DA national spokesman Mmusi Maimane outside the Western Cape High Court on Tuesday. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
DA national spokesman Mmusi Maimane. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

AT THE beginning of 2011, with the local government elections looming, the Democratic Alliance (DA) enticed from obscurity a new great hope: Aloysias Mmusi Maimane. He was a well-educated political novice and, it appeared, the embodiment of everything the DA sought to represent in the public mind. He "symbolises our party’s future", a DA statement read. The DA faithful would come to know him just as Mmusi Maimane. He dropped the Aloysias. Like many in Hollywood faced with a similar predicament, it just didn’t roll off the tongue. So the actor was born. And what a role he landed.

It is hard to determine what is authentic about the man: his lines are crafted by wordsmiths, his turns of phrase marked by safe clichés and truisms. His arguments are shaped by opinion polls, his events are orchestrated by strategists and his personal ideological world view is protected from critical interrogation.

For the public, there are the posters and slogans. But they really belong to US President Barack Obama. The sepia-stained photos were first the late US president John F Kennedy’s. And the change in accent, from private-school English to those deep, rolling "r’s" the more vernacular style demands? Al Pacino has played all those roles. The audacity. He is just a political kindergarten kid.

That said, everyone does like some chutzpah and he dresses to the nines while oozing charisma. Put a good script in front of him and he will bring you home an Oscar nomination every time. As far as actors go, he can deliver a line up there with the best of them. However, he has yet to actually secure the golden statue. Why is that? "Shape without form, shade without colour; Paralysed force, gesture without motion," wrote TS Elliot in his poem The Hollow Men.

Maimane is a hollow man. Scratch away the pseudo celebrity gloss and an echo chamber lurks beneath. It matters not to the DA, however. Around him he has the biggest production team the party has ever assembled. It wants whatever platitude it puts into that chasm to reverberate a thousand times over.

In August last year, it was reported the DA was set to spend R100m of its R173m election budget on its Gauteng campaign alone. This would be the Titanic of DA election movies — although, hopefully, with a better ending. As a result, in a world where magic and reality mix every day on our screens, after six months of campaigning the actor has long since replaced the person in the public mind. That is, if ever there was a person to begin with — Maimane’s been in a movie since day one.

The DA is a party desperate to believe. It has a story in which it has invested everything. It is a great story: against all odds, against history itself, it will rise from opposition and secure its place in national government. It is, in many ways, the ultimate South African story. Many will say our liberation holds that title. But liberation is of little use if the subsequent democracy cannot produce a change in power — that is the ultimate test of the transition from oppression to freedom. It is a test South Africa has yet to pass.

Thus, many besides the DA are, likewise, heavily invested in the DA’s narrative — so they should be. But any hope, no matter how noble, can take on fantastical proportions if not regulated against reality.

When DA leader Helen Zille predicted in 2009 that the DA would be in national government come May 2014, you got the sense the party leadership had been drinking too much from this cup. Into that environment Maimane stepped and, together with Lindiwe Mazibuko, the DA’s other great young hope, they would have all that exaggerated expectation placed firmly on their shoulders. That is some burden to bear.

Imagine for a moment the collective anticipation that comes with that and the personal responsibility you carry. It is a heavy weight indeed. That Maimane carries it at all is testament to his self-belief. Most would crumble under the pressure. Then, imagine the expectation it creates in the individual: anything is possible. With a limited number of competitors, in an environment where your demographics matter as much, if not more, than your character, there are few limits on progress and advancement. And so that burden is inevitably accompanied by heightened ambition. There are no glass ceilings, only mirrors, and the party polishes them for him every day.

Thus, failure and success have been equally irrelevant to Maimane’s fortunes. In just more than 1,000 days, while many others have ground their noses flat at the political millstone, he has climbed and climbed. From nowhere he was the DA’s 2011 Johannesburg mayoral candidate. He lost that race but would lead the caucus thereafter. Then, he would be chosen (not elected) as the party’s national spokesman — a position Zille has often gone out of her way to paint as the breeding ground for future leaders. There were more credits to come. In November 2012 he would be elected a deputy federal chair at the party’s federal congress. Every second day a new script would arrive at his door.

