Mmusi Maimane. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mmusi Maimane. Picture: SUPPLIED

In October 2017, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF) bestowed its annual Africa Freedom Award on Hakainde Hichilema, president of the United Party for National Development, the liberal opposition in Zambia. 

This week, the FNF announced that the 2018 award will go to DA leader Mmusi Maimane, to be delivered on Friday November 30.

Awards such as this should be there to honour, encourage and reward liberals and to inspire others to live up to their example. Thus, they are important and should be handed out with care and consideration, lest they reward the wrong thing. In the case of Maimane, rewarding the wrong thing, unfortunately, seems to be exactly what the FNF is doing.

The foundation, which does invaluable work in support of the liberal cause in SA, has made a serious mistake, and demeaned the value its own award in doing so.

It is a decision impossible to justify on the evidence, and not just because of where Hichilema sets the bar. Generally, Maimane and freedom have something of a love/hate relationship. If the FNF wants to present liberalism as safe in Maimane’s hands, that is going to require a great many circles to be squared. 

Why Maimane?

The first question is, why Maimane at all? There are many others, life-long advocates for the liberal cause, who have achieved far more for freedom, over a far longer period, than Maimane has.

Poor Jack Bloom. It would be a mistake to paint Bloom as a victim – he is more tenacious than a bloodhound ­– but he must be wondering what he has to do to get some recognition in liberal circles. 

In 2014, he stood as the DA’s Gauteng premier candidate. He was beaten by Maimane, who had been parachuted into the selection process in an explosion of the kind of politically correct smoke that has become his calling card. The winds of real-world politics have since blown much of that away, but at the time most could not see Maimane for the impenetrable haze.

In 2018, Bloom didn’t even bother to put his name forward for the 2019 Gauteng premiership. He might be a country mile ahead of his nearest competitor when it comes to performance, experience and expertise in the province, but what does that matter? Bloom was there when the Democratic Party (DP) was first formed.

Nevertheless, he quietly went about his business. He was central to exposing the Life Esidimeni tragedy. And in the ensuing consequences for those responsible. Then, he basically got Brian Hlongwa fired through sheer, relentless pressure. And, frankly, all that pales in comparison to the years he has selflessly poured into fixing the Gauteng health-care system.

And don’t fixate on Bloom. There are many others in the DA who have died a thousand deaths for the party. James Selfe helped write the SA constitution, and the DA constitution, and the agreements underpinning almost every DA coalition. He has held the party together and helped guide it for decades. He has won some critically important legal cases, elucidating constitutional jurisprudence in doing so.         

Maimane, however, was the one on the court steps afterwards, waxing platitudinal in the way he does. So, to him the recognition goes.

 Populist ignorance 

In a November 2016 tweet Maimane courageously suggested he was waiting just around the next virtual corner to violently assault two racists with rocks.

Few things better illustrate Maimane’s attitude to principle than his stoning tweet. He does principle only when someone has defined it in a script for him. Otherwise, he does populism. Sure, it’s often neatly wrapped in the language of constitutionalism, but read between the lines and it appears he would be quite open to a good medieval stoning if he was required to provide a spontaneous response and thought the idea played well with the people.

Among Maimane’s many and various stellar contributions to freedom have been the suggestion that SA holds referendums on gay marriage and the death penalty because, as he put it: “If the people want to vote on it, the people must vote on it.”

At the time, his opponent, Wilmot James, said: "I don’t think Mr Maimane understands the constitution at all." He was on to something.

Those two particular pieces of populist, anti-constitutional garbage, one suspects, will not feature at the FNF Awards ceremony. Then only the appropriate lines will be cut and pasted from Maimane’s vast directory of constitutional clichés, to paint just the right kind of picture.

There are other examples of Maimane’s constitutional ignorance. Defending the DA’s decision to welcome into its ranks homophobe and convicted criminal King Dalindyebo, Maimane would say in response to the accusation that the king had already been found guilty: “He had gone on appeal! He had gone on appeal. And he is entitled to do so. The laws of the country give us that right. And he went on appeal.”

That’s not how legal guilt works. You are innocent until proven guilty. From that point, you are guilty until proven innocent. Freedom doesn’t mean permanent innocence.

When Maimane is not suggesting we put the equality or right-to-life clauses in the Bill of Human Rights to the popular vote, he fashions himself as a constitutionalist. But that is where one must draw the line. There is no grander liberal framework into which the constitution falls. Indeed, if any such framework exists, it was written by God, not people.

