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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