Mmusi Maimane. Picture: AFP PHOTO/JOHN WESSELS
Mmusi Maimane. Picture: AFP PHOTO/JOHN WESSELS

DEMOCRATIC Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane’s intervention on race this week was an outstanding initiative. It would be easy to cast aspersions on his timing and see it as reactionary, but one of the vital tasks of any public leader is to read the national mood and interrupt the conversation in a way that is productive and shows leadership. Maimane did very well to begin this process on Tuesday.

If, as party insiders have indicated, his speech will be followed by a series of DA policy proposals for reversing the racialised inequality in SA’s economy and society, this will be progress indeed.

It has been dispiriting to watch the advisers closest to Maimane posturing conceitedly on social media about how SA’s "obsession" with the politics of race distracts us from "real issues" such as poverty and economic peril. Any right-thinking progressive would not struggle to understand that the two are inextricably linked. Poverty and unemployment are not convenient excuses with which to avoid discussing the race question. The release of a policy framework will go some way towards addressing the attempt to impose such false choices. It will also take Maimane’s speech beyond the realm of gimmick.

This policy work has been done twice before: by former MPs Dene Smuts and Hendrik Schmidt in 2004, and Tim Harris and Wilmot James in 2013. Should the new proposals be materially similar, a repetition of the process could indicate a continuing difficulty with "landing" redress and reconciliation policy in the DA. This goes to the question of organisational culture and character, which has a tendency to be ignored in the rush to build a broad South African political church.

Helen Zille has delivered a number of "big" speeches on race before — most notably at Solomon Mahlangu Square in April 2011, and at the DA federal congress in November 2012. Both attempted to locate structural inequality in SA within its racial context, and to ward off racists (and sexists, homophobes and xenophobes) who believed the DA was a suitable political home for them and their views.

But a shift in the thinking of leaders alone does not amount to leadership unless it is carried through to the entire organisation — from its public representatives and staff to its rank-and-file party membership. Penny Sparrow could not have found safe harbour in an organisation in which Zille’s injunctions had landed effectively.

In this regard, Maimane’s "Stand up, Speak out" initiative is a wonderful idea; but it needs to happen inside the DA as well. The party should reflect, among other things, on a culture that isolates black members and leaders, calling them a "black caucus" and branding them " illiberal racial nationalists" if they openly socialise with one another, and discouraging them from forming bonds of friendship and familiarity.

The liberal credentials of former National Party members are never questioned in this way. A political party that entered democracy with 1.7% of the national vote and today sits on 23% is not a party of converts. The racialised ideological name-calling must stop, and real conversations about what it means to be progressive in post-apartheid SA must begin.

The DA should also reflect on hurtful and inaccurate internal party narratives that presume "white competence", while labelling black leaders products of the generosity of their white counterparts. It should consider that were it not for the efforts of black, fellow democrats working tirelessly in areas formerly hostile to the DA, the party would be nowhere near 23% today. A new narrative about working together needs to be nurtured in the party.

The DA should interrogate the almost exclusive dominance of white males within the party’s "brains trust", something that is beginning to come through in its communications and harm its external image as these highly disconnected men callously strut about social media like a law unto themselves. As Maimane sets targets for the recruitment of diverse candidates for public office, will he do the same for the management of the party?

Organisational change is a necessarily difficult task, requiring deep introspection and a leadership willing to put itself on the line to do the right thing. Maimane has put a bold challenge to the South African people; that challenge should be mirrored within the organisation he leads.

• Mazibuko is a resident fellow of the Harvard Institute of Politics and former parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance