Mmusi Maimane.  Picture: SOWETAN
Mmusi Maimane. Picture: SOWETAN

THE South African electorate in recent years has become accustomed to vigorous electioneering ahead of the elective conferences of the governing African National Congress (ANC). It’s done in a peculiar manner, though — groups arrange themselves into slates and much of the machinations are leaked to the media. So while the politicking is done in private, as long as interested people keep abreast of the media reports of the various publications, some insight into the intra-party electoral battles within the ANC comes to the fore, so the results tend not to be much of a surprise.

By comparison the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has offered a less transparent process — until now, that is. Helen Zille’s stepping down as leader opened up the position after seven years and though its parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane, was seen as her natural successor, the entry of Wilmot James as a contestant has invigorated the race.

Mr Maimane, though a talented orator and highly photogenic — attributes that stand him in good stead in this age of the sound bite and video clip — is seen as inexperienced and not quite ready for the top job, which will require steering the party into new territory if it wants to graduate from merely running the Western Cape province and Cape Town metro.

His rise in party ranks has been meteoric — he was the candidate for Johannesburg mayor in 2011 and Gauteng premier in last year’s general election. But he has moved to Parliament, raising questions about his stamina for the long haul in securing another metro or province for the DA.

His rival, Mr James, has been in the powerful position of federal chairman since 2008.

Much of the electorate — and likely party political membership — borders on the young end of the spectrum, so being media savvy no doubt is an advantage. Therefore Monday’s televised debate between the two was a welcome change to political party elections in SA. Though 30 minutes is hardly enough time to interrogate candidates, the debate on DStv’s Kyknet did offer some insights into their views on a range of matters from the National Development Plan to the protection of gay rights.

As the DA did not distribute its policy documents ahead of the elective conference, the televised quizzing of the two top candidates was a good way for the public to get to know some of the thinking of its potential leaders.

Both acquitted themselves well. But Mr Maimane has opened the way to a potential political and legal minefield by saying he supported a referendum on the death penalty.

It is contentious because the Constitutional Court, in a seminal judgment in the first case it heard in 1995, set out why the death penalty undermined the kind of society envisaged by the Constitution and why public opinion should not sway the court on the issue.

It said: "The rights to life and dignity are the most important of all human rights, and the source of all other personal rights in Chapter Three. By committing ourselves to a society founded on the recognition of human rights we are required to value these two rights above all others. And this must be demonstrated by the state in everything that it does, including the way it punishes criminals. This is not achieved by objectifying murderers and putting them to death to serve as an example to others in the expectation that they might possibly be deterred thereby."

The DA proclaims itself a champion of the Constitution and, given the controversies over the death penalty globally and SA’s tortured past when such policy held sway, it would be prudent for Mr Maimane to reflect on the harm that could come from such a referendum.

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