Is the DA’s first black leader a South African saviour or sell-out?
The young and charismatic Mmusi Maimane can help the Democratic Alliance surpass 30% in elections. But he will need to engage more with poor voters to gain credibility.
South Africa’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), elected its first black leader, Mmusi Maimane, this May. The 35-year-old Maimane succeeded Helen Zille, who oversaw an increase in the DA’s share of the vote from 16.7% in 2009 to 22.2% in 2014 amid widespread disillusionment with the ruling African National Congress (ANC). However, despite Zille’s credentials in the struggle against apartheid, the DA has remained under pressure to transform at the leadership level to gain a greater share of the black vote.
Maimane, a skilled orator, has been the parliamentary leader of the DA since 2014 and is well-known for his anti-corruption stance. He has been particularly notable in raising the ante in holding President Jacob Zuma accountable for $22 million of public funds he is said to have unduly benefited from for upgrades to his personal residence, Nkandla. Maimane though was recently roasted on air by BBC HARDtalk journalist Zeinab Badawi who said that his claims of Zuma’s grand scale corruption were more tenuous than he asserts.
Maimane has also recently been vocal in his critique of the government’s handling of the economy, which has seen growth stall to a forecasted 2% of GDP in 2015. Maimane has further condemned the economically unjust education system in South Africa where democracy has not been accompanied by meritocracy. Only 3.4% of black South Africans entered tertiary education in 2014 compared with 23.3% of whites. This is a less than 1% increase over ten years – only 2.8% of blacks attended universities in comparison to 15.6% of whites in 2002. The educational statistics are a crucial metric requiring urgent redress if South Africa is to become more economically competitive and broaden its middle-class. These statistics also reflect the country’s extremely racialised economic inequality more than 20 years after the end of apartheid.
The majority of South Africans live in poverty – around a quarter are unemployed and reliant on social grants from the strained government treasury. A severe lack of service delivery has also led to protests in recent years, and wage disputes have led to violence in the labour sector such as that witnessed at Lonmin’s Marikana mine in 2012 where over 30 miners were killed during a wildcat strike.
Such growing dissatisfaction with the status quo has seen the atomisation of South Africa’s political consensus, which has led to more pluralism in opposition politics and contributed to the DA’s increased popularity amongst black voters. The failure of economic empowerment has also seen the rise of hard-left parties and social movements such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and Abahlali Base Mjondolo.
An ideological vacuum within the ANC has only amplified these trends. The ANC, in light of its tripartite alliance with left and labour, has in the democratic era pursued “a broad church” philosophy to strategy and policy. This has also led to a recent split within labour with the departure of South Africa’s largest trade union, The National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), and the expulsion of Cosatu’s leader Zwelinzima Vavi.
In this environment, it is highly likely the DA will take at least 30% of the vote in the next elections, with a black leader making the party a more credible option for previously disadvantaged South Africans. And it could garner substantially more than 30% if the EFF unravels due to its own infighting and perceived lack of vision with regard to policy. There is a black component to the working class that has middle-class aspirations and will vote DA along with the moderate black middle-class and the existing white middle- and upper-class electorate.
However, if groups such as the EFF, which took a surprise 6.3% of the vote in the 2014 general election, get further support, the ANC could consider moving to the left. In this scenario, the ANC would need to decide if it is a radical left or centrist party – it is becoming apparent that it cannot be both. The ANC therefore needs to take an ideological position and adhere to it. The flip-flopping around policy has led to a perception of policy incoherence amongst investors and South Africa observers. Notwithstanding, when it comes to voting, the majority of voters do tend to vote ANC and the loyalty built up in the struggle among the black electorate will likely be maintained.
A more textured analysis of the racial dynamics in South Africa cannot avoid the fact that a hard core of black voters are suspicious of Maimane and see him as a “sell-out”. The DA’s centre-right, pro-market policies are seen to be aligned with white capital and has been criticised for further slowing down broad-based black economic empowerment.
Maimane’s recent five-point plan for the economy concentrates on solving the energy crisis, sector-specific interventions, support for small businesses and labour market reform, and calls for more policy coherence and privatisation from a conventional orthodox economic outlook.
However, while his suggestions are not without merit, Maimane is at odds with Moody’s May 2015 Credit Outlook for South Africa, which states that South Africa has sufficient macro-economic certainty for businesses to plan with long-term assumptions. Policy incoherence is a popular bugbear of South African business leaders, but Moody’s said “Macroeconomic policy formation in South Africa is coherent, and monetary and exchange rate policies as well as fiscal policy are well-integrated and credible”.
BBC’s Badawi may have been correct that Maimane will have to do more to substantiate his tirades. He will also have to be more innovative in his policy suggestions. For example, increasing market access for independent power producers as set out in his five-point economic plan is already being implemented with the government’s renewable energy procurement programme.
Maimane’s statement that the DA would also seek to restore investor confidence by getting rid of “the most damaging economic legislation that deters foreign investment, decreases job opportunities and increases the capacity for corruption” is textbook investment promotion for attracting and maintaining international capital. This will find favour with South Africa’s investors but not so much with its poor, who have not seen increased foreign investment lead to substantial change on the thorny issues of land reform and beneficiation, which Maimane has been critised for not tackling.
Maimane is a dynamic and welcome new player in South Africa’s political landscape. His apparent integrity and willingness to speak out on issues will shake things up, but he will have to more forcefully engage with the issues that affect the country’s poorest, as this is the most pressing threat to social cohesion. Inequality in South Africa is still racialised, and a black leader advocating a smaller role for the state in addressing this will have a tough task in maintaining a long-term popular mandate.
Dr Desné Masie is an analyst of geopolitical economy
The Royal African Society will be hosting Mmusi Maimane for its annual lecture on 15th September 2015. Follow the event with the hashtag #MmusiInLondon.