In any other jurisdiction, winning an election by over 62% of the vote would be considered a landslide and that would be the end of it. Just not in South Africa.
by perry munzembiri
In last year’s national elections, though the African National Congress (ANC) won the majority of the vote and retained power, it was surprisingly not the only victor in that election.
Here is why. Firstly, to share the spoils as it were, was the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) led by firebrand Julius Malema, which as a “new kid on the block” garnered 29 seats of the National Assembly in its first major election. Then there was the Democratic Alliance (DA), which in keeping with historical trends saw its share of the national vote increase from 16, 66% in 2009 to 22, 22% in 2014. All these were significant albeit small victories for South Africa’s opposition parties as they revealed a glimpse of how the political landscape in South Africa might shift in the future.
Just how big or how prompt that shift will be is inevitably dependent on the progress of the opposition parties in the rainbow nation in transforming their images into real national government contenders. South Africa is widely lauded for its democratic, political and constitutional machinery which has close to 29 opposition parties. And for the most part, it is the DA that has posed the most realistic threat to the ANC’s hold on power, though now the case may be made for the EFF. However, with its radicalism and how its identity seems overly intertwined with its leader Malema, it is difficult to see its existence as a going concern outside of Malema’s leadership.
For all it has going for it, the DA has been shackled with a “white” party tag that it has been struggling to shake off. Given the brutal history of the apartheid era, and its subsequent legacy issues in the democratic South Africa, the DA has for the longest time been perceived as an elitist white party incapable of ably representing the interests of the black people. Perceptions the party has been trying to erase. Even its former leader Helen Zille once conceded that it would be difficult to threaten the ANC’s two decade hold on power if the DA could not successfully rid itself of the “white” party tag.
Having lost its erstwhile parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, widely seen at the time as Zille’s heir apparent amid reports of a breakdown in her relationship with Zille, the party was left with a credibility deficit among the black electorate. What ensued thereafter was a disastrous experiment wherein the DA attempted to thrust liberation struggle stalwart Mamphela Ramphele to the helm of the party. But that ill-conceived plan failed as suddenly as it was hatched, and Zille together with the DA were left with egg in the face.
Enter Mmusi Maimane, to fill the gap that has given the DA a lot of headaches, that of a“black face” of the party even though it asserts that it is a non-racial party. Maimane was elected as the first black leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, the DA at its recently ended electoral conference in Port Elizabeth. Could he be the DA’s smoking ace, who will attract the highly sought after black vote, that could well be the point of difference in future elections?
Maimane is the representation of the progressive South African dream the DA is selling. A Soweto-born, eloquent and charismatic leader, who once dabbled in entrepreneurship and has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Masters in Theology. He even taught at the prestigious Gordon Institute of Business Science before making the seamless transition to politics where he was the DA’s mayoral candidate for Johannesburg in 2011. And to top it off, portraying the true notion of the “Rainbow Nation”, Maimane is married to a white person.
Yet these are just but some of the attributes that have seen him labelled as “suspiciously black” among some quarters. His ascension in the DA has been often described as merely ceremonial and that he panders to white interests and as such could not represent the black voter. One thing that even Maimane does not deny is his obvious lack of experience. At just 34 years old, he would be expected to be finding his feet in South Africa’s political construct, yet he is now tasked with the formidable task of redefining and charting a new course for the DA. His, is a rise to power that could not have come at a more critical time for the DA. With just under a year to the 2016 local elections, Maimane will have to galvanise the DA political machinery to present a competitive opposition to the ANC, and continue building towards the 2019 national elections.
The DA already governs one out of nine South African provinces, a large metropolitan city and 26 local municipal authorities around the country. Whether the DA will give the ANC a run for its money under Maimane’s leadership even in the face of a growing threat from the leftist EFF will be the major question on the minds of many.
Earlier this year, some media reports noted how the EFF dominated the DA as the major opposition party in Parliament as the EFF took President Jacob Zuma to task over when he would repay the money used to upgrade his private residence in his rural Nkandla.
However, lately we have seen a different side to Maimane as he tore into President Zuma, describing him as a “broken man presiding over a broken society”. He further told President Zuma that he was personally not an honourable person following the violent confrontation between the EFF and State security agents at a joint sitting of the National Assembly early this year. This will most certainly put to rest the accusations of some who see him as a lame duck incapable of shifting the gears when the terrain gets tough.
Whatever his actual or perceived misgivings; the DA has nailed its colours to the mast by entrusting Maimane to transform the party. And throngs of its supporters are sold onto his vision for the future of the party and have rallied behind his “Believe in Tomorrow” slogan.
Whether he will be equal to the task or not is anybody’s guess. It will be interesting to see how the party will fare under his stewardship, and whether the DA will provide a more resurgent threat to the ANC as it provides a political home for the liberal black voter discontent with ANC’s rule.