At 34, Mmusi Maimane, new Leader of the Democratic Alliance, SA’s Official Opposition, has time on his side. He also ticks the right box on personal education, is highly articulate and has the politician’s key ingredient – presence. As importantly in South Africa’s young democracy, he is from a demographic (Tswana father, Xhosa mother) that will appeal to many concerned about the the “Zulu-fication” of the ruling ANC. Maimane has a clear grasp on what is required to integrate a modern economy into the global arena and talks the language which will excite potential foreign investors. But he leads a political party struggling to throw off its own racial stereotype. In this in-depth interview, his first since being appointed as the DA’s Leader, Mmusi Maimane talks to Tim Modise about his immediate challenges – and how he intends accelerating his party’s growing momentum. Some interesting comments added at the bottom of the transcript. – Alec Hogg
Tim Modise to Mmusi Maimane: How bruising was the battle for the DA Leadership?
It’s been a tough campaign. I think internal campaigns are always good for any political party. At times, it felt as though it had low moments and good moments but I think it’s good to have worked hard and then come through a situation having fought a strong battle and come out victorious. I think that has a different feel as opposed to when you just have a walkover. I think it’s good to get in the ring and fight from time to time.
Doesn’t that divide the party though, and also show the fractures/fissures within the organisation?
Not at all. I’ve always been proud of DA people. DA people contest right up until the day of an election. Soon after that, we rally together. We get behind the leader. I can rely on support. I think the provincial leaders are positive. Henceforth, we’ll be going around the country, making sure we talk to people who share our vision. You see, the trick is not to unite or rally behind a faction of the DA but really, to rally behind the vision, which I’ll be sharing in the next couple of weeks.
The media built the campaign leading up to your election as the DA leader as ‘merit versus charisma’, saying charisma belonged to you…
Not at all. I disagree. If you compare both candidates, we’ve both been in the DA for the same amount of time. I respect Dr James. I have two Masters Degrees and I think that if you work out the hard work, the package of a political leader has many other facets. It has the ability to lead and I think the question that hasn’t been asked fairly right through the campaign is ‘who’s led successfully’. I’ve led the caucus now. It’s been a successful campaign and we certainly believe we have the ability to lead the people of this country. The four million voters that vote for the DA plus the couple million more that are very interested in what we do – I’m looking forward to being able to lead them. I think that’s the strength, which I bring to the team. It’s not just charisma or anything like that, but it’s the job of leadership and taking this party forward.
Besides the image of the DA being a predominantly White party, it’s also seen as a party that comes from a liberal tradition, which is something that you have confirmed – that element. Don’t you think that this liberal tradition sometimes has a fundamentalism to it in that it may constrain you in your new role? As much as liberal values espouse more individual rights and responsibilities, in the South African context, group interests still predominate politics.
Absolutely. I was at Liberal International quite recently and one of the conversations we had is, ‘how do you address the issue when people congregate around groups’. Certainly, in Europe, the debate is about how you talk to people who are religious, who have religiously congregated and [are] religious fundamentalists in that space. I think that what’s happened here in South Africa is that we’ve had a few commentators who’ve extracted a liberalism that is without context (that is defined by them) and said, “this is what liberalism is”. I think we must be able to have a conversation in this country and say, “what do we talk about progressive liberalism”. I’m much less inclined to even put labels on things. I’m saying, “Let’s sit down. Let’s be able to talk about what transformation looks like. How do we address the issue of redress? How do we make sure we build a competent state? How do we make sure that we have a safety net for those who are poor? How do we ensure that we have a market-based economy?” I think there are many broad conversations that we need to have. One of the first things that I’m really looking forward to doing is being able to convene a think-tank, to be able to say, “How do we then articulate that vision of what a transformed South Africa looks like and how we can take this country forward”. I think that to not be trapped in labels will become the key focus, going forward.
Your immediate task now, as the new leader: what are you going to do?
Well certainly, settling into the role. We run a very strong fundraising mechanism. We have to raise money to make sure that we can contest the elections. I want to make sure that the organisation is ‘election and battle-ready’ because it’s about building activists. The most pressing date I look forward to is we’re going to be launching a big vision statement – that will be coming up in the next couple of weeks. In order to build up the work before that, I’ll be going to all the provinces; making sure leaders are on board, so that we can build it up and make sure that when we communicate, South Africans notice it, focus on it, and say, “This is a vision I believe I can get behind”.
