Can Mmusi Maimane steer the DA through SA's maelstrom of race?
Being the DA’s first black leader was never going to be an easy task, especially in a party trying to maintain its traditional voter base — largely white and middle class — while convincing black South Africans that it is a viable option to lead SA.
Mmusi Maimane said on the campaign trail before being elected DA leader in 2015 that he did not agree with people who said that they did not see colour, "because if you don’t see that I’m black, then you don’t see me".
He added that his skin colour did not define him and that SA’s politics must never again be allowed to degenerate into a contest between races. "Instead, it must be a battle of competing ideas," he offered.
Addressing the DA’s federal congress in April, where he was reelected unopposed, he referred to that 2015 speech, saying: "But the flipside of this is also true. If all you see is that I am black, then you equally don’t see me."
At that congress the so-called "battle of ideas" was fought and a new value, which was championed by Maimane, was adopted by the party. That value was diversity.
The party proclaimed that it would take "active steps to promote and advance diversity in its own ranks". Unlike many other political parties in SA that have committed to diversifying their public representatives on race, gender and age lines, the DA did not spell out what it meant by this, other than concluding that it "recognises the right of each individual to be who they want to be, from domination by others (sic)".
Depending on who you spoke to, the "active steps" that would be taken were regarded as one of the biggest victories at the congress, despite not spelling out what exactly these steps would entail. Delegates who feared that the clause would be a way of getting race and gender quotas adopted through the back door celebrated their victory as the DA also made rejecting quotas a part of its constitution.
The outcome did not quell the long-simmering debate in the party. The issue was already in the spotlight before the last delegate had left the congress venue in Tshwane.
At the first media briefing held by the new leadership, spokeswoman and deputy federal chairwoman Refiloe N’tsheke was asked how she felt about being the only female leader in the DA’s top national structures. Maimane replied that he wanted more female leaders.
Since its formation, the DA has continually been accused of being a white party representing white interests and of not being representative enough in its senior leadership positions and parliamentary caucus.
The accusations have not muted since Maimane’s election and continue despite the fact that seven of the DA’s provincial leaders are black and its public representatives are becoming increasingly diverse. He faces pressure from outside the DA and within his own party on the diversity issue.
He walked straight into the firing line after he proclaimed in his Freedom Day address in Soshanguve that "white privilege and black poverty" must be confronted.
City Press reported on Sunday that DA deputy chief whip Mike Waters, chief whip John Steenhuisen and MP Natasha Mazzone were critical of his comments, citing fears that the party would lose the support of white voters ahead of the 2019 national elections — a massive test for the party, which aspires to win Gauteng.
Right now the optics, regardless of the context, do not look good for a party that wants to be a home for all in SA. Of the three women punted on DA elections posters in 2014, two are no longer with the party
The issue was addressed by Maimane at the DA’s federal executive meeting at the weekend. A senior DA leader who supports Maimane says the "attack" on him comes as party leaders feel threatened about their political futures.
Most politically active South Africans accept the notion of white privilege as a fact. They understand that decades of white privilege came at the expense of black economic advancement. But the DA’s black leader was attacked for conveying these notions.
It is, however, not the political future of individuals that hangs in the balance as the DA’s internal battles make their way into the public domain. As Maimane surely knows, optics matter in SA politics, especially race and identity politics.
Right now the optics, regardless of the context, do not look good for a party that wants to be a home for all in SA. Of the three women punted on DA elections posters in 2014, two are no longer with the party. Patricia de Lille’s membership was revoked on Monday after a lengthy and ugly battle. Lindiwe Mazibuko, once touted as a possible DA leader, resigned shortly after the 2014 elections.
On Tuesday Nt’sheke sat in silence at the media conference where the DA announced the termination of De Lille’s membership, while Mazzone effectively ran the show, reinforcing to some the perception that black DA leaders are puppets.
Tshwane mayor Solly Msimanga narrowly lost out to Athol Trollip in a contest to become the DA’s federal chairman. But leaders such as Makashule Gana, the party’s Gauteng premier candidate hopeful, say the DA is not in crisis, but is merely grappling with the issues regular South Africans struggle to define.
The biggest test, however, is how the DA will navigate and emerge out of this turbulent maelstrom of race and identity politics, which it claims it does not prescribe to at all.