And he could pick his roles too, so many were there to choose from. "I will definitely be running," Maimane said of the DA’s 2012 race for Gauteng leader. Twenty-four days later he announced he would definitely not. His political handlers had done the maths. It was a race he couldn’t win. Not quite according to script but, as Zille was quick to point out, "provincial leadership has never been synonymous with premiership candidacy". Zille had an upcoming blockbuster in mind and the part had been written specifically for Maimane.

Now he is the DA’s Gauteng premier candidate but with an opt-out clause built into his contract. Special provision was made for him to stand on both a national and provincial list, should his more local aspirations fail to be realised. In that case he can seamlessly transfer his insatiable ambition to the DA parliamentary leadership, and the people of Gauteng, whom he claims to love so dearly and passionately, will become another stepping stone, joining the people of Johannesburg on the scrap heap, as he ascends. There are even rumours he might succeed Zille herself, or at least that he is her preferred choice.

What a man. What a politician. In three short years he has risen through the DA ranks like a Phoenix reborn from jet fuel. Is this the greatest politician the party has ever had? He must be special indeed.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps there is a little more to his story. What is left behind when you take away the script, the events, the logistical support, strategising and romantic propaganda? What remains? Who is Mmusi Maimane? Does anyone know?

Maimane headed the Johannesburg caucus for three years. Has anybody interrogated his record in office? What did he do in council? What did he achieve? In the US his reputation as a premier candidate would depend on such crucial information. In South Africa positions such as that are regarded as little more than part of the theatre — a good reference on the billing for his next film. But did anyone read the actual reviews?

The truth is, there isn’t much to interrogate. In three years as leader of arguably the most important metro opposition caucus in the country, he failed to achieve anything of real significance. Certainly he left no indelible mark. He limped onto the back of e-tolls (ironically, an issue first identified and driven by his rival candidate for the premiership, Jack Bloom) and would issue the odd statement about the Johannesburg billing crisis, but really only in response to public outrage.

He had nothing to offer of his own. No defining vision. No new insight or analysis. In a city rife with disorder, he had no touchstone issue he could call his own. He did, however, manage to split that caucus down the middle. Not once but twice there were co-ordinated attempts to pass a motion of no confidence in him, both scuppered by national intervention — one in early 2012 the other just before the DA’s federal congress in November that year.

The reasons are difficult to discern from the public record but a common complaint seemed to be that his attention was too dispersed between the various different movies in which he was starring. "They feel he is overloaded with work as a result of these many positions. Sometimes he leaves in the middle of meetings because he is rushing to the next meeting, leaving councillors little time to prepare or plan," said one anonymous colleague about the unhappiness.

Maimane’s councillors are currently defecting in droves in Johannesburg. Seven from his caucus alone have abandoned ship this election. Make no mistake, these are for the most part people with the usual personal issues or pending disciplinary hearings, out to secure their own future rather than some ideal or grander purpose, but among them are many leaders he chose: three deputy chief whips and a former chief whip. That is an indication of poor management or poor judgment, and it is bad either way. A raft of defections has generally set the DA in Gauteng back across all three metros but that doesn’t excuse Maimane from an explanation for his own dilemma. He, however, refuses to comment.

It brings us to another telling insight: Mmusi Maimane doesn’t do bad news. When asked to be interviewed about his pro-Mbekism, it was a no go. Why did he attend the R100,000 mayoral inauguration bash in Midvaal and how does he weigh that against his public statements on austerity? No comment. When asked to explain why his caucus members were defecting, someone else could answer.

Maimane has been taught that some lines play better than others. Every time he has a difficult situation, he expects other members of the team to take the fall. That isn’t leadership, its cowardice. Zille might argue with the press until she is blue in the face but when she must, she will apologise. Not the DA’s golden boy. And why would anyone who is constantly told he is never wrong?

What is Maimane wrong about? Former president Thabo Mbeki, for one. And he has admitted as much by joining the DA. He might well have admired the man once but presumably African nationalism no longer flows through his veins? Not so. It would appear that particular ideological disease still makes his heart flutter. Is there anything on the public record anywhere, ever, of Maimane being critical of Thabo Mbeki? Good luck finding it. It simply doesn’t exist. He doesn’t have a bad word to say about the man.

