Maimane’s next move: starting the ‘Uber’ of politics

Former party leader Mmusi Maimane said that he holds no bitterness towards the DA, but has instead learnt from his experiences. (David Harrison/M&G)

Former party leader Mmusi Maimane said that he holds no bitterness towards the DA, but has instead learnt from his experiences. (David Harrison/M&G)

Former Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane has said he will return to politics, although there are few concrete details about what exactly this will look like. “The political system is broken, and it needs its Uber, it needs its disruption,” he said, in an interview with the Brenthurst Foundation in Mombasa.

The Brenthurst Foundation is a Johannesburg-based think tank and lobby group, established and funded by the Oppenheimer family. On 8-10 November it held a conference at a golf resort in Mombasa on the future of African cities.

Maimane was a last-minute addition to the guest list, which featured several high-profile members of his former party, including former Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga, DA Gauteng leader John Moody and former DA MP Tim Harris.
The DA contingent, including Maimane, were flown into Mombasa on a private plane along with several other guests.

Maimane resigned as party leader last month, saying that he had been unable to realise his political vision. “I’ll speak on behalf of the plight of the unemployed,” he joked with conference delegates.

In the interview, Maimane likened the political and economic crises facing South Africa today to the challenges faced by the country prior to 1994. He said that if society does not come together to overcome these crises it may result in violence. “I am personally, without sounding alarmist, not convinced that with an ailing economy, a delegitimised government, that we will head towards the 2024 elections and think they will be peaceful.”

Several DA sources told the Mail & Guardian that they believed that Maimane attended the conference to request support and funding for his new movement. The M&G, which attended the conference as a guest of the Brenthurst Foundation — which included a trip in a private plane belonging to the Oppenheimer family - witnessed long conversations between Maimane and Jonathan Oppenheimer, the head of Oppenheimer Generations. The pair also had a private meeting.

The Brenthurst Foundation declined to comment on whether they would be supporting Maimane’s next move, financially or otherwise. “There were over fifty parliamentarians, mayors and other government officials in attendance in Mombasa. The Brenthurst Foundation exists simply to promote economic growth within Africa through the sharing of best policy practice,” it said via a spokesperson.

The M&G has requested comment from Maimane.

The Oppenheimer family, one of the richest families in the world with a fortune estimated by Forbes at $7.3-billion, has played a major role in South Africa’s history for nearly a century. Sir Ernest Oppenheimer founded the Anglo-American Corporation in 1924, and subsequently gained control of the De Beers diamond empire that had been founded by Cecil John Rhodes. His son, Harry Oppenheimer, consolidated the fortune and funded Helen Suzman’s Progressive party, considered by some to be the historical predecessor of today’s Democratic Alliance.

The family is no stranger to political controversy in recent times.

In 2018, when Nicky and Jonathan Oppenheimer appeared in parliament to defend the operation of their private plane terminal at OR Tambo, the pair were heckled by Black First Land First leader Andile Mngxitama and about 25 supporters, who branded them “a criminal family”. That matter arose after a dispute between the Oppenheimers and former home affairs minister Malusi Gigaba over whether authorisation for the terminal had been properly granted. Gigaba was later found to have lied to parliament in his assertion that the Oppenheimers had not obtained proper authorisation.

In May this year, Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema insinuated that the Oppenheimer family had funded Cyril Ramaphosa’s election campaign, warning him: “We have not elected Oppenheimer.” Malema did not offer any evidence for his allegations.

Not any time soon

Insiders in the DA who align themselves to Maimane are sceptical that the former leader will launch a new party any time soon. “None of the people I have spoken to, even in the immediate week after Mmusi’s resignation when emotions were still high, had indicated a discussion of a new party,” said one senior DA member.

The party member said the delegation travelling to Mombasa was known to the party, and that the gathering was prearranged.

“That thing was organised prior to the resignations happening. Both the Brenthurst Foundation and the [Oppenheimers] are always looking to get to the forefront of major political developments,” the source said.

DA insiders connected to Maimane told the M&G that the loudest calls for a new political movement have come from outside the party. “There is a push by external people that Maimane must start something. Whether he has an appetite for it, I don’t know. It’s because you have someone who is a former leader of a political party who is now inactive.”

For DA members, especially those who hold elected public positions, leaving the party would mean resigning from their jobs. With only months since DA MPs and provincial MPLs have been sworn in, there would be little appetite for representatives to follow Maimane and give up their jobs.

On the prospect of DA members joining a new party led by Maimane, another insider aligned with the DA’s black caucus said: “I can tell you now that nobody or only a handful would at best…His strength isn’t political organisation. It’s fundraising and big speeches.”

Former DA staffer Gareth van Onselen was even more dismissive of Maimane’s prospects. On Twitter, he said: “Man with no hard political skills (or transferable skills it seems) and dire leadership record, seeks new political/civil/religious vehicle to practice his special brand of nebbish sentimentality.”

In the Brenthurst Foundation interview, Maimane said that he holds no bitterness towards the DA, but has instead learnt from his experiences. “Leadership isn’t always compromise, and when you are leading a non-racial movement, it almost feels as if you’ve got to get black people and white people to compromise on certain things. Leadership sometimes is about saying no, the articulation of even non-racialism requires for us to be ruthless…there are just certain citizens who want to protect themselves, and it’s a natural part of any organisation. There are some you can pull by their ears, but some you got to kick out, and my biggest lesson is that we were too slow to kick out people who can derail a very important project.”

Note: The Mail & Guardian attended the Future of African Cities Conference in Mombasa as a guest of the Brenthurst Foundation.