Kerushun Pillay
Kerushun Pillay

Maimane in, but DA still struggles with discernible identity

Mmusi Maimane it is, then. Certainly since the resignation of Helen Zille in April, Maimane seemed the obvious choice to lead the DA. A near-90% landslide victory against candidate Wilmot James showed just that, and underlined the blistering speed of his ascension.

On the face of it Maimane looks good for the undertaking: greatly composed, well-spoken and possessing a remarkable assuredness for someone who is just a month away from 35. Indeed he appears — as the DA itself has seemed — as the one who provides balance: a kind of subtle, inoffensive, and precisely executed ballet routine wheeled out during the unhinged carnival that so often is South African politics.

And this may precisely be the problem Maimane faces. Mmusi Maimane’s greatest task regarding convincing naysayers lies in problems he has with his image. He, like the DA, lacks a discernible identity, there aren’t many natural associations one can make with the DA. Unlike other local political parties, the DA seems, rather, to be the one people look to merely as a proper policy-preaching alternative to the ANC, rather than a culture to be bought into. The implications, then, are that, while a contingent may default to the DA, Maimane will have it tough getting sceptics on board.

South Africa is at a point where those that are dissatisfied with the ruling ANC demand greater transparency from the government and a more effective service delivery, just to name two. While the DA’s actions and words may try to entice the public into believing that it is the one capable of meeting needs, the problem lies in the often all-too-functional manner in which it communicates this. Moments like (to name one) Helen Zille toyi-toying, while surely done sincerely, leaves an unshakable sense from the viewer that it was a logical “hey, you know what will endear the public to us” committee decision. It also no doubt made many cringe.

Such brings about the early view that Maimane is merely a token face of a white party: a pawn to entice fence-sitters and legitimate the DA as a forward-thinking enterprise. Granted, this viewpoint is there mainly for those who indulge conspiracies, but the immediate suspicion of his election as an insidious move is not to be ignored.

Moreover, there is the contentious implied idea that Maimane is the voice of the younger generations. This is both incorrect, and also gives rise to really irritating things like this. And it’s not hard to see why he isn’t: yes, even though Maimane may have called out Jacob Zuma out on a few occasions (or “burned” him, if you prefer), his somewhat pious image would likely see him lose out to youngsters who prefer, say, the more forthright EFF.

Maimane, and the DA, need to carve out an air and personality about them that is obvious to the public and in doing so they will establish themselves alongside the other frontrunners. Right now they lack apparent distinction from the others, they don’t have the affection, tradition, and historical endeavour of the ANC, nor the hard-nosed edge of the EFF. What, bar policy, is the DA and Maimane synonymous with?

The cheerful moniker given to him this week, The Obama of Soweto, is probably most telling. Pre-elected Barack Obama was the face of a genuinely new and progressive moment in American history, standing for — in both superficial appearance and policy — almost as an obvious choice for the US liberal; a direct opposite to conservatives. Does Maimane really have this going for him?

Of course, this isn’t to write off Maimane — not by any means. It is simply worth looking into how the DA will appeal to the greater public. There is great interest into what he does from now. And yes, I do understand that criticisms raised here may appear strange: is it the first time someone has been critiqued for being well-spoken?

But that’s just it. Winning the public over takes more than that, and perhaps, as it stands, Maimane and the DA do not have enough appeal to the whole of South Africa. True, the perceptions of him being a pawn in a scheme and so on are harsh, but this is the game of politics. Being appealing is what’s crucial.

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    • Bad Moon

      What kind of miracle do you expect? Mandela were no hero in a week’s time. Be fare man.

    • Gail Fry

      I’m a ‘believer’! What’s Maimane’s appeal? Simply this……an impressive academic resume for starters. A bachelor’s degree in Psychology and two Masters degrees, one in public administration. The man speaks 6 languages. He has consulted to Business in the space of diversity management and ran both the finance and governance committees in public office. He grew the party’s vote by 15% in 2014 which speaks to his ambition, commitment and energy levels. He is, I’m happy to say, distinctly different to the current players in the game. In every way. There is nothing vanilla about him. He’s a professional. He and his party have a very clear identity. Collectively, they represent delivery, competence, intellect, charisma, tolerance, efficiency, governance and transparency. There’s nothing glamorous about this job. We need someone clinical and experienced to lead the way in mopping up this mess. What else does the greater public want? Yes indeed, I’m a believer!

    • Rambo

      He is a nice dude. But I haven’t connected with him enough to vote for him. The whole DA still feels too plastic for me.

    • Dave Lowe

      Seems to me that the author wrote this article because he wanted to be seen as a nay-sayer – not because he’s really got tangible thoughts about Maimane. The voters who support the EFF are never going to switch to supporting the DA. All they think they are going to get is Free Everything – which we all know is un-affordable and will never happen. The DA has shown time and again that it governs well – which for many folk is more appealing than the ongoing promises made by the ANC which never happen. In addition, showing that the Party governs honestly, as compared to others, is mighty appealing. Given Maimane’s language and presentation skills, this certainly sets him (and the DA) apart from the rest.

    • grant

      Wouldn’t it be nice if you looked at what he stands for rather than where he fits into the colour spectrum?

    • JenWebbe

      Exactly – what do they expect after one week? Let’s judge him in one year’s time – the DA will grow from strength to strength – SA’s last hope.