Dear Mmusi Maimane: Don’t be like Zuma

By Lukhona Mnguni

There is no doubt many are queuing up to have a moment with you, to share their hopes, concerns, frustrations and congratulatory messages. Some of us outside the Democratic Alliance (DA) will continue to pontificate, at times using hurtful and prejudiced labels to describe you. At times you will be called an Obama, a puppet, a rented black, a Pastor of pulpit politics etc. The list is endless. As the old adage goes, ‘actions speak louder than words’.

Only your actions will disprove any of these labels put to you. Do not obsess with refuting each claim levelled against you. Being the first black leader of the DA is bound to elicit reactions of various kinds. The country cares that much, the DA itself matters that much, commanding over four million of the national votes. I have over the years scrutinised the DA and its former leader, Helen Zille, in particular quite strongly. This will not change suddenly because the leader is black. Kindly warn those who support you not to call people who criticise you haters. Haters do not spend time trying to open your eyes to some pitfalls of your leadership; instead they rejoice and take advantage of them.

In the lead up to the Port Elizabeth Congress I was critical of you because I believed, as I still do now, you are not ready to lead the DA. However, ‘actions speak louder than words’. Prove me wrong. I wish to share my reservations, which must be areas of focus for you. There are striking parallels between you and Jacob Zuma and this genuinely concerns me. It seems a bizarre claim but let me set it out in three ways. Firstly, both of you ascended to power on the backdrop of popular support for charismatic leadership. You both (Zuma in Polokwane and you in Port Elizabeth) contested dull intellectuals that could not measure up in charisma. The risk inherent in the triumph of charisma is that leadership becomes a function of grandstanding, hyperbole speeches devoid of intellectual gravitas. However, remember, ‘actions speak louder than words’.

Secondly, you also easily fall into the temptation to bend principle and accommodate populism. Your gaffe on the death penalty referendum question is a case in point. Yes you do not believe in the death penalty; however, there is no room for a referendum on it either. Just as much as the Civil Union Act cannot be put to a referendum. Many have scolded you on this. There are only two reasons you could have indicated you would (if you were a President) welcome a referendum on the death penalty. The first is that you simply do not understand the impossibility and undesirability of such a referendum. The second is that you were being populist to demonstrate ‘inclusivity’. I suspect the latter is true. Inclusivity is not always desirable because the majority is not always right; hence the Constitutional Court exists as the supreme guardian of our constitution.

In March 2008, when busy campaigning for power, Zuma said he would consider opening a debate and even possibly allow a referendum on the death penalty. This was said in a meeting that was hosted by the Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein. It was not the first time Zuma had made these remarks and I trust that you shall not repeat them. Interestingly, to show the sheer irresponsibility of populism, Zuma scolded Graham McIntosh in March 2012 (four years after the death penalty remarks) for asking him in Parliament if he would consider a judicial commission to investigate if the death penalty could reduce violent crimes. Zuma was disgusted and unflinching in his response “I won’t do it. Absolutely not.” Do not fall into the trappings of populism. You do not want to be the next political chameleon after Zuma.

Thirdly and most importantly, you and Zuma are too obsessed with Nelson Mandela’s name. It is political suicide to base your political rhetoric on values that were suitable for a 1990s society in its nascent years of transition from minority rule to democracy. Mandela’s values are being scrutinised by young black people, with some even calling him a sell-out. These are the people who are your target market for votes. We do not want to remember Maimane as the Mandela praise singer. Zolani Mkiva fulfilled that role even for generations to come. Allow the spirit of Mandela to rest in peace.

The legacy of Mandela can live on; however, it is a very controversial legacy and does not find resonance with many black people who today suffer the perils of landlessness, unemployment, poverty, poor education, racism and discrimination. Mandela’s legacy is a contested Truth and Reconciliation Commission process, one that is accused of having allowed those who committed crimes against humanity to gain immunity from prosecution. This happened while scores of black families had to move on with broken lives, not knowing how their relatives died and where they were buried. This happened while structural formations of colonialism and apartheid like hostels, townships stood and still stand as sites of violence, spatial planning inadequacy, socioeconomic deprivation and much more that is undesirable and inhumane.

In case you have not noticed, South Africans are becoming nauseous from this Mandela obsession. He is on our banknotes, statues of him stand tall and mighty over us, two streets named after him intersect in Pretoria, bridges, a stadium, a municipality etc. are all named after him. This is nauseating partly because it is a distortion of history, an attempt to wipe out other historic figures that contributed immensely in the liberation struggle. Figures like OR Tambo, Robert Sobukwe, Steve Biko, Albertina Sisulu, Ruth Mompati, the Tsietsi Mashinini of this world etc.

The continued embracing of Madiba is the embracing of a false reconciliation devoid of a clear cut economic redress and transformation agenda. Drop Mandela’s name. Tell us what values, relevant in 2015, will deliver the agenda to fundamentally transform the lives of South Africans in general and black people in particular. I hear the ‘freedom, fairness, opportunity’ rhetoric, it is aspirant for the future; we want to hear concrete plans to be implemented in the now on improving the conditions of black people. No plan no votes.

Your election is what I call aesthetic transformation. It rests on your shoulders to achieve substantive transformation in the DA and that will need an intellectual project to remodel the DA and set it up on a new ideological trajectory if need be. Black people are not wooed by speeches and flamboyant performances of political twang. Black people are listening very carefully as leaders speak because they too want to live decent lives with pride and dignity. Thus, your responsibility is to tell those who want to hold on to old traditions in the DA that ‘faka isafety belt, seku driver mina manje’. However, say this only if you are interested in the difficult task of building the DA towards a party black South Africans can en masse trust to govern South Africa.

Your first task should be to produce a document that clarifies your February accusation that South Africa is a broken society. Make proper diagnosis and prescribe thoroughly thought out remedial action. Sound bites leadership is not leadership we deserve as South Africans. We want to be engaged with ideas.

I took the time to write to you because I care about South Africa. I am neither a member nor a voter of the Democratic Alliance. However, my conscience is clear when I say, a strong and flourishing opposition is important for this country. A solid and growing opposition is the lifeline of our democracy. In these turbulent waters of our times, a credible and growing opposition in substance and form will be the ultimate saviour of future generations. I write to you because suddenly in your hands lies the prospects to either stunt the growth of opposition or fuel it to greater heights.

Your job is to consolidate the DA. Your job is to influence the DA differently and set it on a new path. I celebrate your success as a young man. You have a difficult task ahead, do it well.