AS THE autumn sun faded on May 10, Mmusi Maimane took in the sprawling view of the Indian Ocean from a beach-front conference centre in Port Elizabeth.
An hour earlier, he had been named as the first black leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) — the historically white official opposition party had crossed its Rubicon at its national congress.
“It’s surreal, I still feel like it’s a movie I am watching. I can’t sit down. It feels like I am watching something happen, I can’t describe it,” he began explaining his emotions just as his son Daniel interrupted with a scream: “Daddy, your phone is talking!”
Daniel’s intervention spared his father, whose adrenalin rush was beginning to taper off, yet another media interview. (Maimane calls Daniel, 2, “the EFF” because of his tantrums).
On May 10 Maimane and the DA drew a line in the sand, in the way it articulated its position on race. Essentially, race matters, was the message from the congress, indicated by the delegates’ leadership choices, coupled with a gentle, yet important, change in the articulation of DA policy positions.
Maimane’s victory speech was punctuated with a few statements that were a shock, perhaps a pleasant one, to the political system. One of them was, “And that is why I simply don’t agree with those who say they don’t see colour. Because if you don’t see that I’m black, then you don’t see me.”
Speaking in Cape Town two weeks ago, retired Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs said that statement signalled a departure from the DA’s race-blindness of the past. “That’s not the traditional DA language … it is beginning to confront issues that other organisations have been dealing with in the past,” he said.
Maimane says a lot has changed since he took over the leadership of the DA three months ago. “We are becoming more of an activist organisation,” he says.
He says he is leading from the front in getting the party’s activists — including its elected representatives — to lift their bums out of their comfortable seats. DA representatives must get used to interacting more with ordinary people, in the flesh, from Sandton to Mshayazafe in KwaZulu-Natal, where he went to deliver his vision for the party recently.
MSHAYAZAFE is dominant in Maimane’s lexicon — it rolls off his tongue regularly to demonstrate his get-up-and-go style. The name means “hit her/him to death” and he went there to tell its residents that although they had been forgotten by the ruling elite, the DA cared about them and wanted to improve their lives.
Another of his focal points is the party’s fresh bouquet of economic policies. While it cannot quite be compared to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign mantra — “It’s the economy, stupid” — Maimane aspires to raise the DA’s game in the economic arena.
In terms of political strategy on the ground, Maimane has five strategic areas that he describes as, simply: “What are you doing in Cape Town? What are you doing in Nelson Mandela Bay? What are you doing in Tshwane? What are you doing in Joburg? How are you retaining Midvaal? Everything else is a side show.”
Many changes to the party’s operations are in the offing. Maimane is preparing to introduce new key performance indicators for the party’s public representatives, which will place a bigger emphasis on direct public interaction compared with previous assessment methods focused on markers such as how many mentions in the media an MP or MPL received.
He is also streamlining the party’s bureaucracy at head office and in Parliament to remain within budget, without losing efficiency.
“We must be a lean and a mean organisation. I don’t believe in bloated administrations,” he says.
He has frozen some director posts in the party.
“I am trying to avoid any duplication, because it’s money.”
He will also be moving the DA’s communication unit from the CEO’s office to his own, while simplifying its research operations.
DA MP Geordin Hill-Lewis, one of the key strategists behind Maimane’s campaign to succeed former leader Helen Zille, is happy that the party is being revitalised. He regards this phase as “a huge burst of positive momentum” that has rekindled the party and helped it focus on the 2016 elections.
Hill-Lewis worked closely with Zille — at one stage as her chief of staff. “When I worked for Helen, I thought she was the most incredibly hard-working person I had ever encountered, and probably would ever encounter, but Mmusi has blown me away with the incredible amount of work he has put into the first three months of his leadership.
“He’s a machine. He’s really, really committed to this organisation, to its future and to SA, and he is showing that in hard work,” he says.
WHILE Maimane is typically optimistic, it has not always been plain sailing for him. His arrival in Parliament after the 2014 election coincided with Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema’s.
The red beret revolutionary provided a few strategic headaches for the DA caucus which, as the official opposition, found itself on the back foot while Malema and company gave the African National Congress a tough time. It took some time for Maimane and his team to adjust and realise they do not have to match the EFF’s theatrics.
“Manuel Pellegrini (Manchester City’s manager) once said, ‘If you look at how you win the premiership in the UK, over the full season, there’ll only be a few games where you win 4-0, 5-1, your dramatic splashes. But to win the premiership you got to be winning 1-0 every single time’,” Maimane points out.
June 18 last year, when the EFF brought down the house chanting “pay back the money” in the National Assembly, felt like one of those low-scoring days for Maimane, where everything seemed to be going Malema’s way. “It’s like 10-0 if the media is your score,” he says.
The DA’s strategy since has been to go for the moral high ground. “You can quite quickly get yourself into trying to out-Mau Mau the Mau Mau (you can’t outshout the loud ones), as they say,” he says.
MAIMANE regularly meets Zille in her capacity as Western Cape premier. He also meets mayor Patricia de Lille regularly to discuss the implementation of DA policies by the City of Cape Town.
While his first three months as party leader were like a honeymoon phase, there have been hair-raising times. His critics — and there are plenty — single out his performance on BBC talk show Hard Talk in June as a moment when the winds rattled his sails fiercely. The interviewer mauled him, the critics say.
Not that this deters Maimane. As Zille once said, his ability to roll with the punches is a strength.
Maimane seems to have shaken an important monkey off his back: the perception that he is just a face and Zille will continue to pull the strings in the background.
“He demonstrated that he is a strong leader during two federal executive meetings, where he seemed to assert his authority quite well,” says a DA MP, who asks not to be named.
“The federal executive is like a pond filled with 100 sharks and Mmusi is just a seal but he handled issues quite well.”
The shark-seal analogy draws a hearty laugh from Maimane.