Mmusi Maimane sleeps well at night.
The fact that he is married, a father of two, and a runner and (sometimes) boxer are high on his list of daily duties and achievements. The fact that he was once the leader of the official opposition in South Africa features low down on his list of personal accolades, so far has he moved on from the Democratic Alliance.
Although he says he has put party politics behind him, Maimane is still very much involved in what he calls activist politics, with the goal of building a movement of independent candidates who will contest the 2024 national and provincial elections.
His One South Africa Movement is growing steadily, Maimane says, with community activists, business people, and even some sportsmen and -women jumping on board. He is reluctant to reveal names just yet, though, but these will be the independent, non-party-affiliated people he wants to represent their constituencies.
That’s why Maimane has been so vocal and energised by a Constitutional Court judgment in June that ruled that the Electoral Act as it stands is unconstitutional. This is because it excludes independent candidates from running for seats in provincial parliaments and the National Assembly. Independent candidates can already contest local government elections.
“I’ve had a year-and-a-bit to rest; to think about how we reform the political system. But it also gave me a good break from the hustle of day-to-day leading of a big political party. It gave me time to think about what I would do better, what I would do differently and how we achieve genuine change in the country,” Maimane tells the Mail & Guardian.
Maimane’s analysis of the DA’s poor performance is that all of the country’s problems were embodied in one man, former president Jacob Zuma. At the same time, the electorate adopted President Cyril Ramaphosa as a panacea to those problems. He says this process led to his realisation that the electoral system was broken.
“In 2019, already I made the case within the DA that we need a grassroots movement. Unless it was inherently connected to what citizens on the ground felt on a day-to-day basis, then the project was doomed,” he says.
When Maimane was elected to lead the DA in 2015, it was a watershed for the party. He was the first-ever black South African to become the official leader of the opposition.
During his victory speech in Port Elizabeth, Maimane warned of the dangers of a colour-blind party that traditionally was seen as an organisation catering to white people and the middle class. He argued that South Africa’s racially segregated history had affected the lot and current circumstance of the majority of South Africans.
“These experiences shaped me, just like they shaped so many young black people of my generation. And that is why I don’t agree with those who say they don’t see colour. Because, if you don’t see that I’m black, then you don’t see me,” he told delegates.
The party he once led has turned away from using race as a proxy for inequality and a means for redress. It’s a policy change he describes as “unhealthy for South Africa”.
“Our history is littered with racial oppression. If we take Khayelitsha, in many people’s minds, it’s just a township for poor people. But, in truth, it was a township designed for black people. There are other areas set up for white people. So, if you fail to see that my being black connects me to that history, then you don’t see the essence of who I am. My kids must ask gogo in Soweto why she lives here, and granny on my [white] wife’s side ended up there.”
The DA policy shift, and what is described as a move away from the political centre, has raised questions about whether other black leaders will be staying.
The DA has a history of grooming and attracting strong, black leaders, among them Lindiwe Mazibuko, Wilmot James, Patricia de Lille, Herman Mashaba and John Moodey, who have all, in the span of a few years, left the party — some on amicable terms, others in more acrimonious circumstances.
Maimane confirms he has spoken to DA members, and that he still enjoys good relationships with some of his former colleagues. But he claims he’s not the one making overtures, DA MPs and MPLs would have little appetite to cross over a mere 16 months into the election cycle.
“I have been contacted. And some people are now conscious that there has been a definite shift in the party. But I’ve been deliberate about not recruiting people. As a great Liverpool supporter, I [follow] the Jürgen Klopp philosophy, ‘Don’t get superstars, make them.’ And sometimes people have been in politics for too long. I’ve found some of our own superstars.”
Despite his moving on to a new political project, Maimane’s name is etched in history as a DA leader. Asked who between John Steenhuisen and Mbali Ntuli he’d like to see permanently replace him at the party’s upcoming federal elective congress, Maimane pauses for a moment before settling on saying it is a matter for DA delegates to decide. “It’s up to them to choose who will drive their vision.”