Maimane punts DA’s nonracialism

Solid messaging: This weekend the DA will debate the wording of an amendment to its constitution about reflecting South Africa’s racial demographics, a change its leader supports. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Solid messaging: This weekend the DA will debate the wording of an amendment to its constitution about reflecting South Africa’s racial demographics, a change its leader supports. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane says he will not succumb to the pressure of demonstrating “racial solidarity” to prove that the DA is welcoming to black voters.

He is leading the push for the DA to become more deliberate in its efforts to become a diverse party by promoting the inclusion of a new clause in the party’s constitution.
He will state his case for the constitutional amendment at the party’s federal congress this weekend, where he will stand uncontested for re-election as federal leader. 

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian this week, Maimane said that, although he was committed to transformation in the DA, he would not allow himself to be forced to act according to a popular public sentiment on important DA issues to show himself to be a representative of a black electorate.

“Sometimes in South Africa we’ve found ourselves believing this thing … that we have such a thing as racial solidarity. So if I am black I must stand just with black people and if you are white you must stand just with white people,” he said.

“The danger with that view is that it will eventually say: ‘Okay, Mmusi Maimane is a black leader, therefore he is the only one who must go out and reach black voters.’ No. That’s the very thing that creates racial solidarity and black parties and white parties.”

Since assuming the position of federal leader in 2015, Maimane has often been slighted as being a “stooge” for senior white leaders in the party. Recently he has been accused of not taking a firm stance against Western Cape Premier Helen Zille for her numerous and continued controversial tweets on colonialism, bringing into question his authority in the party.

He has also been accused of failing to intervene in the alleged victimisation of Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, and criticised for being complicit in the perceived ill treatment of black DA leaders.

“My project is not to become leader of the black [people] or leader of the white [people], it’s to become leader of all South Africans,” Maimane said.

“When you are free you must be able to say, ‘Zille, you are wrong here, we will take you to account’, just like I must be willing to say, when [Gauteng member of the provincial legislature] Makashule [Gana] says something that’s not right, I must be able to say, ‘Makashule, you are wrong’.”

Narratives of race and racialism have followed the DA, mainly because of the party’s origins as a white-dominated liberal party and its subsequent short-lived merger with the New National Party in 2000. Since then the DA has seen more black members and leaders swell its ranks but it remains closely monitored through the prism of race.

The party has attempted to flip this narrative by declaring itself the only truly nonracial party in South Africa and guarding closely against using systems such as race-based quotas, which it fears may re-introduce racial discrimination.

But the party won’t be able to escape the topic of race at its congress, where issues of diversity and transformation are expected to dominate. Currently there is a debate over the proposed constitutional amendment to include a clear clause on diversity as one of the DA’s key values. The proposed clause, which is supported by Maimane, states that the DA must, to the best of its ability, reflect the diversity of South Africa’s demographic landscape.

“When you say you want to build diversity, actually what you want to do is say, for the future of the DA, it should never be a party for one race, one culture, one religion, one gender,” he said. “For future generations of the DA, they must know that we will always work to be a party for all. I’d never want the DA to be a party for a particular race.”

But there is resistance against the proposal from some in the party, including MPs Gavin Davis and Michael Cardo, who believe the phrasing of the amendment borders on an attempt to introduce race-based quotas. Maimane has dismissed the resistance as a mere misunderstanding and welcomed “healthy debate” about the clause.

Despite its leader’s warm embrace of the contestation over diversity, the DA’s efforts to thrash out what its beliefs are on diversity, representation and transformation take place at a time when the party should have solid messaging ahead of its 2019 elections campaign.

Instead, the messaging has been mixed and further complicated by the limited inclusion of black, township-based members as participants in the federal congress as a result of a flawed selection formula, which operates on a proportional representation system, disadvantaging newer (often township-based) branches that have yet won wards.

Maimane admitted that the omission of these members had caused frustration in the party but reiterated that it had not been deliberate and that the formula would be tweaked to allow better representation in future. Gauteng DA leader John Moodey, who raised the official concerns about the omission, has said the potential crisis with the formula was something the party should have anticipated.

“I must admit even from my side that we didn’t look at the implications of us having grown as fast as we have over the last few years,” Moodey told the M&G last week.

Now, as the party attempts to endear itself to township-based voters, among whom the DA has admitted it has a trust deficit, it finds itself having to answer why some leaders believe a clause on diversity borders on racism and why township members have not been fully embraced at its congress. Such concerns threaten to maintain the criticism of the DA as a white party and continues the breakdown of trust.

But Maimane maintained there was nothing out of the ordinary about the differing views being expressed at the moment and that voters would see past issues of race when making a decision to support the DA.

“South Africans want nonracialism to work. But they are told ... there are political parties who tell them only black people can represent black people. That’s what I mean when
I say we must break that thing of racial nationalism, because all you will end up doing is create a revolving door.”

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