OPINION: More Maimane, less 'Obama of Soweto'
Everybody wants to talk to Mmusi Maimane. The newly elected Democratic Alliance (DA) leader is riding the crest of the wave, featuring on international television news networks, laying on the charm on local radio stations and holding a Twitter town hall interaction so his followers can #AskMmusi whatever they would like to know about him. Meanwhile, the DA has also achieved victory in its court challenge against police removing MPs from Parliament during the State of the Nation Address. Will the DA keep doing what it does best or is there a new script coming for Maimane's party?
"Can a young, new opposition leader change South Africa?" CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour tweeted on Tuesday evening to flag her interview with South Africa's new political luminary, Mmusi Maimane. It is the question everybody wants to know but it will not be answered for a few years yet.
- Christiane Amanpour (@camanpour) May 12, 2015
Amanpour's actual interview, in which she enthralled her substantial worldwide audience by calling Maimane the "Obama of Soweto", was almost a movie trailer take on South African politics. The dynamic young preacher man with a white wife is about to "put the old guard on notice", while another "rabble-rouser" with mass appeal could steal his dream away. The storyline could, perhaps, make an excellent movie script but is far from the reality.
The 'old-guard' might be two generations too old but the ANC still commands 62% of the electorate. And the 'rabble-rouser' Julius Malema's agenda really has little to do with Maimane and his still-to-be-determined game plan. The DA says it will be releasing a 'vision' document in a few weeks, which will set out the policy and programmes of the party. So the publicity wave Maimane is riding now cannot yet provide the nuts and bolts of the party agenda until the script is determined.
Maimane is no doubt a success story and there is understandable hype around his election as DA leader with an overwhelming 89% of the vote. However, some of the excitement does seem to have more to do with the movie-trailer script Amanpour was so captivated by and does not factor in that Maimane is not a lone messiah who can conquer a 103-year-old party of liberation with his clean image and good intentions. The reality is that the DA needs to determine its game plan to take it beyond being the chief faultfinders of the ANC government to a party that can do things differently, with better results.
The criticism Maimane faced from Wilmot James, his main opponent for the position of DA leader, was that he wanted the party to be an alternate ANC instead of an alternative to it. You can certainly see what James means from some of the things Maimane has been saying since he was elected.
When he is asked about his areas of focus, he speaks about tackling unemployment, poverty and inequality - already dubbed the 'triple challenges' by the ANC alliance. Of course, these are South Africa's biggest problems and it would be foolhardy for an opposition leader to overlook them and find something else to focus on. But if the DA is to adopt these three issues as their focal areas, they need to present definitive alternatives to what is in the ANC government's plan of action.
Maimane has also borrowed the ANC's term 'second transition' and given it his own meaning. He says the second transition will be when power is transferred to another political party peacefully and democratically. The ANC had a massive fight about the 'second transition' at its policy conference in 2012, finally adapting it to 'second phase of the transition' to encompass radical economic transformation.
When Amanpour asked Maimane about the outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa, he put it down to ineffective border control by the government and the challenge of immigration. In doing so, he probably played into the 'Obama of Soweto' script as the issue of porous borders would have resonance for CNN's primary audience. But South Africans know that the problem is complex and layered, and is not simply because people from other countries come to live in South Africa.
During a televised debate between him and James, Maimane fell into the populist trap by suggesting that the issue of the death penalty should be decided through a referendum. By doing so, he sacrificed the DA's liberal ideology and supposed loyalty to the Constitution, just as its former leader Tony Leon did on the same issue when he too, in 2004, came under pressure from the party's constituency on an appropriate response to the high crime rate.
So Maimane needs to stop rolling the dice with what he and his party stands for. Nobody expects him to have all the right answers immediately and it will take time to settle into his new position and for the party to chart the way forward. But in the meantime, floundering around like a fish on a hook or trying to be everything to everybody will not help his cause.
The one thing the DA has earned its stripes on is trying to hold the ANC government accountable for their actions. From questions to President Jacob Zuma and members of Cabinet, to vigorous portfolio committee meetings and parliamentary debates, as well as court challenges, the DA has used all avenues available to play its role as South Africa's main opposition party.
On Tuesday the Western Cape High Court ruled in favour of the DA's application challenging the police arresting or removing MPs from the house. The court said such actions violated MPs' privileges of freedom of speech and freedom from arrest. This arose from the commotion during the State of the Nation Address (Sona) in February when members of the Economic Freedom Fighters were forcibly removed from the house by police officers in plain clothes.
The matter still needs to be confirmed by the Constitutional Court and Parliament has announced that it intends appealing the ruling. But from the general chaos that ensued at the Sona, the DA pursued a legitimate course of action to challenge what happened.
It did not always choose the strategically sound course, however. At the Sona, the entire DA caucus was dressed in black to demonstrate that this year's event was not the time for a fashion parade and celebration. It did not make that much of an impact and proved to be a meaningless stunt in a day of turbulence. However, insisting that the signal jammer be switched off before Zuma could deliver his speech showed that the DA stands firm on matters of principle.
And this is the dilemma of a party now under a young new leader. There is a temptation to try new things and aim to be on trend, which have no lasting effect and do not advance the main goal of growing the party to break the ANC's majority. One of the first things the DA did to reflect a new era under Maimane was to change its official Twitter handle from @DA_news to @Our_DA. Immaterial in the general scheme of things, until you consider that the ruling party's official twitter handle is @MyANC_.
The DA under Maimane has to be something different to the DA under Helen Zille or any other leader. It has to be more than a variation to the ANC and a sober, stable alternative to the EFF. The DA leadership, and Maimane in particular, has to find one voice and stick to it. It is fine to switch from street to Parliament dialect, just as long as the policies and messaging is consistent.
Maimane is likely to be the most analysed, dissected opposition leader for the foreseeable future and he needs his party to solidify around him just as much as his party needs him to take it to new frontiers. More than anything, Maimane needs to distinguish himself as his own man and show that he does not need to be the 'Obama of Soweto' to make an imprint on history.
This column first appeared on Daily Maverick.