The DA leadership contest: A torch for a new generation?

Mark D Young is of the view that the forthcoming congress of the official opposition marks a watershed in local politics

Once the bunting has been taken down and the delegates have departed to their regions on Monday next week, South African opposition politics will, for better or worse, never be the same again.

The choice facing members of the Democratic Alliance in regard to a new national leader is such that it will lead, whatever the outcome, to an era where the old way of doing things is no more.

One one hand they have an academic, on his own claims “steeped in the liberal tradition...” full of knowledge about definitions, political strategy and – from his experience as an ANC supporter in the latter part of the 20th century – applying political pressure via campaigns of both an official (and sometimes unofficial) nature as was the practice all those years ago.

To his credit, however, Dr Wilmot James has not – on the face of it – attempted such unofficial campaign tactics publicly. What sort of discussions and bargaining has been taking place behind closed-doors, of course, will never be known. Such is the way of real-politik.

In the other corner we see a younger South African. A man raised as part of a generation that were still in primary school while the apartheid monster was faced, addressed and eventually put out to pasture as the 1980s passed into the 1990s.

Social media, the internet and instant communication have come of age during his adult years. He is a product of a society where interaction, accessibility and action are favoured.

On both sides, delegates have been pledging support and – taken on the unofficial figures – it appears to be something of a whitewash. Then again, they count the winner at the finishing post so let's not get ahead of ourselves here.

In my view, however, Mmusi Maimane is a signal to those of us who grew up with the monster blamed by our current government for all the ills faced by our country that a new period has arrived. As with the USA some years ago, a skilled communicator, social media user and crowd wrangler is in touch with the people that matter – the voters.

I have no doubt that his party understands this nor that the ruling party is wary of the fact.

The time of back-room pledges of funding from far-off backers (perhaps with the requisite quid-pro-quo?) as punted as a reason for favouring his leadership by the academic's camp, are gone.

The old school tie way of conducting politics has led us to the mess the world is currently in. More of the same under the leadership of a – no doubt worthy and capable – member of an older generation, will, perhaps, not do the party, or the country, much good.

It is time for a different generation to take on the challenges of the new century. Thus, given the option of a decision between someone who has a stated history of support for the ruling party, versus a leader that has only known one allegiance and political home, I think the writing is very obviously on the wall.

And, in the end, if I read it correctly, such a decision by the Democratic Alliance's congress will signal as much of a sea-change in our political landscape and our future as did the inauguration of South Africa's first democratically elected president in 1994.

With a visible indication of change and a face that the majority of our population are able to relate to, coupled with a back-room brains trust led by the current, redoubtable and learned federal chairman, the official opposition has a chance to launch itself to great things.

Opting for the old way of doing things by venerating age and institutional stasis to the detriment of public allure and sass, might well see the party fizzle out at its present level of support.

Whatever the result, it will no longer be business as usual in our political landscape from Monday morning.