Political Watch

DA leadership election: Now the real battle starts

Mmusi Maimane
Mmusi Maimane.jpg

With, and in the run-up to the election of its new leader, Mmusi Maimane, the Democratic Party (DA) got most things right to signal a turning point in South African politics, but the real battle has in fact only started. (Read more)

We believe the change of South African politics from one dominated by a single party, the African National Congress (ANC), to coalition politics has become inevitable. It is just the pace of change and the nature of the process – peaceful or turbulent – that is still unsure.

In this context the developments in and around the DA over the past four weeks or so was opportune and are sure to add momentum to the process of political realignment. There was, however, also at least one big mistake. Some serious challenges also remain in the repositioning of the DA as a real contender to lead a government and to rid it of the old Progressive Party tradition of just being the opposition for the sake of opposition.

What the DA got right

In looking at what the DA got right and what indicates that the party has made big strides towards maturing politically under the leadership of Helen Zille, the following are worth noting:

  • Zille, and presumably her advisers, got the timing of her retirement absolutely right in terms of the shifts taking place within the body politic of the country, the time left for a new leader to prepare for next year’s crucial municipal elections and the arrival of a new generation of leaders on the scene;
  • Having a true competitive election for choosing the leadership instead of just a handover, which could be construed as mere tokenism;
  • Zille staying on as premier in the Western Cape to ensure a feeling of some continuity for a orderly handover and advice to the new leader to counter the argument of inexperience;
  • Keeping the election process short to minimise the danger of faction forming and of inflicting deep and lasting wounds to losers;
  • Having an open and transparent leadership contest, drawing in the broader public by having live and open debates between the contenders; and
  • Taking on the SABC about the broadcasting of the congress, and winning.

What it got wrong

We do not know on whose advice or request Zille’s erstwhile mentor in her days as journalist, ex-Rand Daily Mail editor Allister Sparks was invited to address the DA’s federal (elective) congress, but it was a huge mistake.

Sparks’s throwaway remark about Dr Verwoerd as a “clever politician” at such a high-profile televised DA occasion was not politically all that “clever” in itself, and probably reflected his journalistic instinct to go for the sound bite rather than political prudence.

In short, it was silly and he did the new DA leader no favour. It comes against the background, even before his election, of Zizi Kodwa, an ANC spokesman, saying the DA “remained a racist party that desperately needs a black leader to hide its true colours”.

I’m willing to take on bets that during one of his first appearances in parliament after being elected leader, an ANC MP will be getting up and asking Mr Maimane if he regards himself as “clever as Verwoerd”, or something to that effect.

Among the challenges the new DA leader and the party will face as the new political environment evolves, are:

  • The reaction and questions we have encountered from members in the Coloured community in especially the Western Cape, many of them not all that comfortable with having a black leader. Going back to my days in the erstwhile President’s Council, I’m aware of that community in the Western Cape being afraid of being overwhelmed by black people in, among other things, the labour market in what they regard as their own backyard. He will have to put in some hard yards not to endanger the DA’s powerbase in the one province it currently governs;
  • At the same time he would have to be careful to ensure that he keeps in mind that across other dividing lines South Africa is moving towards issue-driven politics, as illustrated by the fact that both the ANC and EFF supported the DA last week in its battle with the SABC;
  • A large part of the voting public place a high value on respect for older members of the community and their ‘wisdom’, and the new leader and his party should ensure that they counter the perception that he might lack experience; and
  • Probably the best news for the DA, and South Africa, would be that the plans by forces in the left-of-centre spectrum of organised labour to form a political party get off the ground. It would increase the chances for the development of coalition politics in the country substantially, but will also pose a challenge to the DA to build relationships for cooperation without appearing merely opportunistic.

Well positioned

A number of key factors presently at play in South Africa’s political environment work in the new DA leader’s favour. These include:

  • The centre of gravity of political power is increasingly shifting from rural/traditional areas to South Africa’s urban areas and an expanding middle class,
  • As the memory of “struggle politics fade” and the role of people who have been directly involved in it diminishes from one generation to the next, our politics become increasingly issue-driven, creating fertile ground for coalition politics, something for which our constitution with its proportional representative election system is especially suited and facilitates; and
  • As in the rest of Africa the country’s demographics are in the midst of a so-called ‘youth bulge’, with millions of young people entering the environment of a modern economy with the challenges, opportunities, needs and expectations that go with it;

Mr Maimane is comfortable in this developing environment. Not only is he youthful, but he is a product of South Africa’s most densely populated urban area, the Witwatersrand, having been born in Krugersdorp in 1980 and grown up in Soweto. He is well educated in appropriate fields, holding master’s degrees in theology and public administration.

He has also proven himself as a young man with not only ambitions, but also drive. He rose swiftly through party ranks since joining the DA a short six years ago.

If he surrounds himself with wise counsel, Mmusi Maimane might just be a key leader taking South Africa into a new phase of its still developing democracy.

And, talking about politicians of the past, while all local eyes were on developments at home, President Jacob Zuma chose to go to Moscow and competed for news headlines by calling for Africa’s inclusion in the United Nations’ Security Council.

It reminds one of General Jannie Smuts, who in the 1940s concentrated so much on the world stage that his United Party was soundly beaten by the National Party in the 1948 general election, never again to come close to gaining power and over the next three decades fading into the shadows of history.

Predictions are a perilous activity, but to predict that South Africa’s political environment will dramatically change over the next decade cannot be far wrong. The real battle for the political heart of South Africa has just begun and interesting times lie ahead.

by Piet Coetzer

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