The Great Debate: Why the Wilmot James, Mmusi Maimane Show is So Important for South Africa

2015-04-25 16:42

Wilmot James and Mmusi Maimane (@andimakinana)

Wilmot James scored two early victories against Mmusi Maimane as the party heavyweights vie to replace Helen Zille as Leader of the Democratic Alliance.

Shortly after announcing his candidacy, James challenged Maimane to a publicly broadcast debate on their respective visions for the DA and South Africa. The move by James, who is the less well-known of the two, shows that his understanding of political strategy should not be underestimated.

Firstly, it has put Maimane on the back foot. He is reacting to James’ agenda, not setting the terms of the contest. Given their relative stature and resources within the party, Maimane being the heir-presumptive Hillary Clinton to James’ ideologically-purer Elizabeth Warren, Maimane’s camp should do well to remember Ronald Reagan’s sage advice: if you’re explaining, you’re losing.

Maimane is now explaining how he thinks James’ idea is a great thing. Apart from inherently crediting James as being the sharper thinker – more in tune with the thirst in South Africa for a more open and accountable politics – the more he talks up the idea the more it begs the question why he didn’t come up with it in the first place? At best, it makes him look like a sluggish competitor, at worst, as though he has taken this contest for granted. Both play into James’ hands.

Not to mention that Maimane, with the bigger star power, now has his prominence effectively hijacked by James. Had he refused to debate, preferring the party’s internal discussions rather than a public one, cowardice, ineptitude, and anti-democratic are labels that could have attached to him all too quickly. But, in accepting, he will focus everyone’s attention onto himself when de debates – and the man nipping at his heels.

Creating a forced choice is an excellent political stratagem, and if James imposes more of these of Maimane, the contest not be as straightforward as people predict. Remember, Barack Obama won as the outsider against the Clinton behemoth in 2008. If James can combine that strategy with a potent message, he may have latched onto a lethal formula.

Secondly, James is playing to his strength. While both men are well-educated, James policy pedigree is superior to Maimane’s. Maimane may be the better communicator, but James has removed that advantage. Undoubtedly, people will be swayed by Maimane’s oratorical skills, but for all its public manifestations: this is an internal contest. Delegates will be keenly aware that they are not only looking for a gifted face, but someone who has the deep ideological and strategic vision to allow the party to deliver.

Although Maimane is better known, it is James who has held the professional and political jobs that have given him more impact on the party’s drive in these areas. Maimane will have to silence his many critics, who think he is policy-lite, against a man who has a PhD, has been a distinguished academic at UCT, Yale, and the California Institute of Technology to name a few, with corporate and management experience of South African and international companies that eminently qualify him for high public office.

Of course, Maimane could attempt to paint James as an ivory tower academic that has little understanding of everyday South Africans. That may even be true, though it is doubtful. But Maimane will need to be careful: against the backdrop of an incumbent President largely regarded as incapable of thinking and a harkening back to the days of Mbeki’s intelligensia, however problematic that turned out to be in the end, James may cut the figure that many South Africans want – especially those in the black middleclass, the DA’s most fertile electoral ground. Further, it does not help that Maimane himself has praised Mbeki over Zuma for this exact quality, thus, making any attack along these lines skirting dangerously close to making him seem hypocritical.

But, politics aside, this is momentous for South Africa. Admittedly, the debate will be screened on a pay-view channel that has a small viewership. But, that it normalises open contests for internal party positions, a process started by Lindiwe Mazibuko’s successful campaign for Parliamentary Leader, is a good thing. If the DA can do it, the next question is why can’t the others? And if they start explaining why that’s the case, they’re already losing. The DA’s internal contest has now taken on even more public significance by underscoring the party’s commitment to the core constitutional principles of transparency and accountability. Should James lose against Maimane, his real victory will be for South Africa’s democratic discourse.

Hold on to your seats, this race has just gone from being soporific to very interesting.

*** Update (19:52 BST, 25/04/2015): John Steenhuisen, the party's Chief Whip, on behalf of Mmusi Maimane had the following to say: ''Public debate was in process a full 24 hours before. We indicated that (Maimane) would be very keen but had to check with federal (regulations).'' Steenhuisen went on to say that Maimane was ''never on the back foot.'' This is the start of a very clear fight back from the Maimane camp. They dispute that James' move was strategically brilliant (as they would). One wonders though, why this public declaration was made after James was allowed to win kudos with the public for issuing the challenge in the first place. One also wonders whether James wanted to capitalise on the absence of information and make it seem like a genuine challenge. Watch this space.***

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