What do you see as the main pillars of the Mmusi Maimane leadership?
Well, the most vital one is that we have to focus on the economy much more. I always talk about the Berlin Wall. Where we are is in Sandton and across the M1 is Alexandra, which expresses a sense of inequality that’s on the table. I think we must be able to focus on the economic process of saying, “How do we build an inclusive economy and a prosperous economy”. So, much of our conversations will be focused on the economy, making sure we talk about jobs and we talk about how South Africans who’ve been left out come on board. The second issue is about how we talk about non-racialism in a way that makes sense. I think we can contest the history of South Africa. Now the work we have to do is to say, “What is the future in a non-racial society? How do we make sure it is authentic when we say Black, White, Indian, and Coloured can be in the same party and build together?” The third and vital one is about saying, “How do we grow in aspects of government?” I want to work hard at making sure that we govern Nelson Mandela Bay, we go out and we govern Tswane because that reflects the fact that we can govern well outside other provinces and grow in key markets. I think that’s going to be important. Ultimately, this party must be one that produces more and more leaders in an activist role. I want to make sure that across every caucus/every key leadership platform, that this is not Mmusi Maimane’s party but a party that reflects many other leaders. The era that I want to leave behind as the DA is a growing one and one where South Africans – even some who are in other political parties, as we speak – can find a home in the DA and say, “We share common values and we can take this party forward”.
Do you believe that the sceptical Black community will follow the DA and follow you now that you are the new leader of the party?
Why is that?
Look, the best way I can express it is if I think about my own family – my parents who live in Soweto, in a street in Dobsonville. They have gone out and said to themselves, “Look, we see the values that the DA shares. We see the fact that you are sincere when you talk about opposing corruption. We see that you run good governance. We want opportunities for our children”, and I think there are many South Africans like that. What we shouldn’t be doing is getting into a space where we’re saying, “In the interest of simply saying we want to track Black votes,” that it would seem that every Black person has an expression of similar views. I think Black South Africans are diverse and that’s where the rights of individuals must be upheld. I think there are many who come on board and say, “We see the vision for South Africa. We want South Africans who are non-racial”. The best way I can exemplify that is to say that someone who stands and says ‘the honeymoon is over for White people’, i.e. someone like Julius Malema, cannot be in the DA because I don’t think values like that are espoused in a non-racial society. We want Black South Africans who say, “I share those values. I want a market-based economy. I want to be able to work hard to be able to go to the next level” and I believe that if we can be clear about articulating that well… If more Black South Africans are able to look inside the DA because some of the challenges are that often people say, “We don’t know enough about the DA. We don’t see them. We don’t meet them. We’re not in the streets, the shopping centres, the shebeen, the townships, and the stokvel talking to people who are wearing blue shirts.” We have to be entrenched in those communities so that people can actually see us and understand us for who we are and not believe the propaganda that other people bring on board (about what the DA is). I certainly want to make sure that our presence in communities is increased between now and the elections.
The argument is that the existing membership of the DA itself may not be sensitive to some of the issues that you raise, which are of concern to the Black community. That is where the scepticism comes from. How do you convert that mindset – the sensitivity that I’m talking about – on the part of the White community?
Look, I think that historically, we’ve lived in a space that says we have to balance the aspirations of the majority vis-à-vis the fears of the minority. Sometimes that tension has meant that the party has sometimes come out as being unclear on some issues. I want White South Africans and Black South Africans to come on board and say, “Look, we share a common interest here” and I think part of the work that I have to be doing is going to our traditional base. I think that we haven’t been successful at being able to lead the conversation about transformation and being able to say, “Look, you are part of it” and I think our base has been very good and very progressive in this regard to be able to say, “We see what you’re trying to do here and we’re supportive of it”. I think often, we tend to think that only Black people support a legislation like BBBEE, but it’s not true. We must have White South Africans who are willing to stand up in public and say, “I support broad-based black economic empowerment because it’s good for the future of South Africa”. I think we’re going to be working hard in building that diverse platform – sharing a vision that is inclusive for all and that is inviting for all, so that more and more of our base and other places can come on board and say, “Look, we congregate around the vision for South Africa”. I want to be clear about this one. It’s the same. Even if you had a White South African who says, “I don’t believe that this country must do the following aspects” or maybe believe that in South Africa, we must have a racist attitude… I don’t want that in the DA. I want people who share common values and who say, “I want to take this party forward”.
