Dream on, Mmusi, dream on

RW Johnson on the prospects of the former DA leader's BOSA initiative

Not long ago I read Mmusi Maimane’s statement about why he had launched his new political party, Build One South Africa (BOSA). I looked in vain for interesting programmatic commitments. There was nothing about the economy, nothing about the environment, nothing about immigration, nothing about international affairs.

Like every other politician I’ve ever seen, he didn’t like poverty, inequality or unemployment but it wasn’t clear what he’d do about them. The only thing he was clearly in favour of was ubuntu and, again, who’s against that? In general Maimane declared himself in favour of what the Americans call “motherhood and apple pie”.

Maimane has also stated that South Africa should take Norway as its model. Yes, a country on the edge of the Arctic with a small, highly educated population, enormous deposits of oil and gas and the richest country in Europe. He supports this batty idea with arguments at such a high level of generality (“we can win when we want to”) as to be useless. Ludicrously, he estimates BOSA’s audience at 5.5 million voters, which is 50% more than the DA got in 2019.

Hlumelo Biko’s statement of support for BOSA is equally vacuous. “As your mind joins your heart in yearning for forward action you will know the time has come to put one foot in front of the other.” “Only you can stoke your fires to overflow in an irrepressible passion to unlock your potential”. And so on and so on.

Of course, Maimane was – and perhaps still is? - a minister in an obscure and dotty church. You can get away with all manner of mindless rubbish if you say it from a pulpit and weave in the odd reference to the Almighty. Imagine saying with such portentous weight that “the time has come to put one foot in front of another”. All it means is “I’m going for a walk”. Not really very profound.

Why, I wondered, does Maimane do it ? Not long ago he was leader of the DA. He wasn’t at all good at this and didn’t seem to realise that if you are leading a multi-racial coalition you have to pay unceasing attention to the sensitivities of a whole host of different social groups. To be fair, he’d been so rapidly over-promoted that he hadn’t really had the chance to learn on the job.

At any rate, he did badly and had to be replaced. That was a tricky business for the DA and he could have won a lot of grateful hearts if he had stepped down gracefully and pledged his continuing loyalty to the party. Instead, he made it instantly clear that if he couldn’t have the No.1 slot he wasn’t sticking around at all.

Yet that should never have been an automatic decision. Both Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague served as Tory leaders in Britain but then served as cabinet ministers under David Cameron. Equally, Ed Miliband was the Labour leader but now serves loyally under Keir Starmer. In all these cases an ex-leader happily continued to play a front bench role and remained loyal to their original party. If Maimane had done that he would have been guaranteed a continuing front bench role in South Africa’s second biggest party and might even have had another chance of the leadership somewhere down the line.

Instead, he’s launched his own little party and he is now BOSA’s presidential candidate. He thus repeats exactly the same mistake made by Mamphela Ramphele. Both Maimane and Ramphele had carved out a position on the liberal side of South African politics and both of them hugely over-estimated their own charismatic appeal. In Ramphele’s case her party, Agang (which means “Build South Africa”, by the way) won 0.28% of the vote in 2014 and 0.08% in 2019. Ramphele herself bailed out in 2014 and, having promised to meet her party’s debts, changed her mind and left it bankrupt.

Everything suggests that Maimane is headed in the same direction. Never mind building South Africa, building a political party is hard. It takes money, back-breaking hard work, patience, perseverance and then some. It has to be faced that many of the smaller parties know they have little hope and are praying for the opportunity where they can be bought off by the ANC. In effect their whole political journey is just about that one big payday. Of course, many start with higher aspirations but fairly quickly it comes down to that.

When Cope began I well remember discussing their chances with James Selfe, the DA’s long-serving chairman. James surprised me by saying he wished Cope’s founders the best of luck. Seeing my surprise he said, “Look, in 1994 the DP got 1.7%. The next five years were incredibly hard. We had seven MPs but no money. It was all uphill. Tony (Leon) did a great job and by the time he handed over we were at 12.4% and were the main Opposition. But it was still a tremendous slog. Every MP had to canvass in municipal by-elections. It was like clawing your way up Everest. In the end we did it, but I say good luck to anyone else who wants to take on that task. They’re really going to need it.” Indeed, no one has yet equalled the DA’s feat, building the party up from less than 2% to over 20%.

Moreover, small parties tend to be one election wonders. They enter with a splash but after five years they have begun to fade away. This is what happened to the UDM, Cope, the Independent Democrats and the Minority Front. Other skeletons in the graveyard belong to the PAC and Azapo.

Mmusi Maimane must know all this. Logically he should have joined ActionSA which has positioned itself as a sort of alternative DA, has some money and also has a solid base in Gauteng. But there’s the rub: ActionSA is all about Herman Mashaba and he will be its presidential candidate for as long as he’s interested in running. And Maimane, having once been leader of the DA, seems to have no interest in being anyone’s sidekick.

One is thus driven back ineluctably to the matter of ego. There are some politicians – and Maimane seems to be a case in point – whose ego simply requires that they be the pastor in the pulpit, the presidential candidate on the stage, the person getting the applause, the respect and the prestige.

Their need for these things is elemental and it is so strong that it blinds them to the more mundane considerations I have listed above. They are thus doomed to a rude awakening when they discover, as did Mamphela Ramphele, that their charismatic appeal is a whole lot weaker than they thought.

In a way this is a pity. Songezo Zibi, who is running for president backed only by his Rivonia Circle, is a thoughtful and intelligent man, considerably superior to any ANC candidate. But he, like everyone else, has to choose from a small number of parties if he wants to be serious. Only three parties have proper national followings: the ANC, DA and EFF. Three others – ActionSA, the IFP and the Freedom Front + - seem to be permanent fixtures but are mainly regional or ethnic parties. Most of the rest are actual or potential crooks, sometimes existing purely at municipal level where the pickings can be surprisingly rich.

These then are the facts of life for aspiring politicians yet a surprising number of them attempt to defy these facts, apparently believing that their personalities exempt them from the rule. This approach would never work for a career in, say, law, medicine or engineering – and politics turns out to be much the same. So dream on, Mmusi, dream on.

R.W. Johnson

This article first appeared in Rapport newspaper.