DA leader Mmusi Maimane lacks boldness and conviction, and must still prove his mettle to hold South Africa’s top office
Gareth van Onselen
04 December 2015
The DA recently unveiled its annual Cabinet report card, in which it rated the performance of members of the executive over the course of 2015. Understandably, the managers of the ANC administration fared very badly; none worse than President Jacob Zuma, who scored an F-. The report described the president as having "failed South Africa on all accounts".
It is worth, however, having a look at the performance of DA leader Mmusi Maimane himself. With his election in May, the DA heralded a new era. Soon after, there was the prediction the party would be in national power by 2019, which is just three years away. So, by the DA’s reckoning, Maimane is effectively a president in waiting and the party faithful have wasted little time painting him as such ever since. His performance as party leader, then, is worth critical evaluation.
Maimane’s election campaign was marked by a series of problematic statements. Two of these involved his support for a referendum on "gay rights" and the death penalty, effectively suggesting the Bill of Rights be put to the popular vote. "Gay rights" — a rather self-defeating phrase — are, of course, human rights, regulated by the equality clause in the Constitution. In turn, the right to life was found to be incompatible with the death penalty.
Of "gay rights" Maimane said: "Well, if South Africans felt that they needed to vote on the issue, they should." That sentiment marked his attitude towards the death penalty, too, saying "… I think the people should be entitled to choose if they so want to", he told the Sunday Times.
Maimane repeated this position in a later interview. He said, despite his personal disapproval of the death penalty, our democracy "upholds the fact that if people — it’s by the people for the people — and if people want to vote on it the people must vote on it".
Later there was much back-tracking as Maimane sought to undo his error. "I would stand up straight and say I don’t support a referendum on the death penalty." As far as flip-flops go, he had started with a profound one.
There was a broader context to Maimane’s remarks on "gay rights", however.
He had for many years prior to and during his earlier political years served as pastor at Liberty Church. Its attitude to homosexuality is as abhorrent as it is extensive. Its senior pastor, DJ McPhail, has said: "Homosexuality is the result of idolatry — self-worship — like every other sin."
It emerged that, from the pulpit, Maimane has suggested as much himself, saying he wanted to be a "friend of sinners", and so was grateful that "in my friendship circles there are Muslims, there are gay people — because I believe that is what God has called us to do. I take the verse that Jesus says, ‘I didn’t come for the well but I came for the sick’."
Last month the DA in KwaZulu-Natal berated the Shembe Church for a series of homophobic remarks (DA appalled by Anti-gay sentiments) but, when it came to Maimane’s church, the party had little to say. Maimane later fell over himself to explain away his own statement. More telling, however, is that for years he intricately associated with Liberty Church without ever once raising any objection to its depiction of homosexuality.
Maimane’s troubles with the Constitution extend to the rule of law. As leader, he had an opportunity to distance himself from the decision to "welcome" into the party’s membership ranks AbaThembu king Buyelekhaya Dalindyebo, a man convicted of kidnapping, assault and arson among other things. Instead, when the king’s conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court of Appeals, Maimane suggested in an interview the monarch’s initial sentence counted for little; that it was only once someone had gone through the appeals process that they could be judged guilty.
When Freek Robinson put it to Maimane in October that Dalindyebo had already been found guilty by a court of law when the DA signed him up, Maimane said: "He had gone on appeal! He had gone on appeal. And he is entitled to do so. The laws of the country give us that right. And he went on appeal…."
In all these cases, Maimane’s rudimentary constitutional confusion is deeply worrisome. The DA, and Maimane in particular, paints itself as the true custodian of the country’s Constitution. But its leader’s grip on some of the most basic tenets is shaky at best, and that is being generous.