Mmunsi Maimane delivers a speech in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Picture: AFP PHOTO/JOHN WESSELS
Mmunsi Maimane delivers a speech in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Picture: AFP PHOTO/JOHN WESSELS

ON TUESDAY, Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane delivered what the party had billed as a "landmark" and "personal" speech on race and identity, titled "Let’s find each other again".

Maimane’s delivery had an air of inauthenticity about it, perhaps the result of obvious nerves — such is the temperature of the South African racial cauldron into which he stepped. At one point, as he delivered the line "I am a dove", his eyes closed and a serene smile crossed his face, as if the dove of peace itself had literally just settled on his shoulder, perhaps affectionately to nuzzle his neck. That pretty much defined the tone of the address - an appeal for calm rationality and brotherly love.

Nevertheless, it was a genuine attempt on the party’s part to talk about the subject that is most difficult for it to talk about. That was brave and commendable and there is much to be said about the content, which is more significant and, in time, will be all that matters.

First, one needs some context. The DA is currently in the process of delivering to the public a national campaign on employment and the state of the economy. It has almost exclusively dedicated all its communication to this and, to break this message, to talk about race — a conversation it struggles to control at the best of times — signals something of an internal emergency. Certainly its position on the economy will be forgotten over the next week or so.

Numbers talk in the DA. A potential voter sneezes and it will register on some or other internal tracking poll. It would appear a significant number of people have set its internal machinery buzzing. Some medicine needed to be dispensed.

There was much of the usual rhetoric. In 2014, Maimane had also delivered a "big speech" on "race and identity", also at the Apartheid Museum, which seems to be his go-to venue for these kinds of things. Then he had spoken about the fact that "I was born in Dobsonville, Soweto", which seems key to the identity he wishes to present to the public. Yesterday he would again remind everyone that he was "a child of Soweto", forged in Apartheid ugliness.

Much of the "personal" in Maimane’s speech was a recap of who he was and where he came from, an idealised political archetype. More impersonal than personal, truth be told.

This is tough on Maimane. How does one talk about race in SA without first setting out your bona fides in virtuous terms? We have made it nigh on impossible. People want to see your moral CV before they are interested in listening to what you have to say. Even then, you will be lucky if they focus on anything else once you have done so. Other obviousnesses followed, apartheid was bad, the DA was no place for racists and, of course, the obligatory nod in the direction of Mandela.

Maimane was brave and forthright. Certainly he put President Jacob Zuma’s attempts to address race a week or so ago to shame; so much more mature and a genuine effort to be honest and frank.

But all of that was scene setting, ahead of four more substantial undertakings: A series of race dialogues, "entitled ‘Stand Up, Speak Out’ involving South Africans from all walks of life"; "An anti-racism pledge that every new and returning member will be required to sign when they join the party"; New party regulations requiring all structures "to set targets" which ensure that, by 2019, the DA "reflects the diversity of our complex society"; and a new policy comprising "a focused plan to overcome the structural inequalities that continue to divide us".

Before discussing some of the merits and potential problems with these ideas, it is worth setting out the political risk Maimane took in making the undertakings. A possible downside is that potential DA voters experience it as an admission of guilt.

By way of illustration, the African National Congress (ANC) has introduced pledges before. Before the 2006 local government elections, each councillor was to sign a code of conduct designed to fight corruption, swearing that they would stand for office "without motives of material advantage or personal gain" and will "fight against corruption in any guise or form". The party did this because it had a corruption problem.

Making DA public representatives take an antiracism pledge can easily be interpreted in much the same way — why do you need a pledge if you don’t have a problem? Indeed, why all the drastic interventions at all, if there is no problem? And Maimane has been at pains to stress those racist incidents that have recently plagued the DA are isolated, in no way representative of the DA’s general character.

(It is also something of an insult to ask someone who considers himself or herself committed to human rights to sign an antiracism pledge, akin to requiring someone to commit to not beating their wife, but that’s an internal matter for the party.)

So the fundamental risk Maimane took is that his speech will be seen as a tacit concession that all is not well. That can blow up in your face in politics. It’s the reason politicians are so hesitant to ever offer up a frank apology.

