I had dinner with the president last night. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t alone with him. There were about 350 other people eager to hear him speak and who had paid for the privilege, and I was one of those lucky enough to meet him and shake his hand.
When I say “president” I speak in a futuristic sense, because there is another official president that I would not have spent money to hear speak, and would certainly not have been at that particular party’s fundraiser. The active president is one I would dearly like to see vanish into the pages of history as an uncomfortable footnote.
This man on the other hand, Mmusi Maimane, is presidential in every sense. His presence at the Knysna DA fundraising dinner was keenly anticipated. Fundraising dinners are generally awkward affairs where the prime goal is to separate attendees from as much of their money as possible, and while that ambition was clearly stated and achieved, from my perspective it was clearly worth the money.
Maimane speaks with an easy, engaging and relaxed manner. He draws you in with his opening sentences, soon including his wife and children in his dialogue of hope for South Africa. He has every reason to be invested in a multicultural future for this country. His wife, as he puts it, is a “dangerous combination of Lebanese and Welsh”. His children are then “coloured” and his two-year-old son is already showing “EFF-like tendencies”. His ability to relate to his audience was effortless, raising laugh after laugh, and we were soon transfixed.
For 30 minutes Maimane spoke about his transition from counting votes for the IEC as a youth too young to vote, to his position as leader of the opposition in Parliament. He spoke about this country’s desperate need for jobs, for investment, and his fears for those family members of his who stand to lose their jobs in an unstable economy.
He spoke about his search for a political party that had the same value systems as he did, not necessarily a perfect party with perfect leaders who never risked making mistakes, and that he had found that mix of optimism, good governance and ethical leadership in the DA. He made frequent references to Nelson Mandela’s legacies and dreams, and how they were crumbling rapidly under the present ANC government. He urged us all to look forward more than we look back, to be less worried about our own histories and statues than our joint futures. His speech ended with a standing ovation.
As a newbie to first-hand political speeches, I saw up there a man present the qualities put to good use in the famous speeches that I have seen by Barack Obama, Madiba and even Martin Luther King. He had the same gravitas and charisma, and drew out the same responses from his audience.
This was probably the first time in my life that I have looked at a man significantly younger than me, and thought for all the best reasons, “I wish I was more like you”.
Maimane is clearly a president-in-waiting. His “Mr President, you are not an honourable man” speech at the Sona debate, an unprecedented attack on President Jacob Zuma, now has nearly half a million views on YouTube.
Above all, I was reminded of Martin Luther King’s famous words, spoken under a different set of circumstances, but under similar racial tensions. It appeared to me, without him saying as much, that Maimane urged us all, black, white, Indian and coloured, to reflect on these famous words:
“I look to a day when people will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
And for the first time in many months I had hope for South Africa. Here was a man who can navigate the difficult and tricky waters that face us as a nation. I felt very comfortable in his hands.
If Maimane remains only a “president-in-waiting” South Africa will be a significantly sorrier place, for the missed opportunity of living and thriving under the truly great leader he can and should be.