By Prof Kopano Ratele
Forget about the politics, although that is reason we have come to know of him. Forget about the politics of race too, even though our society is the paradigm for the world on how race can be brutally politicised. And forget, for now, the “white sexual object”, psychoanalytically speaking.
Listening to “governor” Mmusi Maimane give his acceptance speech after his election as the leader of the traditionally white Democratic Alliance (DA) on Sunday, it became clear that he will need to be taken much more seriously by Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema and the parties they lead because of the hope he is intent on projecting for young black men, and despite his intimate partner, black women too.
I was struck by several things Maimane said in his speech, one totally off and a couple positive.
On the downside, Maimane promised that the DA would build schools while they — I wasn’t sure who the “they” was he was referring to — are tearing down statues. If “they” are the students, he has been misinformed, or worse, doesn’t get it. Anyone who has taken the time to listen to the students will know they are terribly keen on learning, but no longer in conditions characterised by colonial and racist symbolism.
More seriously, black students are tired of being told they aren’t smart enough while having curricula that freight values of coloniality and white patriarchal supremacy shoved down their throats. For his own sake, if not his party’s, I hope Maimane’s party will build schools in which his black child will not be made to feel he is only there because of the generosity and intelligence of whites, where he will not be taught to second-guess his natural ability because he is not quite white.
But you can’t ignore the plusses.
If I were Zuma or Malema, I would sit up and come up with fresh ideas to check the DA under its new leader. Firstly, Maimane said the DA is not a party of racists and homophobes. I read the part about racism to be addressed not only to the DA’s political opponents but also those inside his own party who still nurse anti-black attitudes.
What made me sit up and listen ever more closely to “governor” Maimane was when he spoke about his 25-year-old cousin. Like Maimane himself, the young man grew up in Dobsonville. The new DA leader implied that because of the bad quality of education black children receive in township schools, his cousin dropped out, started abusing drugs, and got lured into crime. The young man is unemployed and perhaps, as many young black men, unemployable.
Maimane used the miserable circumstance of his cousin to score a political point against the education black children receive in township schools. Maimane’s point on the conditions that compromise the life chances of young black people struck a chord with me.
Whether you voted for the DA in the last election or not, the election of a young black man from Soweto to head a historically white party heralds another phase in the ever-shifting socio-scape of South Africa. Since Malema and the Economic Freedom Fighters moved South Africa — whether forwards or backwards is another matter — while Zuma and the ANC continue to represent the new-but-now-ageing status quo, there is less distance between Maimane and the former, than Maimane and Zuma (even though both might like suits). Malema and Maimane represent something new in the not-so-new South Africa, even if each represents different forms of young, masculine blackness.
It is how Maimane spoke about the bleak prospects of his young, black male cousin, an observation that is given weight by the fact that, as he said, he grew in the same township, that must give pause to the other black men. Unlike Helen Zille, he knows, not abstractedly but in a visceral way, what it means to be a young black man growing up in a township.
Even more troublingly for Zuma and Malema, Maimane’s “black male self” may come to represent for many young black men the possibility of aspiring, and transcending, one’s humble beginnings.
For some black people ambition is too audacious and in that they will find reason not to embrace the DA under its new black hope. For others, his journey will ignite their hopeful imagination, the possibility of climbing to the top.
What should most excite observers of black cultural, racial, and gender politics is the model of black manhood Maimane brings onto the field of social relations. It’s a politics that might have been inferred from the choice of his sexual object or, as Freud called, our partners. You don’t have to like the kind of black manhood Maimane apparently represents. You don’t have to vote for the DA. But in my calculation it is decidedly good for the continued work to liberate black South Africans from retrogressive cultural, race, and gender in our society, as it is for the future of black people the world over, to have more, and hopefully a variety of egalitarian black male leadership, representing a variety of masculinities.
You don’t have to desire white “sexual objects” or be a black man to see that the “governor” embodies new hope for masculinities.
Black young men and women, and possibly some young white people too, need to see represented in the leadership of our society what might have always been known but have not seen displayed on the national stage: black manhood comes in different forms.
Kopano Ratele is a professor at Unisa and chair of Sonke Gender Justice. He writes in his personal capacity.