Here is another, more telling question: is there anything on public record of Maimane praising Thabo Mbeki? Several volumes. Again, the silence says more than the sound. If you had to paint of picture of Mbeki using only Maimane’s public statements, you would think Mbeki was late former president Nelson Mandela himself: "We saw progress under Mbeki"; "I was inspired by Thabo Mbeki’s ‘I am an African’ speech’"; "We looked out to a future alive with possibility under President Mbeki"; "President Mbeki helped get our economy on track"; "It was President Mbeki that introduced Black Economic Empowerment" and "I was an Mbeki supporter".

This is the DA’s premier candidate for Gauteng. He "shared the values" of Mbeki and more importantly, by all account, he still does. It is deeply ironic that the DA should call a recent defector from the party to the ANC "trailer trash". In 2004, when Mbeki’s powers were at their peak, they would have labelled anyone who shared Mbeki’s values far worse. Today, such a person is a hero. Not only is he under no obligation to explain why it was he rejected the ANC, he is required to champion the reasons he supported them. Not a single soul in the DA has for one instant questioned how someone who, ostensibly self aware, educated, liberal and democratic, could, for one, blind himself to the horrors of Mbeki’s HIV/AIDS policy, and is now a DA premier candidate.

In one of his many Mbeki glorifications, Maimane said, "I had no reason to look anywhere else". What an absolute indictment. He is the Ronnie Kasrils of DA politics, only he is not asking you to spoil your ballot and he is certainly not apologising for his previous views. Kasrils has been vilified by the DA for suggesting a spoilt vote on the basis of regret but Maimane, on the back of promoting his myopic Mbeki-love, is actually asking for your vote. Damn Kasrils for not fully abandoning the ANC, vote for Maimane for praising Mbeki. Go figure.

Even poor Zille, who fashioned a good part of her career lambasting Mbeki from one end of his public record to the other, has fallen into line. She, too, now parrots his nationalistic affections. The actor is directing the playwright.

And again, the DA swallows hard and takes it for the team: remember — the golden boy can never be wrong.

Maimane’s own words, before he fell under the spell of scriptwriters, have been troublesome. He has spouted weird things about the magical African soul, the wonders of Ubuntu and how to measure one’s "Africaness". Without his speechwriters, however, he cannot explain them. Any rare conversation with him on a difficult subject, sans a full and proper briefing, is like watching a news presenter with a broken teleprompter. They might boast a golden voice but the words are incoherent and, ultimately, meaningless.

"I think there is enough writing and enough thinking that speaks to Ubuntu and, you know, partly, is to say that, you … and part of liberalism means that I must be willing to accept your point of view as much as you will be willing to do mine …," Maimane fumbled in trying to explain away his African mysticism. Liberalism demands you must tolerate another person’s right to express an opinion, it says nothing about any obligation to accept it. Baleka Mbete says you must respect Nkandla out of cultural deference. What’s the difference? Criticism is how we determine right from wrong — a critical ingredient for the battle of ideas. The demand for unthinking cultural moral equivalence is how you destroy debate.

But then that’s Maimane. Even Mbeki had a good story to tell. When culture or Mbeki is on the table, Maimane loses whatever liberal pretense his stage managers are able to muster. That sort of expediency should be a red flag in any potential leader.

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow

Frustratingly, all the posters, adverts and cult-like infatuation by DA staff are not translating into much support for Maimane. Asked to rate him from 1 to 10 (with 1 being "totally against" and 10 being "totally in favour"), he averaged just 4.9 across all Gauteng respondents in a March Ipsos poll. Among only DA voters, just 8% rated him between 8 and 10. In the other direction, 27% of Gauteng residents rated him between 0 and 2 or "totally against".

Fifty-one percent rated him between 3 and 7, or "average". And that’s a hollow man for you — average through and through, with nothing discernable about him at all. It was noticeable that for the first few months, Zille was kept a country mile away from Gauteng. This was Maimane’s show. As Election Day approaches, however, she has repeatedly been called in. Tickets just aren’t selling.

