on Mandela on liberalism is, seemingly, irrelevant.

They are black. He is black. They were leaders. He is a leader. They did ‘great’ things. Ergo, he will too.

Note, it is not Maimane’s prospective greatness that is at issue; rather, the specific way in which his greatness is limited. He cannot be like Kennedy, or Clinton, or Thatcher. He has to be what he looks like. Another black man. Maimane is robbed of his individuality and constrained to his demographic appearance.

It is deplorable. Especially because there is a clear double standard. His predecessor, Helen Zille, escaped some of this because her predecessor, Tony Leon, is a man. But, the reductionism of both of them to their whiteness was a default reaction when many wanted to attack them, despite the significant differences between the two.

The other way this works is when white leaders are reflected, they are only compared to their white predecessors in passing. They are not labelled as the ‘Kennedy of Sandton.’ This mindset demonstrates a pernicious effect of race reductionism: white leaders get the agency to determine their own agendas and identities but black leaders are confined to being compared to each other.

The media is guilty of this because they are lazy and can use this crude shorthand to communicate lots of information in as little time as possible. But they are not alone in deserving blame.

Maimane, his campaign team, and the DA as a whole, are as guilty too. For years, they have been appropriating Obama’s campaign style – right down to the ‘Believe’ slogan and the use of iconic face.

It displays a careless game that they are playing, ironically dictated by the ANC. The ANC uses ethnicity, racial-nationalism, to define what it means to be black and uses that to command support or condemn opponents.  Maimane and company are undoubtedly aware of this. It suits them to appropriate Obama and Mandela’s blackness to transpose their achievements onto Maimane’s blackness. Perhaps, as others have noted, Maimane has imbibed this: it is no more evident when he ‘code switches’ accents depending on his audience.

The cost is enormous. Maimane is being denied the chance to shape his agenda according to his own voice (whichever one that may be). By allowing the media, and those who surround him, to continuously draw parallels that are fatuous, if not specious, he is allowing others to define him. The danger with that, especially if he buys into it, is that the electorate can sense inauthenticity and he will fail to connect in the way he needs to.

Had Maimane’s challenge, Wilmot James, been elected one wonders whether the frenzy would have been as intense. James is coloured. Despite the party having its first non-white leader, one would not be mistaken for thinking that a Maimane loss would have been, for many, a dream deferred.

Zille, whose goal it has always been to be replaced by a black leader, must have been doubly happy: not only were both contenders non-white, she was replaced by a black candidate. Maimane’s race, however, is no substitute for the hard work that lies ahead for the DA.

In his acceptance speech, Maimane’s said ‘‘I simply don’t agree with those who say they don’t see colour. Because, if you don’t see that I’m black, then you don’t see me.’’ He is right. What he, and the liberals, need to remember is that when we seeing him, we see an individual black man. His race, for systemic reasons, may mean some similarities with other black people. That is undeniable. But, it would be foolish to believe that tomorrow will be easier for the DA merely because it has a black leader.

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