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OPINION: The idea of Mmusi Maimane

Reviewing the remarkable Toni Morrison's new novel God Help the Child, Buzzfeed literary editor and poet Saeed Jones made an interesting distinction between 'the idea of Toni Morrison' and Morrison herself. He writes: "Her name becomes shorthand for a republic of women and black artists with 'no home in this place'…people who create, reclaim and celebrate art that is intent on offering something of use back to the people whom it illuminates."

For many people, the world over, to invoke Morrison's name is to express an entire worldview: so grounded in the black experience that the two become almost interchangeable. She has come to embody an iconic metonym: one rooted in black America, but with profound global resonances.

This distinction is not unique to Jones. Richard Pithouse made a similar distinction, writing about the "the bright strength of the idea of Nelson Mandela" in terms of his legacy, and the distinction between man and myth - which is often the subject of much debate.

How people become ideas, and the split it creates when their complex humanity is reduced to a concept, idea or thought has to do with how we mythologise people, both when they are living or have passed on. The living, particularly those under the gaze of any kind of spotlight, have to contend with or against a particular, curated image - whether it is created of their own doing, choice and making, or is born primarily of public imagination, critique and popular consensus.

Without the benefit of time and legacy, and the degrees of clarity that they afford, Mmusi Maimane, the newly-elected leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), is at the very beginning of this process. Yet, even at this point, he is haunted by an idea that has begun to form in popular and political critique. He exists for many people as a loosely-formed idea, but not one idea that functions in the same way as the ideas of legacy of the likes of Morrison and Mandela.

On one hand, there is the 'political idea' curated by the party, which centralises the idea of Maimane as the kind of politician that South Africa needs right now. It centres on positioning him as 'a clean-cut Soweto boy who did good', as Ranjeni Munusamy recently argued, who upholds democratic values and ideals.

On the other hand, there is a growing political critique of this idea that argues that Maimaine lacks political weight, experience and content, and is 'pure rhetoric' - which often follows in his shadow. These two ideas are often at odds, with the latter bearing important weight in terms of what 'the idea of Mmusi Maimane' is becoming.

The idea of Maimane, in its infancy, has become synonymous with the language of democratic ideals and the rhetoric that it demands. The questions that seem to insistently appear in many critical engagements with Maimane, at this young moment in his political career are: "who is Mmusi Maimane, really? And what does he stand for?" And given his new position, they are questions that will need to be settled and answered, in the realisation of the complicated absence that always seems to follow in its wake of their asking.

Maimane has been called many things, from ' superficial and platitudinous', to 'the hollow man', and 'Obama-lite' - the latter given his campaign branding and political speeches that appear closely modelled on the American president's language, image and idealism. But he has also been called incredibly charismatic and 'smart and savvy, energetic, charismatic, unthreatening to the DA's core support base'. These apparent conflicting images are not entirely mutually exclusive; however, the failure to articulate clear system of values, ideology, policy and politics has meant that the former critiques continue to have salient input into what the idea of Maimane is becoming.

Who Maimane is, and the politics that he both articulates, acts and embodies, matters as the DA has set itself apart and branded itself as exceptional in the South African political landscape. Maimane has had a meteoric rise to become the leader of the opposition in four short years, from being the party's Johannesburg mayoral candidate to national spokesperson, candidate for Gauteng premier, parliamentary leader and now party leader. This relatively short time span has also meant that outside the party, there is little idea about who he really is when you get past the rhetoric, ideology and language that surrounds the branding of the politician.

Political campaigns are often an exercise in branding and advertising, some more successful than others, and all politicians work on building an idea and image that they believe will appeal to the masses. Maimane is not unique in this respect. Julius Malema is branded around the idea of the complicated political revolutionary, fashioned close to grassroots issues and images and with radical ideas and politics. However, with Maimane, and to an extent Malema, we can easily see the workings of the political machinations, its cogs and inner workings - viewing the logic behind campaigns attempting to rebrand the party and grow its support base, and particularly appeal to the young, black electorate, through populism. At times, he appears 'too packaged', to loan Munusamy's phrase.

Much has been made of his relative political inexperience, which showed in the recent televised debate between Wilmot James and Maimane, revealing a tension between populism and constitutional democracy as Maimane argued in favour of referendums on gay marriage and the death penalty.

Constitutionally enshrined values and rights are paramount in a secular state, where we cannot reduce minority rights to majority opinion. While James emerged as more articulate in policy terms, Maimane emerged as more charismatic, and in the game of politics, charisma matters, but requires being matched with sharp, fully-formed and incisive content.

Building a candidate that can pose a challenge to the South African presidency in 2019 will require more than the aesthetics of transformation and appealing to Maimane's roots to prove that he is familiar with the lived experiences of ordinary South Africans. What Maimane represents will have to go deeper than appearance and language, which when they stand alone are simply empty signifiers and do not suffice. It will require taking those lived experiences seriously, in way that acknowledges and acts on addressing the vast gap between democratic values, and the inequalities and injustices that persist under a democratic government.

The political idea of Maimane often appears at tension with the South African reality, where rhetoric is losing favour in the face of a complex reality where 'the rainbow nation' and 'new South Africa' no longer have salience and explanatory power. Non-racialism, which Maimane often refers to, is at once ill-defined, impotent and out of touch with a country where people's lived experience remains stratified on the basis of race, interlinked with many other defining factors like class and gender.

As the DA attempts to redefine itself and launch a new era, settling the idea of Mmusi Maimane, giving it clarity and content remains crucial for the party, especially in the wake of his recent election as leader. The questions posed to him, and his politics, have now taken on greater weight and importance, and require being fully addressed. But addressing what Maimane represents will have to be more than an image and idea built an architecture of words that is founded on the language of democratic idealism. This language is often used by the present government, and even its detractors and opposition, in a way that is out of touch with reality, and avoids clearly addressing hurdles and dilemmas of this democracy.

It is not enough to brand the idea of Maimane around campaign slogans like 'hope', 'believe' or 'change'. Questions like 'what kind of hope', 'a belief in what' and 'what kind of change, and how will this be achieved?' are politically necessary and crucial to articulate a clear vision and idea. They cannot be answered with 'better future', 'united South Africa', 'non-racialist dream', which have been fed to South Africans, and citizens the world over, in a way that negates and distracts and avoids taking seriously the pressing challenges that we face.

The idea of Mmusi has yet to take shape and solidify completely in the minds of those who exist outside the party or on the peripheries of party politics - but who acutely feel the latter's effects and whose lives depend on its processes and decisions. For some, though, this idea is already too empty and ill-defined to have political salience and power. Building credibility and settling the idea of Maimane requires dealing with an image that is at once either/and: already complicated, crucial, incomplete, different, new, inconsistent or fixed in different interpretations by ordinary South Africans who are trying to make sense of whether what the new DA leader offers that is meaningfully different, or just much of the same, and simply packaged differently.

Danielle Bowler holds a master's degree from Rhodes University and is a Mandela Rhodes scholar. She is currently an assistant researcher at Mistra and a member of Feminist Stokvel. She likes to think critically about the world around her, which often includes making complex political arguments about pop culture and Beyonce. Follow her on Twitter: @daniellebowler