 Religious conservatism

Maimane’s moral conservatism was incubated in Liberty Church, where he served as a pastor. He has suggested from the pulpit that homosexuality is a disease, and those infected in need of a cure. “I didn’t come for the well but I came for the sick,” he quoted Jesus as saying, referring to “gay people” and Muslims in his friendship circle. His is a well-meaning bigotry to be sure.

Liberty’s founder and mentor to Maimane, DJ McPhail, is more strident on the subject – homosexuality should be kept out of the priesthood, he argues, equating homosexuals to child molesters: “Let’s get rid of the dodgy pastors and dodgy priests and paedophiles, let’s get rid of them!”

Week after week, month after month, year after year, Maimane would lend his name to the homophobic Liberty Church. When called out on the prejudice, he claimed he did not subscribe to McPhail’s views. But not once has he ever denounced or distanced himself from them in any direct way. A love of freedom, you would think, demands stronger moral conviction than that.

Maimane continues to flirt with religious bigotry. He has attended several Angus Buchan rallies. In April 2017 he showed up at one on behalf of the DA, no less. Buchan, an evangelical Christian, open bigot and generally no friend of freedom, wants SA to be reimagined as a Christian theocracy where God’s word is the “non-negotiable” law.

In 2016 Maimane was at another Buchan rally, this time in his personal capacity, during which Buchan said: “Please, Lord Jesus, forgive us for condoning same-sex marriage and then calling it an alternative lifestyle.” Afterwards, Maimane smiled as he posed for a photo with two representatives from the Trinity Broadcast Network, which, at home and abroad, boasts a veritable pantheon of homophobic preachers and pastors.

Elsewhere, in his guise as a pastor, Maimane has decried pornography as the devil’s work (“I think it is a tool of the enemy”) and said that “when you bring pornography into the bedroom sex is no longer free ... all of sex must be meaningful”.

All religions take a perverse interest in people’s private sexual lives. They are, after all, in the business of moral proscription. But those who embrace freedom have a different attitude. And the two things are not compatible. Well, they can be made to co-exist, but that is called hypocrisy. The right reverend Maimane and the leader of the official opposition embody the paradox.

Race and quotas

Maimane has a great fondness for collective nouns and group labels. We must confront “white privilege” and “black poverty”, he said recently. Also, this confused sentiment: “White people are not a problem but we are saying let’s work together and they must be part of the solution.” There is no problem, but we do need a solution. 

Race is interwoven into Maimane’s thinking. One of his more infamous policies was to try to surreptitiously introduce racial quotas into the DA, masked behind the word “targets”.            

“From today, I will require our structures, at constituency, regional and provincial levels, to set targets for the recruitment and development of candidates for public office. These targets, and the progress made towards achieving them, will be reviewed regularly by the federal executive,” he said in 2017.

His goal was to ensure that, “by 2019, our parliamentary and legislature caucuses, and our decision-making structures at all levels, reflect the diversity of our complex society”.             

You can quibble to your heart’s content about the difference between targets and quotas. It doesn’t matter. Once you are in the business of measuring and quantifying race as a determining factor in selection, particularly in an SA environment, you are in the racial quotas game. And, once open, it is a door you can’t close easily.             

Thankfully, that particular policy seems to have died a quiet death. But of this you can be sure: freedom did not lie at the heart of it. Maimane had another go, ahead of the DA’s 2018 federal congress, with a proposed “diversity clause”, which suggested the DA would do its best to “attempt to replicate diversity in its own ranks”. That, too, was defeated.             

You get the sense that often it is the DA that keeps Maimane liberal, not the other way around.            

On subjects like BEE and affirmative action, search the public record and you can find Maimane at one point or another either endorsing or denouncing almost every position under the sun, because he has no political philosophy he can call his own.            

He wants to embrace race and also move away from race; he wants targets and sometimes even quotas (“If there are two candidates of different races and they appear for the job, pick the black one. We will support it; we wouldn’t abandon the policy”), but he also wants “diversity” and excellence.             

In fairness, part of that confusion is no doubt fuelled by the DA’s generally schizophrenic nature on the subject of race, but regardless, he is the leader, and his own inconsistencies and lack of intellectual and ideological clarity do not help. 

Free speech 

One of Maimane’s defining moments was his response to Helen Zille’s decision to locate the DA in the middle of a politically suicidal discussion about the potential benefits of colonialism’s legacy.           

Zille’s choice was deeply problematic (it catastrophically collapsed DA support among potential black voters, a decline the DA has yet to fully recover from) but Maimane’s response – that her position “could never be justified” – was to treat opinion like hate speech, and establish the parameters for an impossible bind that set freedom of speech up against bad political judgement.   

