Editorial: What Maimane must do now
South Africa never had a black leader of the official opposition. It was a political impossibility under apartheid. Yet that title remained elusive, even after 1994, primarily because of the residual racial polarisation of South African politics.
Mmusi Maimane made history on Sunday by becoming the Democratic Alliance’s first black party leader.
But any impact he makes on history will require more than his blackness. His party – which has grown impressively but still commands less than a quarter of the national vote – has yet to convince the bulk of South African voters that it is more than white-dominated. Maimane’s predecessors in the past used to gloat that the DA has more black support than all the traditional black opposition parties combined – and it’s true. But, in politics, image and perception are powerful determinants.
Maimane will need to work hard to convince voters that he’s not just a new voice for old interests. His success, both philosophically and electorally, will lie in reinventing the DA as a party that appeals to different racial and class interests. It’s a delicate juggle, which the ANC pulled off in 1994. It requires true leadership, not just a theatrical orator.
Maimane may have to tweak the DA’s ideological convictions without destroying its brand. Tony Blair convinced British voters in 1997 that Labour was New, and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls is trying to reinvent the ruling socialist party. Valls told his party’s ideologues, including his boss François Hollande, to reform or die. It takes guts and boldness to review one’s system of traditional ideals, because they were never meant to be flexible. But Maimane now has the opportunity, and he has an advantage. He is no classical liberal fundamentalist. Like many new DA members, black and white, he has shown no nostalgic loyalty to the founding values of the old Progs or the old Nats – including the admirers of Hendrik Verwoerd.
He will have to be careful, though. The abandonment of ideology could lead to crass populism. Being everything to everyone could mean befriending death-penalty lunatics, anti-abortionists, xenophobes and homophobes. Though there are more positive connotations to liberalism than negatives, it might not resonate well with his target audience. Some associate liberalism with vulgar market fundamentalism, class snobbery, an absence of political and social empathy and a deep sense of individualism that negates the principle of ubuntu. These subtexts may be wrong, but the DA and Maimane need to understand that voters’ interpretations and impressions matter.
Luckily, Maimane has the opportunity to transform his party ideologically without veering too far from its roots. Some of those who abhor classical liberalism are in fact liberals at heart – they just don’t know it. They believe in liberty, equality and constitutionalism, but that’s where it ends. Maimane’s predecessor Helen Zille almost succeeded in reinventing the DA as a social-democratic outfit, though the party ideologues often nudged her to say unpalatable things. Like Valls in France, Maimane should now be warning the DA traditionalists to adapt or become irrelevant.