But it might work too. The DA’s hope will be that by being direct, the percieved honesty and authenticity — "The DA is not perfect" — will appeal to its market and demonstrate a commitment meaningfully to engage with SA’s number one contemporary obsession.

We shall see which way the wind blows.

There is another risk. The speech essentially confirms and reinforces the grand South African political hegemony: the ANC, the natural home for racial ideology, nationalistic and otherwise and the DA, ostensibly compromised and unable to resonate on issues of identity. It is a narrative the ANC completely and utterly owns and, when it sets its racial orchestra playing, has the DA dancing to its tune almost at will — always on the defensive, always explaining itself, always justifying, never leading.

The DA has now institutionalised that hegemonic order, through dialogues, targets and pledges. It has created a series of formal mechanisms the ANC can evoke at will to put the DA under pressure. How well the DA is able to control the outcomes that flow from all of this depends entirely on how it responds to the ANC. In turn, the nature of what it uncovers. If it uncovers more Penny Sparrows than it likes, the ANC now has a full party political repertoire, particular to the DA and outside of the Human Rights Commission or Ethics Committee, it can use against its mortal political enemy.

"Members found to be in clear violation of this oath", Maimane said about the pledge, "will have their party membership immediately revoked, no questions asked." The oath includes vague sentiments like "I will not perpetuate racial division". Expect from the ANC a thousand submissions on that particular clause in the near future.

Of the four undertakings, the most problematic is Maimane’s racial "targets". He said of them, "We will do it without resorting to dehumanising quotas that reduce human beings to statistics."

He was also careful to avoid the phrase "demographic representivity". But he has set a hard date and a desired outcome and it is difficult to say exactly what he means without your mind immediately going to that phrase.

It was the weakest part of his speech. Poorly set out and defined, it could be quotas by another name or some other strategy to develop, nurture and encourage black talent in the DA.

Quite why Maimane felt the need to talk about it all is a mystery. The DA’s diversity is not on the national agenda at all. If anything the criticism from those that relentlessly indulge in racial politics is that those black DA public representatives that do represent the DA are surrogates for a "white" agenda. Maimane has now introduced a whole new line of criticism.

And it will no doubt soon enough be applied to the DA’s staff contingent, not mentioned by Maimane. It has an enormous staff complement supporting its public representatives but, at its national leadership level — in its CEO, executive directors and directors — there has been no real racial analysis or criticism. He has now invited that and the consequences could be profound.

If Maimane is effectively suggesting quotas — whether they make people feel inhuman or not — that is deeply and profoundly problematic. If not, he urgently needs to provide more clarity on exactly what he has in mind. Candidate selection is a fraught business at the best of times, often the root of inner party division and turmoil, and the consequence of this new requirement, for gatekeepers and democrats alike, could prove deeply divisive if not properly managed.

The DA has been hollowed out over recent years. Many of its best thinkers have left or retired. Intellectually it is fairly bankrupt. Maimane’s speech cut a stark contrast with the views expressed by the DA’s new mayoral candidate for Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba who, unlike Maimane, does not wish to been seen first and foremost as black. He has little time for race-based policies such as BEE either. How his attitude and those like him will be accommodated in the DA remains to be seen.

Maimane seems to have preempted any internal discussion. That too still has to play itself out; that is, if the DA still has those kinds of debate any more.

You feel for the DA and Maimane, you really do. It takes an inordinate amount of abuse for its position on race, much of it vicious, personal and cruel. It really wants to demonstrate its bona fides, to the extent that is willing to suspend even its election messaging to talk about it. It is just as insecure as so much of the South African populace more generally, feeling its way in the dark, fumbling, but trying hard. In and among all of that you get the sense it has lost perspective.

Was this a speech for SA? Or for those that abuse the party on Twitter? If it has confused those two markets it has made a significant strategic error. The party is well and truly between a rock and a hard place, internally and externally.

In the end, the DA can’t win over racial nationalists so it must not try to; but, equally, it can’t give nonracial nationalists an excuse to stay away. That’s the tight rope it has to walk. It’s best done by deed, not word. Speeches are fine but in the end the DA has to feel like a diverse party with the interests of all South Africans at heart, regardless of race.

In Maimane’s speech, the DA has tried to move to higher ground. Whether it has escaped the trap has yet to be seen. Perhaps it has played right into it.