In the final analysis, he used the latter to effectively outlaw the former, at least as far as the legacy of colonialism goes. Zille was banned from talking about the subject.

You have to wonder what the FNF in Germany will make of Maimane’s honour. In 2009, it awarded the Friedrich Naumann Medal to Zille. It described her as “one of the most remarkable liberals in SA”. And yet it was Maimane who acted to terminate her career.

When Vicki Momberg, a person who appears, first and foremost, to be in need of psychological counselling, was convicted and jailed for a series of racial slurs, the DA issued a statement saying: “This decision should therefore be welcomed by all.” The great liberal protector of freedom sanctioned the idea of imprisoning people for their words. 

The DA under Maimane doesn’t seem to have the faintest idea of what free speech entails. If anyone says anything racist, it is the first party to run to the Human Rights Commission. The DA does not understand that the Bill of Human Rights is exactly what affords people the freedom to be racist, at least so far as a liberal reading of the document is concerned. 

Offensiveness is a crime for Maimane, and the offensive must be jailed. These are not the values of a liberal party, they are the expedient positions of populism. And they are no indication of bravery either. If ever there was a test of bravery in SA, it is with regard to the current threats to freedom of speech. 

Under Maimane, the DA has learnt one lesson above all others: if times get tough, if someone says something appalling, find the nearest rock to hide under. Then, when the mob has indicated just how much blood it wants in recompense, offer up the appropriately sized bucket.

And that applies as much to the DA’s internal political culture. It is true that Maimane did not set that particular train in motion, but he hasn’t stopped piling coal into the furnace. The DA’s social media regulations are something out of the Middle Ages. And when, inevitably, things are leaked, the DA is quick these days to call for phones and laptops to be confiscated for forensic scrutiny.

It is an authoritarian attitude replicated in a number of other areas. For a federal party, one that for decades bemoaned how the ANC conflated the line between party and state – things are “run from Luthuli House” the refrain goes – increasingly the DA, the party, is taking more and more direct control over the day-to-day affairs of its governments.

And where the DA does enjoy power and is able to set the right kind of precedent, it behaves no differently from the ANC.

The party is the first to scream blue murder when it is defamed in parliament or reasonable language is outlawed as “offensive”. But in the Western Cape legislature, which the DA controls, the party has replicated the ANC’s intolerance for free speech almost word for word and rule for rule. 

Words and phrases banned in the Western Cape legislature as “unparliamentary” include absurdities such as “rubbish”; “That is a lie”; “Fundamental untruths”; “Shut up”; “bloody”; “lying”; “A blatant lie”; “terrorist”; “Don’t lie”; “I will still call you cowards”; “Hoeveel geld steel julle? [How much money are you stealing?]”; “racist”; “fools”; “jakkals [jackal]”; “chihuahuas”; “He is lying”; and “stupid”.

You can tell a lot about a political party by how it behaves when actually in power. If the DA in the Western Cape is any indication of the kind of freedom of speech the party aims to bring to the National Assembly, the difference between it and the ANC is next to indistinguishable.

Immigration and fear

Recently, the DA has taken to dog-whistle politics on the issue of illegal immigration.

A few months ago, Maimane proudly introduced a disgracefully xenophobic election poster: “All South Africans first”. It was later canned, yet another instance of the DA leader’s populist tendencies being checked by the party.

It was probably influenced by the advice of Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, currently advising the DA ahead of the 2019 elections and the master of dog-whistle election campaigns centred on immigration (Crosby’s 2005 Michael Howard campaign revolved around the ominous slogan: “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?”). Why the DA has chosen to be directed by a right-wing conservative is hard to understand, but, whatever Crosby’s advice, it seems to be resonating.

It’s sad to see the DA, a liberal party that is supposed to stand up for the weak and vulnerable, jump on the populist bandwagon. You can be tough on the many failures that have resulted in SA’s extensive illegal immigration problem without resorting to fear-mongering and dangerous “us against them” rhetoric. 

Some compassion would be nice too. What does Maimane call it again? Oh yes, the spirit of ubuntu. Where is that in the DA’s immigration policy? The party’s message, exemplified by Joburg mayor Herman Mashaba, is all about “us” and “them” (“Health of our people first”, he recently tweeted).

Maimane punts empty slogans like “African liberalism” when it helps to establish his “Africanness”. But when it actually comes to the values he advocates – we are who we are through other people – then “other people” are the real problem. He is right only in so far as that says more about the DA than it does about illegal immigrants.