Many commentators (particularly in the labour movement) and economists – generally speaking – most of them have said that the problem that we face in South Africa is structural when it comes to the economy. That’s why we’ve had periods of growth, but jobless growth, so the economy itself needs restructuring if we are going to create more opportunities for people, which is monopolistic in orientation and it favours big capital/big companies, and does not create space/room for entrepreneurship.
Certainly. I think that in some ways, there’s been a significant failure in what local government does. I think that the structural issues in the economy have to do with ‘what is the centre of the labour supply that is coming on board’ and we have to be clear about how we develop that labour base to make sure that it’s not only… At this stage, its unemployed and in some instances, unemployable. We have to make sure that our education system responds to that. What I’m really keen to do though, is rather than talking about a few industrialists, I want to be crystal clear about a revolution of small businesses. If you look at developed economies – let’s take the U.S. for example – nearly half of the businesses in the U.S. are small businesses – micro enterprises hiring people. I think that local government has a very key fundamental role in being able to say, “In our procurement processes, how many Black South Africans are starting businesses that can survive and be able to depend on procurement services that come from business” so that we create micro industry, which ultimately, can be high levels of employers. Furthermore, when you take a small business, you can then grow it further from there. I don’t want our country to be dependent on these large industries. It must be on a balance of small businesses as well. No longer can we look towards the mining sector. We can’t look towards massive monopolisation. We have to break down monopoly. We have to allow it into the hands of small businesses and give opportunities to the small businesses.
The argument made is that big capital or big captains of industry have not come to the party, in terms of the agenda for change in South Africa.
There again, it’s been a question of leadership. One of the things lacking in South Africa is a vision for South Africa. Everybody comes to the table and brings their agenda. Labour brings their agenda. Government brings their agenda. Business brings their agenda, but we never sit down and say, “Well, what is the South African agenda?” It’s going to be important, particularly for key big business to be able to say, “Here’s the vision. All of us must come to the party. Your procurement processes must look like this. Our agenda for making sure that more people are absorbed into the employment sector looks like this.” How do we make sure that we can all collectively come together and make sure that we develop ICT infrastructure and road infrastructure in communities that don’t have them? With this problem, there’s a serious mistrust between all three elements. They feel that government is inconsistent on policy, so sometimes people sit back and sometimes, government feels that big business doesn’t want to participate. I’m of the view that if we, in fact, put together a vision that is compelling enough, we’ll be able to attract all sectors to say, “South Africa cannot, in any place, live in a world where we must behave as people who are desperate for business”. We must be able to make it easier. If Visa regulations are a nightmare, we must make those easier so that people can actually come to this country. If registrations are a nightmare and government is bringing out registration that doesn’t work for small business, we must be able to negotiate through that so that we can make sure we do that. Other nations such as Mauritius and other countries in Africa have taken this approach and said to themselves, “Look. We want our people to be employed”. Government’s objective is not to run a business to have people employed. Businesses must run businesses and labour must be able to come to the party and say, “Here are the things we agree on and here’s the destination for South Africa”.
You spoke about South Africa being ‘a broken society’ in Parliament not so long ago. You also said it had ‘broken leadership’, but there’s a lot of anger and frustration, particularly among Black youth in South Africa. How do you think the anger and frustration should be addressed?
