In an interview in 1996, Peter Brown – the late leader of the erstwhile Liberal Party – predicted: “There may come a time when the ANC starts to disintegrate or to produce factions . . . there will be an opportunity to form a fully nonracial Liberal Party again. Something which will absorb the Democratic Party and elements from other political organisations.”
At the time, Brown’s analysis sounded like something that might happen far in the future – half a century or so – if it happened at all. After all, this was a period when African nationalism was on the rise and the ANC seemed invincible, having just won the country’s first non-racial election with an unassailable majority. The party, led by the saint-like Nelson Mandela, occupied the undisputed moral high ground – having delivered victory in the struggle to defeat apartheid.
South African liberalism, on the other hand, was weak. Zach de Beer’s Democratic Party won only a negligible number of votes, 1.7%, in 1994.
The party seemed destined to be confined to the opposition benches for good, as the voice of mainly white English-speaking constituencies. Yet just two decades later, in a remarkable turnaround, Brown’s words are rapidly becoming a reality.
The DA, which came into being following the Democratic Party’s merger with the now defunct New National Party, is now comfortably in charge of one province, may control three metros and looks set to become Gauteng’s governing party by the general election in 2019.
The outcome of this year’s local government elections has altered the political landscape, seemingly for good. No longer can the ANC’s dominance be assumed.
In fact the drop in the party’s share of the national vote, from 62% in 2014 to 54% on August 3, means that the prospect of the once-invincible former liberation movement being voted out of the Union Buildings in three years’ time is now a real possibility.
Though much of this dramatic reconfiguration of South African politics is of the ANC’s own doing, the DA’s role in it, and that of its young leader, the 36-year-old Soweto-born Mmusi Maimane, cannot be overlooked.
Dismissed as a political novice, a “token leader” and a hollow man by his critics when he ascended to the leadership of the DA, Maimane has silenced them all with a remarkable performance where it matters most – at the polls.
Just a year ago, when Maimane was elected to succeed Helen Zille as DA leader, there was much doubt over his ability to hold his own against such formidable opponents as the ANC and Julius Malema’s EFF. This scepticism was understandable. The year before, 2014, Maimane failed to win the Gauteng premiership, even though the DA spent R100-million marketing him as the answer to everything from e-tolls to load-shedding. It was a profound setback.
When some inside his party still boasted that the lay preacher and former business consultant would one day become South Africa’s president, it sounded more like Maimane’s colleagues were mocking him. Privately, Malema’s EFF leaders even bantered that with Maimane at the helm of the DA, the red berets would be the country’s official opposition by 2019.
And yet, against all expectations, the outcome of this year’s local elections revealed that Maimane is now far more popular with South Africans than Malema. Maimane told the Sunday Times that he felt “vindicated” follow ing all the criticism he had had to endure from his political opponents and from within the ranks of his own party.
“The criticism has been the worst I have had to endure. But I felt at the time that the best way to disprove it, is to prove it wrong.
“I don’t want to put this the wrong way, but people can look at the scoreboard,” he said.
Much of the DA’s success at the polls can be attributed to the party’s mean election machine and its deep pockets. Party insiders say the DA had budgeted about R350-million for the election, of which R100-million went to campaign in the Nelson Mandela Bay metro.
But the success is also due to Maimane’s own hard slog. From the week he became leader in May last year, Maimane embarked on a nationwide roadshow to win votes.
He spent much of his weekends criss-crossing the country, spreading the DA gospel – mainly in communities that were traditionally regarded as ANC strongholds.
During the campaign trail, Maimane dumped his “Mr Nice Guy” image, showing he was ready to play rough to counter the ANC. On the campaign trail in Mpumalanga, he called Zuma “the biggest tsotsi”, saying South Africans couldn’t afford to be the president’s “blessers”, so that he could splurge R8.6-million on luxury Range Rovers for his wives.
Gone was the respectful preacher who Malema once famously said would turn the DA into a congregation. (Maimane, in turn, has dubbed Malema the ANC’s “lost son”.)
But perhaps bravest (or most cynical) of all was Maimane’s calculated decision to invoke the name of Mandela – the man who led the ANC, Maimane’s opponents, into government in 1994.
Speaking in Dobsonville in Soweto in recent weeks, Maimane said he had voted for Mandela’s party in 1999, but that the ANC had since abandoned the values of its former president. The DA’s use of Mandela’s name provoked a heated backlash, not least from Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela, who said the DA should rather use the voices of its leaders who have helped the party “gather the laager of white privilege since 1994”.
The mass meetings did not draw crowds as huge as those of the EFF and, sometimes, the ANC. Yet they were effective in recruiting new foot soldiers who would spread the DA campaign message to communities.
When he became leader, Maimane insisted on the party having activists on the ground who did door-to-door canvassing. The end result? The DA, startlingly, increased its support among black voters in this election, even garnering more votes than the ANC in some communities. What made this all the more remarkable is that this growth has not only been limited to the black middle class, seen by analysts as the constituency most likely to find Maimane appealing.
Poor communities turned up on August 3 and put their cross next to Maimane’s party.
Even in township areas, where the DA has consistently scored low single-figure results, it gained ground. In Soweto, the DA still scooped 8.9% of the vote; in the Pretoria townships, it won 13.2% of the vote and in Khayelitsha in Cape Town, the DA won 7.5% – fourfold the 1.7% it won in 2011. This more competitive political landscape buoyed the investment markets too. The rand strengthened to a nine-month high of R13.67 thanks to what was dubbed a “business-friendly election result”.
The JSE moved down by less than 1%– a reflection of the fact that a stronger rand counts against mining companies which sell commodities in dollars, as well as other large companies with overseas operations.
Still, some see the ANC’s diminished political capital as a sign for worry.
Ratings agency Fitch says the result “increases the risk of more populist government policies”. Fitch said if the ANC turned to more “populist policies to address rising voter dissatisfaction”, this could include hiking government spending.
“A more populist stance could alienate greater numbers of black middle class voters, and the limited gains of the EFF, which runs on a platform of radical wealth redistribution, point to the limited effectiveness of populist political strategies,” it said.
Clearly, compromises will need to be made all round for coalition governments to be created in places like Nelson Mandela Bay, Tshwane and Johannesburg. The next week will be hectically busy, as the tacticians from all the major parties horse-trade to form alliances.
But for Maimane, the challenge goes far beyond the metros now. The question is how he uses the momentum to score further gains in 2019.
Those early predictions of Maimane one day moving into the Union Buildings are starting to look less like hopeful bluster. He’s now a serious challenger for high office.
Despite attending the otherwise anonymous Allen Glen High School in Roodepoort, Maimane is well-educated, with a psychology degree, a masters in public administration from Wits University and a masters in theology from Bangor University, Wales.
Still, despite the DA’s election success, it feels that at times Maimane struggles to connect with the average South African. Before politics, he worked as a consultant – and occasionally, when he speaks, it can seem like all you’re missing is an Accenture boardroom and a PowerPoint presentation.
Nonetheless, in a country where there seems precious little organisation or direction, he oozes both.
At an event organised by the British Chamber of Business in July last year, Maimane predicted that the DA would be “part of the central government by 2025”, suggesting that he imagined the party could force the ANC to under 50% only by 2024.
However, given the outcome of the August 3 polls, can anyone blame him for imagining being called “Mr President” by mid-2019?