Illiberal ideas 

Individual freedom is not Maimane’s strong point either. In 2013 he suggested that one’s “Africanness” should be measured by the degree to which one subscribes to the idea of ubuntu: “Africanness is defined by one’s commitment to the issues and lives of the African people. And nothing can better measure that Africanness than one’s commitment to the spirit of ubuntu.”

No one is quite sure what either of those two ideas mean, but that each is born of a nationalistic impulse towards collectivism is clear. A great deal of evil has been perpetrated in the name of “Africanness”. It is a word you will more readily find in the nationalist’s lexicon, not the liberal’s.

Here is a Jacob Zuma-like anecdote from Maimane: “As you know in the black culture all the … all the girls have to assist at the funeral and … and so my wife with another cousin of ours who is married into the family were in the line to go get food and my grandmother came across and … and literally gave them a tongue lashing – that here you were standing in the line while everybody else is working. And that reminded me and that confirmed for me that they now didn’t see the colour of her skin, they just thought, you are a woman, in our house, get your act together and go serve. And so I think, when I remember that story, it kind of confirms to me the journey we have been on.”

As British comedian Harry Enfield used to say: “Women, know your limits.” 

Zuma is a big fan of patriarchal tradition too. When he said “I was in Venda recently, I was so impressed to see how people there express respect for other people – a woman would clap her hands and even lie down to show respect”, he was rounded upon by all comers as sexist. At the very least, Maimane and Zuma would seem to agree that a woman’s place is exactly where tradition says it is, on the ground or serving men. It is difficult to reconcile those kinds of ideas with freedom and equality.

Liberal thought is at a premium these days. Under Maimane its intellectual store has been hollowed out. Its performance monitoring system no longer even rates communication. Only activism. Both are, of course, equally important to any political organisation worth its salt.

But today, the DA is largely an unthinking machine, ruled by internal dictate and contemptuous of independent thought. It values compliance, not originality.

The slow nationalistic embrace

That the DA’s distinctive ideological character has become steadily diluted under Maimane is a matter of common cause among the liberal fraternity. The saying goes: “The DA is the ANC, minus the corruption and maladministration.” 

On a recent trip to Germany, Maimane spoke about how the DA was trying to create a “capable state”. In his 2018 state of the nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa said: “Growth, development and transformation depend on a strong and capable state.” 

There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of the capable state. The point is, it is an idea owned and defined by the ANC, and bandwagoning seems to be the only response the DA is able to provide.

In the early 2000s, the DA produced a document titled “The Corruption of Transformation”. It detailed how the word and idea had been appropriated by the ANC as a smokescreen for racial engineering and nepotistic, political control. Today it is part of the DA’s vocabulary.

In an August 2018 speech titled, “Economic Transformation in SA: A DA Perspective”, Maimane mentioned the word 13 times, as he desperately tried to appropriate a hegemonic concept he was, in truth, surrendering to.             

You see this kind of thing everywhere. It is merely the means to the ANC’s ends that differentiates the DA these days. And even there it gives the ANC stiff competition.             

Maimane says, if elected to national office, the DA will double the spend on social income grants and, in an age when the public sector wage bill has spiralled out of all control as the ANC relentlessly entrenches the state as the country’s primary employer, Maimane has declared that the DA will double the size of the police force as well. How these are all to be funded is difficult to discern, but that has never stopped the ANC.

If this is what the DA’s capable state looks like, it is a more monstrous creation than the ANC ever dreamt of.             

There was a time when the DA had its own distinctive vision for SA, of an open opportunity society for all. You rarely hear anything about it these days. It has outsourced its imagination to the ANC, and the ANC’s vision is not one animated by freedom, but by centralised control.             

But it is not just ANC policy that Maimane regularly tries to supersize in an attempt to outdo the governing party: he has borrowed heavily from the ANC’s history too.             

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, a woman the DP openly campaigned against as deeply and profoundly ethically compromised, was, in death, cleansed of all her sins. Mashaba has proposed that the City of Joburg’s council chambers be renamed after her.              

In 2009 the DA formally objected to her nomination as a member of parliament, saying it was “quite extraordinary” that the ANC had not removed her given her criminal record. Today that statement has been removed from the DA website.            

The DA says Steve Biko, the founder of SA black consciousness, was a man who “stood for the idea which said that we are not defined by the colour of our skin or the shape of our nose, but by the content of our character”. Quite the opposite is true.            

