Someone Must Run Against Mmusi Maimane

2015-04-14 13:51

Mmusi Maimane (CityPress)

Helen Zille’s shock resignation as Leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) has triggered intense speculation as to who will replace her. Given the party’s Federal Congress is less than a month away, palace intrigue dominates all discussion. However, most suggest that Mmusi Maimane, the party’s Parliamentary Leader, is the hot favourite to win.

Zille’s decision has raised several questions. Her justification is predicated on the electoral cycle; her replacement can use next year’s local government elections, in which the DA traditionally has a strong showing, as a soft landing before riding a wave of popular support into the 2019 national election.  Many, though, are disbelieving.

Zille has publicly stated that she would step down in 2017 – after the party hoped to expand beyond its Western Cape stronghold. She wanted to avoid a bruising and distracting internal fight to replace her that would jeopardise the party’s growth. What has changed between these assessments needs further explanation.

There are two possible scenarios: either, Maimane wanted to run now; or, had she waited, Maimane’s ascendancy would have been compromised.

Since Maimane joined the DA in 2011, he has been its Johannesburg caucus leader and mayoral candidate; Gauteng premiership candidate; a Federal Deputy Chair; and, more recently, its Parliamentary Leader. Maimane was on the rise. And quickly. It was only a matter of time before he would assume the top job. But, the DA is in Opposition. There are limited opportunities for people to make a big impact, like the ANC has with government appointments. Ambitious people can set aside their leadership ambitions where the chance to run a portfolio and master it arise. The DA is not so fortunate.

It is perfectly reasonable, then, for Maimane to want to run now. While the party is in opposition, the only real position with any prominence and power is that of the Leader. Arguably frustrated at holding a series of ‘second-fiddle’ jobs that limit his ability to be fully in control of his future, and impact the party and the country as he desires, it makes sense.

But, Maimane must have known that had he gone up against Zille, he would have lost. Badly. His weaker brand aside, he also has significantly less experience (in opposition and in government). For a party that prides itself on its ability to govern, this is a serious weakness. Coupled with the narrative that he has not been in any position long enough to understand how politics operates, a counter-attack from Zille along these lines would have been devastating.

So is it plausible that would impending defeat, Maimane or his allies would have ran against Zille in any event?  Yes. And Zille, assuming she wanted to stay on, has only herself to blame.

A central plank of Zille’s legacy for the DA is her desire to pass on the reigns to a black leader. This explains the quick rise of Maimane, his predecessor Lindiwe Mazibuko, and the courtship of Mamphela Ramphele. It would have been difficult for Zille, who views black leadership as essential to the DA’s transformation and growth, to be viewed as anything but hypocritical had she defeated Maimane. After the party’s poor handling of Mazibuko’s and Ramphele’s exit, Zille had to avoid her third black leadership debacle.

Zille, and Maimane’s camp, would also be keenly aware that a delayed departure would make a Mazibuko return more likely. Although Zille and Mazibuko have largely maintained a civil concordat, it is an open secret that they clashed sharply over the party’s leadership and strategy. Despite Zille not stating a preference for Maimane, it is plausible she favours him if she thinks he may be more susceptible to her. Zille’s favour works for Maimane, too, if it meant that he (and his supporters) could shore up more support against Mazibuko. That Mazibuko, who is still hugely popular in South Africa, had to release a statement saying that she was unavailable for election after intense social media pressure to get her to run is instructive.

However, many of Maimane’s would-be opponents have all either withdrawn, stood for other positions, or endorsed him. This is a dangerous situation, for Maimane personally and the DA as an institution.

There is a strong case for Maimane to face stiff competition.

Firstly, democratic legitimacy. Winning a popular mandate will silence his critics that his election was undeserved or an institutional set-up. It also gives him the legitimate right to rule.

Secondly, avoiding political paranoia. Many of Zille’s critics argued that she became paranoid of internal dissent towards the end and that it clouded her judgment. It is worth noting that she did not face a real challenger since her initial election in 2007. It explains why when Zille was challenged by a school boy, many of her supporters went mad and started bullying him to get him to withdraw. The appearance of solidity is tested when under the faintest strain.

Thirdly, democratic practice. The DA’s accusation that the party’s internal autocracy manifests in external democratic ignorance is increasingly difficult to stick. As an anecdote, both of the ANC’s last leadership elections were contested. The DA’s were not. If the narrative is that internal democracy is crucial to democratic state practice, the DA should be very worried if Maimane is more crowned than elected.

Fourth, policy. The example of Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren vying for the Democrats nomination for President is powerful. Many are worried, inside the party especially, that if Clinton got an easy run, she would not be forced to stake out, test, and justify her agenda. The worry is two-fold: (a) that it creates a suffocating internal intellectual consensus about what the party stands for; and (b) that it may be out of touch with what voters want. A Warren run would not win but it would start the conversation. Given Maimane’s past difficulties with explaining his understanding of race, Thabo Mbeki’s legacy, and what it means to be a liberal, the DA should hope a Warren-esque candidate (from the right or left) challenges him. His agenda needs to be tested so that when he takes it to the voters, it is clear, credible and relevant.

Fifth, image. South African parties tend to morph their image around single leaders. When those leaders go, if at all, the party wobbles accordingly (they are almost always viewed as being indispensable to the party brand even when that is not the case, as the IFP’s example shows). A genuine leadership contest tempers that and shows the party has many capable alternative leaders.

Without assessing Maimane’s candidacy, merit-worthy as it may be, a strong case exists for someone to challenge him, should he choose to run. His first test of true leadership will come even before he is elected, as is expected. He will win many supporters if he shows the kind of political strength and personal conviction like his professed heroes, Nelson Mandela and Helen Zille, who on matters of leadership always put the party and the country first. A failure to do so – and to take the easier path to victory – may leave much to be desired.

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