Mmusi Maimane, a man who fell at his very first real hurdle

DA leader Mmusi Maimane, right, announces his resignation from the party, with DA Federal Chairperson Helen Zille looking on at Nkululeko House in Bruma, Johannesburg, 23 October 2019. Picture: Neil McCartney

It hasn’t even been a month, and already it feels like the memory of Mmusi has been vaporised from our minds.

Last month, when it became obvious that Mmusi Maimane would be stepping down as the leader of the DA – which he should probably not even have entertained in the first place – I figured he would play it smart, or at least smarter.

He didn’t.

As he offered us an impassioned speech, with a miserable-looking Helen Zille staring at the carpet behind him, he dropped the bombshell that he no longer believed the DA was “the vehicle” to take forward a vision of one South Africa for all.

Bizarrely (and inexplicably), he then offered to stay on in the very same DA he no longer believed in to continue working for the party as its leader in parliament, at least for a while. Unsurprisingly, this was turned down and he meekly resigned from the party by tweet the next morning.

What a way to go. Not with a bang, but with a 280-character-limit whimper.

In his absence, overgrown head boy John Steenhuisen stepped into the breach to, presumably, beg the tiny percentage of Afrikaners who had abandoned the DA in the May election to please take them back, pretty please, and they’ll promise never to mention white privilege ever again.

What a pathetic state of affairs.

Mmusi evidently lived up to his own self-description of “not being a career politician”, because that’s exactly how he behaved – like someone with nary a clue of how politics works.

He spoke like a person in denial about many things.

Some of his delusions included apparently not realising that he had been created in the mad political scientist lab run by Helen Zille one stormy night in Frankencapetown. At some point she clearly wasn’t happy with her creation any more and deactivation, perhaps, was inevitable.

The fact that he so lurchingly complied was just another part of the tragicomic farce.

Maimane hadn’t yet accepted that he was actually facing the first moment in his political life when some consultant or adviser wasn’t telling him how to be a homunculus in the DA machine, and to point to which lever for him to pull next. It was the first time he had to think for himself. And then he fell to pieces.

And his denialism about being a “career politician” was perhaps the saddest part.

Mmusi, my man, when you lead the official opposition in a democratic country, both outside and within parliament, for year after year; when its your face on millions of posters around South Africa in election after election; when you use phrases like “a better life for all”; and when you repeatedly say you’re ready to be the next president of South Africa … how on earth are you still telling yourself you’re not a career politician?

What did you think all this stuff was leading you towards? Perhaps as a stepping stone to your “real career”? As what? A bank manager?

When challenged, facing his first true hurdle, he slipped, stumbled and smacked himself in the face.

Had he embraced being a proper politician and played the political game properly, he would have left himself, and maybe even the DA and the country, better off. He could at least have complicated life for Helen Zille, or at the very least annoyed her, which can never be a bad thing.

If he really felt compelled to step down, all he needed to do was to accept that his party appeared to have turned on him, or at the very least his leadership. He could have continued to say he was still a member of the DA and that he believed in its future, even though he wasn’t too enamoured of its present.

He could and should have done this because it will be exceptionally hard to build up a new or different party to get to the level of success the DA has achieved, and from which it should have been able to grow further. Control of the DA matters to every South African. Everyone wants a DA they can vote for unashamedly, which is not what it is now.

The DA was our best bet to achieve a two-party balance of power, but young, progressive thinkers who have already made their way into the party need to show commitment to its future, or it will simply be consumed by the old guard who are marching the Democratic Alliance bravely forward into 1999 – and handing the ANC another two-thirds majority.

Another new party, even if led by Maimane, will probably just make the toilet roll our ballot paper has become even longer.

Maimane is young, not yet even 40. In politics, he has aeons ahead. He should have known he’d outlive the Helen Zilles, the Tony Leons and the other white dinosaurs. He should have known that, one way or the other, the future of the DA must be black, or at least a lot more black than it currently is, if it harbours any hope of ever displacing the ANC.

His decision to remain in the party would have been a sign of not just his maturity, but a glimmer that multiracialism in the DA has started to mature and come of age.

Jacob Zuma didn’t quit the ANC in a huff when Thabo Mbeki fired him from government. Closer to home for Mmusi, is the example of Zille herself, who was banned from all party activities not too long ago. And look at her now.

Maimane could never be the wrecking ball that both of those two Zs became for each of their parties. He could have learnt from the lessons he had picked up from being parachuted into power in the DA, and then figured out how to do it again, the hard way, from the ground up.

A real leader earns it, and, because of that, he values it. He doesn’t just quit by tweet.

He could also have told those who would have inevitably mocked him for staying put in the “white party” that “I’m a DA member, first and foremost. You mind your business, and I’ll mind mine.”

And that would have been that.

He’s now giving TV interviews in which he hints nebulously at what his next political move will be, in a way that makes it clear he’s hoping someone will send him a WhatsApp to clarify what exactly that might be.

Politically, he’s finished, and may as well also go off to Harvard for a while to recuperate from his Godzille stomping.

What a pity, but I suppose we have to accept that there possibly wasn’t much substance to the man to begin with, and that’s about the only real conclusion to take away from all this, along with asking questions about who the DA was fooling more over the past decade: us or themselves?

Citizen digital editor Charles Cilliers

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