Absolutely. When I decided to stand for the position, I decided to stand because I’d met my cousin who’s unemployed, has a bad education, is involved in drugs, and I’ve had to bail him out of jail. That young person does, in some ways, legitimately have the right to be angry but what they must also know is that leaders cannot distance themselves from that. We failed at advocating for the rights of young people. We don’t put them at the forefront of conversation. We don’t make sure we fight hard enough about the education of young people. We don’t fight hard enough about the social compact and the social environment in which young people grow up. It’s certainly going to be a key focus of my agenda. If you ask me what will make me get up in the morning to lead the DA, it’s that young person. I want them to know that without fail, that’s why we advocate for a youth wage subsidy. We think that the young person must have an opportunity to come into the formal education to make sure that they can get jobs and get the relevant experience. We want state-owned enterprises to become hubs of apprenticeships so that this young person can come and learn, and be able to develop their skills. We want to make sure that when it comes to small businesses, a significant proportion of that must be young people. One of the things that has encouraged me is to go to the Soweto Expo. When you get there, you see young people setting up, whether they’re making clothes… I know many of them even contact me to say, “Can we dress you?” That’s the approach that we have to take. It has to be an entrepreneurial hub so that we can talk to young people’s hope and future in this country. Certainly, it will be the key focal agenda.
Do you get a sense that they are open to your persuasion – representing the DA – the same young people?
Those young people at Fort Hare stood up. We’d made sure that we’d sent a very strong message to them, and they came out and they voted. That’s why DASO is now in charge of Fort Hare and as I go to various universities, I can see young people are saying “We’ve been waiting for someone to give us an alternative. An alternative to nationalisation, an alternative to state-controlled economy. We want an alternative that is different.” Certainly, as I speak to more and more young people, I believe that they’re coming aboard. It is something that for me, as a DA leader, my critical worry is about making sure that that age group grows more and that becomes, in some ways, the bedrock of our support.
Well, it’s interesting to me to see young leaders emerge such as yourself, now. We have Julius Malema on the other side but interestingly, the government/the President is much older than both you and Julius. How do you feel about that? Sometimes, when you rise to speak in Parliament and one is watching and listening to you guys address the President, one feels that you are not that sensitive, culturally. Now that you are the youngest and the first Black person to lead the Official Opposition, what’s your take on the cultural sensitivities and how are you going to relate to the President going forward?
I’ve consistently respected President Zuma. I’ve never come out publicly and called him on what was unfair. I’ve always addressed him as the President. He’s old enough to be my father and I respect that. From a personal perspective, we have a very healthy relationship. I certainly don’t feel that there’s any animosity between the two of us but equally so, he’s the President of the Republic and when he fails to appear in Parliament, we can’t sit back and say, “That’s right”. When institutions like the NPSR, etcetera fall apart, we can’t say, “That’s right”. The attack on the IEC: we can’t say, “That’s right”. The attack on the Public Protector: we can’t sit back as a nation and watch someone such as the President, in fact, allow South Africa’s institutions to fall apart at that level. I’ll certainly be going forward to say, “Look, we must be strong. We must be robust”. We must put the facts as they stand and say President Zuma must account to the people of this country. In addition, I want to open up opportunities with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and many others who say, “We agree on X, Y, and Z”. Why can’t we advance that agenda for the benefit of the people of this country? I’m saying that the door is open for us if we agree on a particular policy approach where we say, “This makes sense for the people of this country. Let’s work together to make sure we advance the cause of the people of this country.” So it’s a ‘both ends’ approach, but we’re certainly not going to shy away from being strong. When things are wrong, we must speak up about them, frankly.
We’ll see. We don’t talk about coalitions before an election. We want to go out full on and win in as many places as we can. The only reason we’d go into a coalition would be if we agree…
Who do you think is closer to you in Parliament, at this time?
That’s the point I’m trying to make. It’s people who agree on non-racialism. We wouldn’t go into a coalition with someone who doesn’t believe in that. People who say, “We can’t have cadre deployment”, so it’s tough when people want to hire their friend and family. We can’t have that. We have to make sure that it’s non-racial and we have to make sure that it delivers because we want to govern well. If there are coalition partners out there, it would be people who agree on that. What we’ve seen in the past is that if you lay out the Terms & Conditions, people come up to that and they say, “We agree on this issue”. For example, we currently agree more. There are many NDP associations between us and the ANC so there’s a better prospect of a relationship there. There are other issues, such as corruption, that we don’t agree on, etcetera, so I think that would have to be decided soon after the elections.