So strong is the DA’s zeal to artificially generate liberation credentials that in July 2017 Maimane pre-empted the death of former Zambian leader Kenneth Kaunda and, in a statement celebrating his life, described him as a “freedom fighter” and an “African liberator”, all without reservation or context. Kaunda, a highly autocratic socialist, had, in fact, banned the opposition, resulting in the curious contradiction that was the leader of the official opposition in SA venerating a man who had literally established a one-party state.              

It is an attitude towards history and the DA’s fight for freedom and justice typical of the Maimane era. The ANC’s history is the DA’s history and, if not, it will be bent to that shape. In doing so, Maimane has slowly but surreptitiously yielded ground to the ANC’s nationalistic worldview.

Bravery

Running in the background of this analysis is the theme of bravery, something you would think was an important component of the FNF’s judgement. It is difficult to argue that Maimane is cowardly: he endures daily a stream of racial abuse for his chosen political path. That is admirable. But that has been the lot of every DA leader.          

To give an idea of the kind of the state terror Hichilema has had to endure: he was arrested, charged and imprisoned for treason, a crime that carries the maximum penalty of death. His house was raided, his property stolen and his bed defecated on by authorities. He was then tortured in prison. All this because he was deemed not have moved over for the president’s motorcade.            

Maimane was once chastised by parliament’s ethics committee for failing to declare donations he received for his DA leadership campaign. He said at the time: “It was a grave oversight on the part of my office.”            

It is more the absence of bravery that defines Maimane – on issues of free speech, individual liberty in the face of ubiquitous racial groupthink, and on tough policy decisions. He is, first and foremost, a compromiser and consensus-seeker, more than a leader. And the terms for any given compromise are not determined by him but by whatever warring factions he seeks to appease, inside or outside the party.             

The problem is not that Maimane does not stand for something. It is that no one knows what he stands for on any given day. Is it God’s law or the constitution? Popular sentiment or principle? Liberalism or groupthink? The ANC’s history or the DA’s? The government’s programme of action or his own distinctive policy programme? It is, in truth, a lottery.             

Any political party inevitably takes on the characteristics of its leader and it is for this reason the DA appears today strategically adrift, ideologically amorphous and without conviction or purpose. It does not define debate, it responds to it. It does not win arguments, it facilitates them. And it does not say what it means, it clarifies what it does not mean.             

When all is said and done, Maimane is weak, not strong. And the fight for freedom, in turn, weaker for it.

Conclusion

In defending his decision this year to indulge a nomination (one he refuses to disclose) to stand for the Western Cape premiership, Maimane said: “The last thing I need as a leader of the DA is to go backwards. Once you start going backwards in any election, it creates a problem because it’s very difficult to arrest once you see a decline.”              

It was a revealing justification. In 2014 Maimane spoke openly about how the DA was targeting 30% of the national vote. Now it seems to be guarding against an actual loss in support, off a 22% baseline, for the first time.             

It’s been a terrible year on the vote-winning front for the DA. The election of Cyril Ramaphosa revealed that the DA had inadvertently put all its eggs in one basket. The many internal DA wranglings have forced the party to focus internally, not externally. Polls suggest it is the EFF, not the DA, that is mopping up disgruntled ANC voters. That, or the ANC is winning them back.            

There is time for the DA to right the ship and show some small growth in 2019. Anything less than bringing the ANC below 50% in Gauteng is going to be a hard sell to the party faithful. A decade of ruinous leadership under Zuma demands that at the very least. And so the risk the FNF has taken, just like the DA itself, is to celebrate a man who has yet to pass the ultimate political test: a national election. Now that is brave.            

The FNF, no doubt trying valiantly to demonstrate to the mother body back home in Germany that liberalism is going from strength to strength in SA and on the back of its support, has profoundly overextended itself.            

Maimane is a well-meaning, good man, but a champion of freedom he is not. You cannot manufacture a leader with awards, just as you cannot transform the absence of bravery into evidence of it, or contort populism and conservatism into liberal thought. The truth will out.           

Awards that should be reserved for unprecedented achievement or a lifetime of dedication, given out at the beginning of a career, not the end, are inevitably the product of hope, not recognition. 

Unfortunately, these kinds of hard truths cannot be stomached at the moment, in the FNF or the DA. The emperor is clothed in the finest garments. He must be, otherwise it would be necessary to have an entirely different discussion about the state of freedom, liberalism and the DA. Certainly it is hard to argue the DA is a more liberal institution than when Maimane first found it. And no one wants to hear that. The show must go on.

• Gareth van Onselen is the Head of Politics and Governance for the South African Institute of Race Relations, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823