By Thato Magano
Following the election of Mmusi Maimane as the ‘first Black’ leader of South Africa’s official opposition party, Thato Magano argues that his quick ascendance exposes the DA’s hypocrisy on issues of transformation. He contends that this is a matter of political expediency and cadre deployment for the advancement of white liberal interests.
Whatever we will say about him, as much that has already and is yet to be said and written about the newest leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Mmusi Maimane will forever be remembered in our political history as the ‘first Black’ leader of the biggest opposition party in South Africa. His rise, from a relatively unknown leader of the Gauteng Caucus to leader of the party, within a period of five years is the truest embodiment of the word ‘meteoric’.
When outgoing leader Helen Zille made the announcement of his election to the position at the party’s federal congress in Port Elizabeth on Sunday, it came as no surprise to most of South Africa as, columnist and analyst after another had concluded this was fait accompli. The long standing leader of the party, Zille had tipped him to take over the reins from her even before she had announced her resignation from the position weeks ago.
When Maimane was running for premier as the DA’s candidate for Gauteng former party spin doctor, Gareth van Onselen wrote a scathing column in the Business Day where he referred to Maimane as a “hollow man” who lacked his own political ideology, whose path to political prominence had been laid out for him and therefore “failure and success have been equally irrelevant to Maimane’s fortunes. In just more than 1,000 days, while many others have ground their noses flat at the political millstone, he has climbed and climbed. From nowhere he was the DA’s 2011 Johannesburg mayoral candidate. He lost that race but would lead the caucus thereafter. Then, he would be chosen (not elected) as the party’s national spokesman — a position Zille has often gone out of her way to paint as the breeding ground for future leaders. There were more credits to come. In November 2012 he would be elected a deputy federal chair at the party’s federal congress.”
He further goes on to say “What a man. What a politician. In three short years he has risen through the DA ranks like a Phoenix reborn from jet fuel. Is this the greatest politician the party has ever had? He must be special indeed.”
But the often sidelined issue in what makes the tale of the rise of Mmusi Maimane, the politician, interesting is the hypocrisy that is the DA’s stance on transformation, the advancement of the Black agenda, political expediency and meritocracy. By extension, this includes the complicity of the self serving nature of white liberal politics as embodied by the DA. This is particularly seen in its former leader, Helen Zille who becomes the champion for the creation of “meritocratic bureaucratic elite” when the party (and of course white South Africa) are forced into a conversation about the development of Black talent.
Since the rebranding of the party as a non-racial, a party of the future where all of us will have equal access to opportunities, the DA has advocated for meritocratic and not cadre deployment of skills in key government positions and this view has found its way to be a go-to line in corporate South Africa. It is not uncommon to hear stories from competent, young Black professionals who feel they are being stifled and denied opportunities for advancement when they are told they need time to ‘develop’ and master a host of skill sets that their white counterparts do not necessarily have to master.
Young Black talent carries the stigma of being viewed as ‘impatient’ and ‘job hoppers’ when eventually, out of frustration, they go from employer to the next, some within a space of a year or no longer than eighteen months, seeking a challenge that is equal to their talents and scope for development. When Thuthukile Zuma, at twenty five, was appointed chief of Staff in the department of telecommunications and postal services, outraged, the DA planned to submit written questions to telecommunications minister Siyabonga Cwele by the end of the week, asking what criteria were used in the selection process and further intimated that the president had exerted undue influence to guarantee his daughter the job.
Sadly, even Black people, those outside of the DA, who themselves have been victim of this limiting notion of ‘meritocratic opportunity’ – when anecdotal and lived experiences indicate that, white people, males especially, are not often thought to be in need of such time to develop and ascend management or leadership – have embodied this notion of needing time to develop into a job/position you already have the aptitude for.
And this is why Mmusi is interesting. Within five years, he has sprinted from being an unknown preacher in Aloysias (Mmusi) Maimane to the opposition leader as Mmusi Maimane. He has done so within a party whose (now former) leader believes in, as Sebastian Lazola Jozi paints, an open society where we are all equal before the law, have equal and meritocratic access to opportunity and freedom of choice. He has done so without having to prove his mettle, jumping or rather ‘hopping’ from one position to the next, without so much as seeing out a full term among the five different leadership positions he has held within the party since 2011.
Yet today, he has no stigma. He is not labelled impatient or too ambitious. Rather he has been accorded all the victories. He now stands at the top of the pyramid, as the shining beacon of what ‘fast-tracking’ but for any other name, cadre deployment, looks like. Which begs the question, why Mmusi and not the rest of us?
I would posit that it’s precisely because Mmusi’s ascendance serves the interest of whiteness. In Mmusi, they have found the ‘exceptional Black’ whom they have catapulted and in turn has the winds of white backing behind his wings. In him the DA found someone that they could make and raise to the highest levels and yet would still be guaranteed that their liberal, anti-Black policies will be advanced.
If the DA, and by extension whiteness and liberals really believed in the politics of meritocracy, how is it that Mmaimane won over 80% of the vote, without so much as making a noise about the fact that the man they were electing into office, has no more than five years under his belt as a politician when they have cried foul (and incompetence) with the likes of Thuthukile Zuma or many others before? Who is fooling who here?
So you Black child, professional or politician, refuse to believe them when they tell you that you need time to develop into that management role/professorship/candidacy for office. They have proven that it can be done, that you are competent enough to be ‘fast-tracked’ albeit, only when they have a vested interest in getting you there. Perhaps our job is now to agitate so that this is the status quo even when whiteness stands to lose because that is the only way we will see those numbers of senior management or the JSE changing.