Politics is a tough business. Not long after his recent resignation as Democratic Alliance leader, Mmusi Maimane took an economy class seat on a Cape Town to Johannesburg flight immediately behind former Springbok captain Jean de Villiers, who, with characteristic aplomb, greeted Maimane with the words: “Hey Mmusi, business class on the way in, economy on the way back, eh?”
Never a truer word said in jest. Political failure can be brutal.
Yet Maimane’s quick retort was no less jocular, but with even more edge: “Yes, but at least I didn’t lose to Japan”, a reference to the Boks’ shock defeat at the opening game of the 2015 World Cup, when De Villiers was captain.
If only Maimane had defined the DA’s vision and values with such sharpness in the run-up to May’s poor performance in the general election he would still be DA leader. But his own ideological shallowness — his basic lack of a political hinterland and street-wise know-how — was ultimately exposed.
Oratorial poise and panache, and the courage he showed in taking on then president Jacob Zuma toe-to- toe in the National Assembly especially, were never going to be enough to seriously dent the ANC’s big brand in South Africa’s rugged electoral terrain.
When Zuma was deposed, the DA’s underlying divisions on key issues, such as black economic empowerment and the absence of a clearly articulated value proposition as an alternative government in the face of a reformist Cyril Ramaphosa-led administration, was laid painfully bare in the 2019 election campaign.
Maimane’s demise was inevitable.
Whether this explains, let alone justifies, the return of Helen Zille is a completely different matter. Her leadership provided strategic clarity for eight years from 2007: build on the party’s Western Cape base one city or province at a time, until the case as a government-in-waiting is fully made — underpinned by a Popperite version of liberalism that emphasised equality of opportunity and which just about managed to fudge the internal differences of opinion on affirmative action as the basis for socioeconomic redress.
Ironically, when she stepped down in 2015 it was because she was insistent that the DA needed a black leader if it was to advance further.
Zille 2019 is a different political proposition from Zille 2015. Her trenchant positions on, among other things, colonialism and her Trumpite promiscuity on Twitter has devalued her brand and sullied her reputation.
The biggest task for John Steenhuisen, the newly elected (interim) leader of the party, will be to convince a wide range of people in the electoral marketplace that he is not Zille’s lackey and that he is the leader, not her.
Steenhuisen has proved to be a first-class parliamentarian when serving as DA chief whip. His grasp of the rules, and his sharp-witted willingness to use them effectively when challenging ANC governmental failings, was as good as anyone who has served in Parliament since the Democratic Party veterans of the 1990s (Colin Eglin, Ken Andrew, Douglas Gibson, Dene Smuts et al), the “gang of seven” DP MPs that ran rings around the ANC (and the National Party rump) in the first democratic Parliament from 1994-95.
They proved that in politics size does not always matter — a small, disciplined, capable, coherent political party can punch well above its weight.
This is not to suggest that the DA will, or must, contract to its 1990s form. But contract it may well do, unless Steenhuisen is able to develop quickly into a national-level political leader of the stature and gravitas necessary to convincingly project the DA as more than just a small liberal party.
He is smart, charming and, most importantly for political success and survival, extremely ambitious. Unlike his predecessor, he was born for politics. Maimane’s career diverted from its pastoral path towards a career in politics in his late 20s. While he was gathering a number of tertiary qualifications, including a master’s degree in theology, Steenhuisen was busy learning politics from the bottom up.
Like many ANC and Economic Freedom Fighters politicians, he knows no other life. This will stand him in good stead as he seeks to steady the DA ship and then reset its strategic and ideological course.
Apart from the spectral shadow cast by Zille, Steenhuisen will also have to nimbly eviscerate his party’s existential crisis over whether they are a liberal party with social democratic tendencies and the ambition to compete with the ANC, or a just a good old-fashioned liberal party that is happy to play chihuahua nipping at the heels of the big dogs (every multiparty democracy should have one).
Does he, for example, want to win back the 1.5% of DA voters who in May abandoned the centre ground and opted for the nationalist alternative presented by the Freedom Front Plus? Or, given the bad run of by-election results in mainly coloured working-class wards in the Western Cape since the election, perhaps he will opt for rebuilding the party’s base before it contemplates a return to the growth trajectory of the Zille years.
Decisions, decisions. In comparison, taunting a Zuma-led ANC in Parliament was like shooting fish in a barrel. Welcome to the big league, John.
His first statement on winning the election on Sunday was interesting, because he went out of his way to couple the notion of redress with the fight against poverty. Perhaps he had read columnist Eusebius McKaiser on these pages last week, when he invited Steenhuisen to “rethink and revise some of his views on race and redress” lest he be mistaken for a “Zille-lite”, notwithstanding significant differences in tone and style.
In turn, Steenhuisen will need to fashion a smarter, more strategic approach to coalitions in the face of the train-smash of Nelson Mandela Bay metro and the on-going discomfiture of the Johannesburg and Tshwane metros.
The EFF has had an even more terrible six months since the election. In so far as they were ever real corruption-busters, the VBS Mutual Bank revelations have truly busted their flush. Although they doubled their share of the vote in May, despite the socioeconomic context and the opportunity it offered them, the South African electorate essentially rejected their neo-fascist, ultrapopulist offering.
The EFF’s high water mark has come and gone. It will be downhill all the way from here for Julius Malema and his noisy band of fellow travellers.
Which does of course raise questions about the strength and depth of South Africa’s democracy.
Do the travails of the two biggest opposition parties not imply that the ANC can indeed rule until Jesus returns, regardless of how recklessly it chooses to govern?
And thus, does it not strengthen the hand of the scoundrel wing of the ruling party, those “fightbackers” who are willing to imperil Ramaphosa’s reform programme regardless of the harm it will do to the economy and its prospects of recovery?
Certainly it is true that during the slide towards state capture, the more far-sighted and thoughtful members of the ANC leadership would privately express gratitude at the growth path of the DA and the emergence of the EFF as a muscular opposition — precisely because it helped their cause in trying to protect the integrity of the ANC against the head-banger barbarians at the gate.
Opposition weaknesses are relevant to the bigger concern about an ANC government’s ability to lead South Africa decisively away from the social, economic and fiscal crisis.
The competition for power at municipal level will remain keenly contested, but in the national, and largely in provincial sphere too, we’re back to the place where we were 10 or so years ago: the real opposition is inside the ANC and what is left of its broader alliance.
Or perhaps we never left that place. And unless a new political offering can be imagined and packaged in a way that appeals to the six million young South Africans who did not even register to vote in May, maybe we never will.
Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town and a partner in the political risk consultancy, The Paternoster Group