It has become fashionable among some of the clever people in the media who tell the rest of us what to think to attack South Africa’s Leader of the Opposition, Mmusi Maimane.
The most egregious example was the “mini-Mandela” episode. Maimane said he was being attacked as a mini-Mandela who was a sell-out, just like Mandela. His comment was carefully edited and then presented as though he was bragging about being a mini-Mandela. He was misrepresented as a vainglorious show-off, daring to compare himself with Mandela.
Many commentators copied each other’s criticism, without doing the basic check revealing the lie they perpetuated. Some opponents of the DA gave much patronising advice to Maimane, aimed at breaking him and his party down. A few apologised; most have not. They all overlooked the effort by some people to cast Mandela as a villain in order to undo the 1994 consensus, abandoning the ability of black and white South Africans to work together to address the injustices of the past and making race the cause of our problems.
Maimane has a tough job. He did not complain about this in a recent wide-ranging interview with the writer, but he expanded at length on the DA and its mission, still going back to the days of Helen Suzman.
His party is the most diverse in the country’s history, supported by more than four million voters. Unlike the ANC and the EFF, both of which have so little white support that it is not even worth mentioning, Maimane’s DA enjoys the support of most of the voters who are white (now only 8% of the electorate), plus millions of black, coloured and Indian voters. The DA cannot simply concentrate on “white interests” like some smaller parties. It wants to and needs to accommodate and promote the interests of the whole community, black and white. Maimane assures the voters that the DA mission for a generation and more remains; it is the only party truly committed to the inspiring values of the Constitution with all their consequences.
Those interests are essentially the same but people in different groups often see things through different eyes. We need to learn to understand that.
Maimane said some parties, think ANC and EFF, knowingly lying, constantly state that the DA is “just” a white party. Once overwhelmingly white, the DA was no longer so. Its Federal Executive is an example of diversity and eight of its nine provincial leaders are black. Any party hoping to move from a minority opposition force towards contemplating removing the ANC from power had to look like South Africa, one of the most diverse countries on earth, in terms of language, religion, colour, culture, tribe and all the other factors of diversity. Every black person, every white person – every person – is valuable and is entitled to the full opportunities our country should provide.
It is giving effect to that essential unity in diversity and ensuring freedom, fairness and opportunity that we are constantly challenged. Moving from a colour-coded society to a normal one is not easy. It creates stresses and strains and without a doubt it challenges the DA too as it transitions from a formerly small party to one that can claim to represent a goodly proportion of the masses.
The DA has a large number of senior politicians, many of them white, doing a great job, some for decades. It has a growing number of impressive younger black people who are coming up, looking for opportunities for promotion to higher office. This is not bad; it is good. It is a welcome sign of progress and expansion. It can create tensions, though, because people compete against each other for office. As the DA’s representation grows, there will be room for all. Looking like South Africa enables voters to see representatives with whom they can identify. That means people drawn from every group: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Jewish, Muslim, gay, straight, male, female, black, coloured, Indian, white and so on.
Many black voters see white people as a privileged group, enjoying advantages they can only dream of. Black kids mostly receive an inferior education, often equipped for a lifetime of poverty and unemployment. Black South Africans experience far higher crime rates than do the rest of us. They have poor health care in hospitals that are failing, and on average, are far poorer and live shorter lives.
On the other hand, most white people these days do not feel highly privileged. They live no better than people in the Western democracies; they feel considerably less secure, being the target of racial abuse and intolerance from certain politicians. Many struggle to pay school fees because of abysmal education in so many schools. They have privatised their health care because the ANC is incapable of running decent hospitals. They have had to privatise security with alarms and panic buttons and electric fences, because the ANC is unable to keep the citizens secure. Many barely know their grandchildren because they have gone to live with their parents in countries far away. And increasing numbers are wondering whether there is a future for them here.
Welding the black view and the white view of privilege together is the self-imposed task of Mmusi Maimane and the DA. It requires whites to be reassured that they are not a target and are not being blamed for what is. They need to realise that their secure future depends on normalising society so that black people come to take for granted the same fairness, freedoms and opportunities that whites demand for their children and themselves, with both white and black people rolling up their sleeves to work for the realisation of the promise of the Constitution. That is real nation-building.
Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and a former ambassador to Thailand. His website is douglasgibsonsouthafrica.com
A version of this article first appeared in The Star newspaper.