Cape Town – Mmusi Maimane sang the praises of outgoing DA leader Helen Zille on Saturday, in his first public address since announcing his candidacy for the DA’s top job.
The 34-year-old leader of the opposition in the National Assembly ended speculation about whether he would run for DA national leader, with an e-mail sent to party members on Saturday morning.
Insiders predict the DA leadership race will be a contest between Maimane and the party’s federal chairman, Wilmot James.
“I’m in it to win it, as they say. I’m going to contest hard,” Maimane told reporters on Saturday.
Sources said James, an academic who became an MP for the DA in 2009, had assembled a campaign team and a formal announcement that he was throwing his hat in the ring would follow.
The DA is due to announce the names of all candidates tomorrow after extending the deadline by four days following Zille’s sudden decision a week ago not to seek re-election. The move caught many in the party by surprise and has sparked speculation that she was pushed to quit.
When he addressed the DA Western Cape provincial congress in Goodwood on Saturday morning, he told the crowd of 1 200, dressed in blue T-shirts, it was a “great loss” that Zille was not standing for re-election.
Zille surprised many when she unexpectedly announced last Sunday that she would not stand for re-election at the DA federal congress next month. She will continue as the Western Cape Premier.
If elected to the DA top job at the party’s national congress in Port Elizabeth next month, Maimane, from Dobsonville, Soweto, will become first black national DA leader.
Maimane was given a standing ovation when he took to the stage on Saturday.
In the first third of his speech, he praised Zille, who was elected DA national leader in 2007, saying she had led the party with “selflessness and devotion”.
“The success of the DA in the Western Cape, and as a party, is a testament to the leadership shown by Helen Zille,” he said during his half-hour-long address.
Zille was not present, choosing to attend the party’s Free State congress.
“Helen has embodied the values of non-racialism and non-sexism and fought to uphold our constitution.
“This has inspired many people to join our cause, for which I am exceptionally grateful.
“It is under Helen’s leadership that we have seen the DA transform from a party of opposition to a party of government. Today the DA is the most diverse party in the history of South Africa.”
Maimane’s nomination was welcomed by DA chief whip John Steenhuisen and Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip, both key players in the party.
“Obviously I am delighted that Mmusi Maimane is going to run, put the DA on the path to power and lead the march to the Union Buildings,” Steenhuisen told ANA.
Trollip, who is standing to succeed James as federal chairman of the DA at its national congress, echoed the sentiment, saying Maimane was well-suited to the post and had performed “brilliantly” as parliamentary leader.
“He is probably slightly too young but, under the circumstances and within the context of what has happened in the past week, I think this is just how events played out. I think Tony Leon was 36 when he became the leader of the Democratic Party,” he said.
Trollip said he believed it was vital to have experienced party officials in other top posts and if he became federal chairman Maimane could count on his full support, adding: “But I have to get elected first.”
Commentators have tipped Maimane as the clear favourite to succeed Zille, though he only entered formal politics four years ago.
While Maimane’s speech was short on details about his vision for the party, it indicated he would continue the DA’s tactic of touting the Western Cape’s “success story” to try and win over new voters.
He said the party would focus on winning the “strategic metros” of Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay in the 2016 municipal elections.
“The DA can boast we deliver the best services in the country,” he said.
He also slammed the ANC-led government for being soft on corruption and for letting youth unemployment spike.
“Corruption is in fact still the greatest threat to our democracy. The DA will not stand by and watch a few politically connected people get rich.”
Speaking to media after his address, Maimane said he would visit all nine provinces ahead of the party’s national congress on May 9, to outline his vision for the party more fully.
Who is Mmusi Maimane?
Mmusi Maimane was born in Dobsonville, Soweto, in 1980.
The 34-year-old has had a meteoric rise through the ranks of the DA: he was elected DA national spokesman in 2011, the same year that he stood as the party’s Joburg mayoral candidate, losing to the ANC.
Maimane then took up a seat as the DA leader in the Joburg city council, where he cut his political teeth. In the 2014 general elections, Maimane ran as the DA’s Gauteng Premier candidate.
In DA campaign posters, he often appeared alongside DA leader Helen Zille, then parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille. When the ANC again took control of Gauteng, Maimane chose to take up a seat in the National Assembly. Following the announcement by Mazibuko – viewed by many as Zille’s heir apparent – that she was stepping down to study at Harvard, Maimane was elected leader of the opposition in Parliament.
He is married and has two children. According to the DA’s website, he speaks seven South African languages fluently, and holds masters degrees in theology and public administration.
Additional reporting by ANA