Maimane’s ‘Meritocratic’ and Meteoric Rise: The hypocrisy of cadre deployment when it serves white interests

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.

  1. Very enlightening and thought-provoking insight. Although your conclusion ends rather abruptly.

  2. Be proud and happy for the gentleman. why do we always have to say that because someone has risen from the bottom to the top it is because those that supported him/her and mentored him/her it is because those that gave the support have a hidden agenda. if Maimane was a fool that could not be mentored or singled out to take over the leadership of the DA at some point no one could have supported that decision. it means he is capable and proves that when you put your mind to achieve something in life you can have the world at your feet. When Motsepe and now Vice President Ramaphosa got the 1st BBE deals in Anglo the same thing was said Anglo is buying black people. As black people I think we need to look for snakes under the stones and get on with the job. look at the very magazine you are writing for, started by a young girl still under 25 years from the rural province of Limpopo. tomorrow when she gets an opportunity to go and head a global newspaper we will be saying “how did she do it. Remember Khanyi Dhlomo and Tumi Makgatho who became the 1st black person to work for CNN. please stop this looking for ulterior motives and work hard to get yourself noticed and have the greatest that life can offer. There are no hidden agendas just people raising their hands to be noticed as potential leaders.

  3. Hi Malin, I think you miss the point of the article. It is not to say that Mmusi is not capable, in fact what I am arguing is that he makes the case for how capable we are as Black people to rise up to the highest levels of any organisation/political party or leadership position. We give Mmusi agency for being ambitious and saying that he wants to be the leader of the party and do it in the timeframe that it has happened,but trust me, Julius Malema would have never gotten the same backing (with his radical politics in tow) from Helen Zille if he had wanted to be leader of the DA. The argument is that, understand that, even when you are in corporate SA or anywhere in the world where you engage with white capital, if what you are doing advances their agenda, then they will support you and can even stand behind you to lead them.

    Let’s address the BBBEE issue – do you know that the very Cyril you mention, protecting white capital interests, called for ‘concomitant’ action from the police to deal with the striking Marikana miners in 2012? He was saying whatever action must be taken to protect his and white capital’s interest no matter the cost to his brothers and sisters. And that is why our allegiance with white capital makes us duplicitous and we must understand and acknowledge that as Black people and we live with the consequences.

    We are working hard as Black people – we wake up at 4am to catch 3 different modes of transport to come into th cities, to start work at 8/9am then put in a full day of work and then repeat the same cycle in the afternoon to get home 7/8pm. That is the majority of the Black working class experience – can’t say its the same for white people. They live in the metros, in the majority have cars or if they don’t, reliable transport infrastructure to catch the bus right outside their houses. Yet, even with all these hours we put in, we remain lowly managers, scavenging for the promotions that come easy to our white counterparts. We work very hard, we raise our hands all the time but we do not get the opportunies, especially when we have radical ideologies that do not reinforce white capital’s interests.

    So I take your point about Mmusi standing up and wanting to be counted but understand he is ‘exceptional’ and only because he will never do anything to upset a large set of the DA constituency – and those are the people with power in the form of capital

  4. Abile, that was by design. The article is mean to agitate thoughts of how we (YOU) can push against this limiting meritocratic notion

  5. @Malin. The sad part is that we get to train the young unacademic acceptable skin texture and only to manage you after a quarter, approving your leave and informing you when & what must be complete. Yet when a black child applied for same position when it was vacant a selection criteria was introduced were you could not check all the boxes.

    As much as that Being said, let’s stop climbing their cooperate ladder and build our own for others to climb. Let’s deal the cards and control the options and the outcome.

    Enlightening article and hope more Africans are exposed to such thought.

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