Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane was remarkably calm this week for the leader of a reportedly fractured party whose election manifesto launch, three days before, had far less of an effect than he and his party would have liked.
Responses to the party’s Manifesto for Change: One South Africa for All have, if one is to be polite, been somewhat muted.
The party has also been rocked by the resignation of its policy head, Gwen Ngwenya, a month before its manifesto launch, and by the bitter battle with former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille, who has now set up her own party, Good.
In an interview during a two-day media blitz to try to get the manifesto more traction before the provincial launches, which start on Sunday, the 38-year-old DA leader betrayed little sense of panic.
South Africa, he said, was more about “sensation than substance”, a problem that affected not only the DA but all parties.
Despite the initial poor response to the manifesto, the party would improve on the 22.23% it took nationally in 2014 and the 26.9% it achieved in the 2016 local government poll.
The party aimed to “lead a government” in Gauteng — where it took control of the Johannesburg and Tshwane metros in 2016 — and in the Northern Cape, in addition to retaining control of the Western Cape, he said
The DA is also targeting secondary areas of growth, including in the Free State, the Eastern Cape (where Maimane will address a manifesto launch on March 16) and KwaZulu-Natal, to increase its seats in the National Assembly.
He downplayed the effect of ideological tensions in the DA and the loss of De Lille and other leaders during the course of 2018 on both the health of the party and its ability to improve on its showings in 2014 and 2016.
“We are having debates in the party about how to address redress. That is different to trying to split a party on the basis of corruption. In the DA, there is a contestation of ideas. This is healthy,” Maimane said. “The minute you stop having a contestation of ideas, an organisation dies.”
On De Lille, who was forced out of office by the DA, Maimane said the party “did the right thing for the right reasons”.
“What she does at the polls will depend on what people want. Patricia will set up a coloured nationalist organisation. Do we need that in South Africa?”
Maimane said the DA was happy with its results in recent by-elections where it had retained wards and won others from the ANC.
“The results show a great recovery and strength on the part of the DA. The [idea that] the DA is going backwards is not borne out by the facts. We are holding our numbers. We are looking above the 2014 space and are competing strongly with the 2016 numbers.”
Maimane said the DA was not concerned about being dislodged as the official opposition by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
“I am spending more nights worried about us being in a state in which campaigning would be difficult. Imagine a loss of [electricity] grid in South Africa during the elections,” he said.
Maimane sees his role as party head as being about holding together varying political tendencies and in ensuring that its leaders in public office maintain their integrity.
“When you govern in more places, you have to contest for your values to remain intact. With much responsibility comes more opportunity to impact positively on human lives or devalue who you are. As party leader, your responsibility is to maintain that.
“I have a vision for this country. I would give my life for it. The position is irrelevant. The position is always secondary. To me, it has always been a sense of mission. I want the work, not the position.”
Maimane, who was elected as DA leader in 2015 and re-elected for a second three-year term last year, said he had grown “a lot stronger” over time.
“You don’t get born with a thick skin; you develop one. You have got to learn to be able to face up not only to your own people but [also] to face up to outsiders. That’s been a powerful lesson.
“I have no tolerance for people who want to regress the project, no tolerance for people who do not have commitment to the project of South Africa.”
At present, the party co-governs with the EFF, the United Democratic Movement, the Congress of the People, the Inkatha Freedom Party and the Freedom Front Plus in various municipalities and metros.
Maimane said the DA’s choice of post-poll coalition partners would be determined by “what, rather than who”, and whether potential partners shared the DA’s principles of nonracialism, a defence of the Constitution, a commitment to a free market, and the building of a capable state free of corruption.