By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Mmusi Maimane, the head of South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, should ordinarily be popular with most South Africans. He is black and so should naturally appeal to black South Africans. And since he is married to a white woman, whites should naturally warm up to him as well.
As head of the DA, which is still adjudged by most black South Africans, as a party that promotes the interests of whites, Maimane ought to fit in perfectly. But that has not been the case. In other words, Maimane’s black heritage has not proved to be as much of an asset as the DA likely hoped.
Ironically, President Cyril Ramaphosa, Maimane’s counterpart in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), likely ticks most of the boxes on the key traits the DA likely sought in their leader.
Ramaphosa has mass appeal with Blacks, Whites and Indians in South Africa. And yet this should ideally be Maimane’s forte.
What the DA has going for it as a party, however, is a reputation for service delivery. It has demonstrated this in the relatively better-run Western Cape province, which it has been governing since 2009.
But why is this reputation not resulting in more popular support? One of the reasons is that memories of apartheid still run deep. There is hope that this might change in the future, however.
Younger South Africans, who naturally would increasingly have vague memories of apartheid, might eventually buy into the DA’s message; especially if the ruling ANC continues to flounder on the provision of basic public services and does not succeed in checking the corrupt activities of its cadres. But that future is probably still a long way off.
Thus, there is a sense Maimane is probably resigned to the fact that the DA may not be a ruling party at the federal level for a long while. And it is almost certain the DA would not be one under Maimane’s leadership.
What do experts think? New African asked Roger Southall, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who first highlights points on the subject from an earlier paper he wrote and thereafter answers our follow-up questions.
“The Democratic Alliance, the official opposition, had sought to divest itself of the tag of being the party of white liberalism by becoming more racially diverse and progressively transforming its free-market [orientation] into a social market orientation.”
“However, for all that it had increased its vote share and representation in parliament from one previous election to another, it had proven incapable of taking advantage of the ANC’s dismal record of governance and an upsurge of popular ‘Zuma must Fall’ sentiment which had swept the country during the latter years of his presidency.”
“Although it had played an important role in demanding accountability by Zuma in parliament and via the courts, the DA had been outshone in this regard by the theatrical performances of the EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters].”
“Despite the many scandals of the Zuma administration, the DA’s likeable but ineffectual leader, Mmusi Maimane, had failed to capture the public imagination.”
“Worse, his predecessor, Helen Zille (who remained Premier of the DA-ruled Western Cape) had antagonized vast swathes of the black public (whose support the party was desperate to attract) by a long series of ill-advised ‘tweets’ which highlighted what she regarded as the constructive aspects of colonialism.”
“To be sure, a solid party performance in the 2016 local government elections had led to ANC defeats and the forging of coalitions between the DA, the EFF and smaller parties to run Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela metro (Port Elizabeth) but these were soon to come under severe strain.”
“Indeed, the latter one had collapsed in a racially-charged dispute in August 2018. Most damagingly, the DA had fallen out with Patricia De Lille, its own mayor of Cape Town, in an extended fractious battle in which unspecified charges of corruption were rebutted by equally unspecified charges of the party being run by a white cabal.”
“De Lille’s eventual resignation from the DA, after various court battles, threatened to fracture its hold over the Western Cape’s Coloured community and, as a result, its control over the province (which it had swept in 2014 with 59 percent of the provincial vote).”
An edited version was published in the April 2019 issue of New African magazine