Much of the DA’s Gauteng campaign has been social media-based, with Maimane, "the people’s premier", as its centrepiece. From Zille (with 400,000 Twitter followers) through to the DA’s official account (74,000 followers), Maimane cannot sneeze without the DA retweeting him. It has had little effect on his following.

On August 22 2013 he had 13,700 followers on Twitter. Today he has some 30,000. So, in seven months, he has gained 16,300 followers. On August 22 2013, the DA’s parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko had 77,500 followers. Today she has approximately 125,000.

So, in seven months, including a period of some five weeks during which Mazibuko was sick and with no multimillion rand campaign, posters, adverts, rallies, memes, dreams and teams behind her, she has gained 47,500 followers — almost triple the number Maimane gained. Twitter might be an anecdotal means of analysis but that’s some anecdote. Supposedly the embodiment of the youth and the cool — the Twitterverse itself — none of has exactly flocked to his social media doorstep. They don’t care because they know its all a movie, and he is acting a part. Zille might be a nightmare on Twitter, but it’s the engagement with the authentic persona that is appealing to people. Maimane’s robotic platitudes don’t cut the mustard. People want to talk to Leonardo DiCaprio, not Jack Dawson.

In excess of 500,000 people have watched the DA’s banned attack advert that, in an appropriate nod to his Hollywood ego, features Maimane talking to himself in the mirror. They probably think it’s an actor. It is.

What information there is suggests the DA jewel that is Gauteng is slowly sinking into the ocean depths. A Sunday Times Ipsos poll puts the DA on 29% in Gauteng at the beginning of April. That was on a high turn out and, accounting for the margin of error, the DA could, on a good day, end up in the upper thirties. But this was a province it was supposed to win. What happens if it doesn’t even reach 40%? So much money spent at the expense of, say, the Northern Cape, a province we are told by the DA is also on the table. Why the disproportionate expenditure? All in the name of Maimane and his fictionalised personality. Will the party look to him if it fails? You can bet the DA in the Northern Cape will.

What is there to look at, outside of the showbiz Maimane we are asked to love and admire? A caucus in disarray and no discernable record of leadership; an unqualified infatuation with a former ANC president; a series of illiberal views he cannot explain; an aversion to bad news; a disproportionate appetite for high office and a personal brand that neither resonates with nor attracts the adoration his party PR suggests. Those subjects don’t make for good interviews, though. And the DA Gauteng press junket thus steers well clear of them. But it is plenty for his party colleagues to chew on. Less than 40% and they will be chewing hard.

As a result of all of this, Maimane faces a problem post election. If the party fails to win Gauteng, his prospects of being elected the leader of the DA Gauteng caucus are minimal. Jack Bloom and John Moodey have that contest fairly tightly sewn up. In the other direction, he could stand as parliamentary leader but that is no sure thing either. The price you pay for being a surrogate for the leader’s wishes is that people feel they would be voting for a puppet, a proxy.

Should Maimane lose Gauteng he would be a two-time loser when the public is involved. Add a party provincial or parliamentary leadership loss to that record and you begin to develop a reputation as an also-ran. There are only so many losses an individual political brand can withstand before losing becomes an idea permanently associated with the protagonist — just ask Athol Trollip.

He has one other option: stay on as caucus leader in Johannesburg and national spokesman and wait for the local government elections two years down the line. Johannesburg would be on the table in a very real way then and he could have another crack at the mayoralty: "Johannesburg II". You know an actor has exhausted his range when he starts doing sequels, but that does not mean they don’t sell-out at the box office.

It would, however, require him to quell his relentless thirst for new titles for a while. Will the unchecked ambition fostered in him allow for that? We shall see.

It’s a problem for the DA. They have invented a character and run out of winning plot lines.

In a 2011 radio interview Maimane said: "One of the things that sometimes gets me a bit nervous is that the conversations in South Africa tend to be personality driven, not issue driven."

He has certainly conquered his nerves. Rarely has any party in South Africa produced such a personality-based campaign. The problem is, it’s not really his personality. It’s a bit of Obama, a bit of Zille, a bit of Mbeki — a bit, quite frankly, of whoever writes his speeches. But who is Mmusi Maimane?

Now there’s a good movie script.