Mmusi Maimane. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS
While Mmusi Maimane’s leadership and status have grown and matured beyond expectations, the same cannot be said about the DA’s national policies and strategies, says the writer. Picture: REUTERS/MIKE HUTCHINGS

DEMOCRATIC Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane became a political leader only in 2011, but he is a fast learner.

While we were on holiday last month, the DA attempted to sneak in the controversial announcement that its MP Dianne Kohler Barnard would not be booted out of the party for distributing a social media statement praising apartheid-era president PW Botha. Instead, she was fined R20,000 and was demoted from her position as police spokeswoman — in line with the party’s original sanction.

Maimane and other DA strategists were hoping that holding the appeal and communicating the fact that her expulsion was to be reversed while we were singing Christmas carols would minimise the public backlash.

They were right. But at a substantive level, the Kohler Barnard issue (read racism), is not about to disappear and may cause more harm than good for the DA. Maimane is not tackling this problem well.

The harsh reality is that he was not elected for his leadership skills alone. He became a compelling candidate to replace Helen Zille because he was first and foremost black, and everything else — including the fact that he is a hugely intelligent, charming and resilient leader — were secondary attributes.

He started off beautifully, declaring boldly in his inaugural speech in May last year that race mattered and it would be at the centre of his leadership style and vision.

He said: "If you don’t see that I’m black, then you don’t see me."

This statement took many people by surprise as it was seen as a bold declaration that the DA would no longer be a party that believed only in a race-blind, equal opportunity society. It was also a promise that the DA finally embraced SA’s reality — that due to our history of centuries of colonialism and apartheid, race will for years to come be the alpha and omega of our politics and any corrective policy instruments would need to use race as one of the departure points.

That statement alone also suggested that the DA was serious about destroying the strong perception that it is a defender of white privilege and white interests.

But the Dianne Kohler Barnard matter, and a couple of other examples, have since proved that Maimane’s statement was just that: one of those beautiful one-liners journalists appreciate.

In the aftermath of the DA’s race controversy, the salient message is that Maimane has not fully stamped his authority on his party. That someone who effectively and publicly associated herself, and therefore Maimane’s party, with offensive Facebook posts and retains her membership is a gift to the DA’s opponents.

This saga backs up the finding of the DA’s own research a couple of years back that showed black people fear that the party would bring back apartheid should it govern.

Another example of the party’s failures in the race debate is the fact that Maimane and the DA are on the "status quo" side of the Stellenbosch University Afrikaans tuition debate, when silence would have been a better strategic option for the DA if it found itself conflicted on this matter.

It is not surprising that Maimane finds himself in a political tailspin. He has not made the DA attractive to the black intelligentsia. He should have, within a few months of his election as leader, hired fresh strategists — people who understand South African politics better than his current advisers who seem to fantasise about US and British-style politics instead of engrossing themselves in their immediate terrain and learning about the culture and history of former national liberation movements, especially in so far as they understand their ability to mutate and regenerate their hegemony. That would make the DA a more effective opposition to the African National Congress (ANC).

The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) is eating Maimane’s lunch — primarily because it has a better, and more organic understanding of the ANC’s ideological weaknesses and delivery failures and — more importantly — is in touch with the interests and aspirations of the many people who are frustrated with the slow rate of economic progress in SA.

The DA’s own poll showed that at some stage last year, it looked like the red beret revolutionaries would achieve a national average of 12% in this year’s elections — double its support in the 2014 national elections.

That the EFF is capturing the imagination of many potential voters at the DA’s expense should be a flashing red light to Maimane because moving the DA out of its comfort zone with status quo politics was exactly his mandate and promise.

It is the practical aspects of the election campaign that Maimane needs to concern himself with this year. But a cursory glance at his eight months in office suggests he personally prefers — at least as far as his role and contribution in Parliament are concerned — to go for the low-hanging fruit: positioning himself as President Jacob Zuma’s opponent.

That is an easy thing to do, as the man from Nkandla is the gift that keeps giving. But the spoils may be for the EFF to enjoy, as Maimane has so far failed to move the DA from its perceived corner, where Pennysparrowmalaitis-causing bacteria are found in large quantities.

His biggest challenge this year is disproving what someone who knows the party quite well once said, with tongue firmly in cheek: "The DA is the National Party in drag."

• Mkokeli is associate editor