How Mmusi Maimane became "the Obama of Soweto"

The South African opposition leader is taking on the ruling ANC. But can he deliver on his promises?

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“No pencil test can define me,” declared Mmusi Maimane, South Africa’s opposition leader, at the country’s Apartheid Museum in January. He was referring to the infamous pre-1994 practice of awarding a racial classification based on whether a person’s hair could hold a pencil shoved into it. Maimane, a self-described “son of the African soil”, has frequently been dubbed the “Barack Obama of Soweto” because of his appealing rhetorical style. In his speech in January, he made his own background a way of focusing attention on the deep undercurrents of racism that remain in South African politics, over two decades after Nelson Mandela became leader and ushered in the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation”.

Maimane has just led the Democratic Alliance (DA) to historic results in municipal elections. As the DA made gains in Pretoria (South Africa’s administrative capital), Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, the governing ANC recorded its worst defeat since the end of white minority rule, securing less than 60 per cent of the vote for the first time.

Corruption, internal conflicts and South Africa’s stagnating economy are all contributing factors to the ANC’s decline. But there is something else happening, too, as South Africans of all backgrounds begin to question why inequality in the so-called New South Africa is still so pronounced, particularly along racial lines. As Maimane put it in his speech: “We are entitled to ask why a black child is 100 times more likely than a white child to grow up in poverty.”

At only 36, Maimane is a young, relatively inexperienced politician. He grew up in Soweto with ANC-supporting parents, only joining the DA in 2009. He has risen swiftly, becoming the DA’s national spokesperson in 2011 and standing for mayor of Johannesburg and premier of Gauteng Province before winning a leadership contest in 2015. Under its previous leader, Helen Zille, the DA had built a solid record at a local government level, particularly in the Cape Province, where Zille is still premier. However, there was a feeling that if the DA wanted to turn its local success into a national challenge to the ANC, it needed a black leader. In the contest that followed Zille’s decision to stand down, Maimane won 90 per cent of the vote.

The latest corruption scandal surrounding the South African president, Jacob Zuma – known as Nkandlagate after the name of the private homestead the ANC leader spent public money improving – has been a crucial test for Maimane. The DA kept up the pressure on the president after the extent of the use of public funds was exposed, with legal challenges and even a parliamentary motion of no confidence. Zuma survived the vote, but Maimane used the publicity it attracted to point out that it was really “about jobless South Africans” and the mishandling of the economy. “Jacob Zuma’s cattle have a better life than people in [south Durban],” Maimane said. The Constitutional Court has since ordered Zuma to repay 7.8 million rand (£440,000) to the state.

The DA’s electoral gains suggest that many ANC voters are questioning whether Zuma has their interests at heart. Roughly 80 per cent of South Africa’s population is black, but the vast majority of property is still in the hands of the white minority. Unemployment among young black South Africans is above 60 per cent. The switch by areas such as Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (which contains the city of Port Elizabeth) from the ANC to the DA indicates that voters are looking beyond the ruling party’s past role in the anti-apartheid movement to its more recent record in government. Earlier this year, the country’s own finance minister described the South African economy as being “in crisis”. And with exchange rates for the rand very low and corruption still rife, it is easy to see why Maimane was able to claim the municipal election as “a referendum on Jacob Zuma as a national figure”.

But what kind of alternative does Maimane embody? There can be no doubt that he looks the part of a New South African leader (right down to his personal life – he is married to Natalie, a white former teacher, with whom he has two children). Critics have targeted his inexperience, pointing out that, compared to some other DA members, he is a relative newcomer to opposing the ANC. His rhetorical style may have been likened to Obama’s, but his substance has sometimes been found to be lacking. The Daily Maverick news site noted after the DA leadership election last year that “Maimane says much without saying much at all”.

The years running up to the general election in 2019 will no doubt be overshadowed by the consequences of South Africa’s economic stagnation. If Maimane and the DA can deliver on their promises to tackle inequality at the local and municipal levels, and ensure that the slowdown is not felt disproportionately by black South Africans, they could be well placed to make inroads nationally. But whatever happens in the coming years, one thing is now clear: South Africa’s time as a one-party state is over. 

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq