Mmusi Maimane claps during victory celebrations in Nelson Mandela Bay.  Picture: SUPPLIED
Mmusi Maimane claps during victory celebrations in Nelson Mandela Bay. Picture: SUPPLIED

A COUPLE of weeks before the municipal government election, DA leader Mmusi Maimane spoke in London to an audience packed with South African expatriates.

Among a host of other questions, he was asked whether his party had a strategy to win votes in rural SA.

Maimane gave a smooth, pro forma response and moved on. His mind was elsewhere; he seemed not to have given the matter much thought. If Maimane is serious about challenging the ANC in 2019, he will have to start thinking about such things.

That the DA is governing three new metros vastly exaggerates its electoral success. Examine the results ward by ward and you will see that across the country, there is barely a black area in which the DA made it into more than a distant second place. It has not yet cracked black SA; it has not even come close.

If the DA wants power, it will have to win a broad spectrum of black votes, and if it wants that, it will have to start thinking seriously about rural SA. For now, much of the countryside is fated to vote for the ANC, not because rural people are too loyal or simple-minded, but because nobody has presented them with a good alternative.

What might the DA say to rural SA that will tempt ordinary people to listen? It is often said that as urban SA expresses its distaste for him, so Jacob Zuma retreats into the countryside. This is indeed right, but the manner in which Zuma is cultivating rural allies is neither delicate nor cautious and may end up alienating many rural voters. Zuma has reopened the land restitution process and has encouraged chiefs to get lawyers and claim land.

His aim is to twist communal land tenure into new forms, creating large blocs of ethnic power, giving rural aristocrats scandalous control over land that should rightfully be controlled by ordinary people.

The process is ugliest where prize mineral resources are at stake. Every now and again, things get sufficiently rough to make national news. At Xolobeni in the old Transkei, for instance, an activist who opposed a deal between a chief and a titanium mining company was assassinated.

If the DA wants to attract the attention of rural South Africans, it should campaign to have the question of tenure on communal land settled once and for all.

It should come out against unholy alliances between chiefs, corporations and politicians and argue that tenure vests in individuals and families and the associations they choose to form. It should present itself as the force that will stop the theft of land in the name of its restitution.

In truth, the DA is too fearful and uncertain to play this role. To the extent that it has a rural constituency, that constituency is white. It does not know black rural politics and can’t read it. It fears blundering into the most delicate of questions, such as tradition and heritage and the place of chiefs.

But as long as the DA treats rural SA like a world too fragile to touch, the millions of votes it harbours will remain out of reach. It is often said that the ANC cannot hope to govern from the countryside alone. It is equally true that the DA can’t hope to govern just from the cities.

Nobody knows how rural SA would respond to a concerted challenge to the ANC because nobody has tried. But many people’s sense of the world is no longer so firmly nailed down. A decade ago, the spectacle of black people rising to prosperity through their connections to politics was still novel and carried a sense of hope. It demonstrated that ordinary people were making it.

Now, the spectacle of black wealth acquired through politics is losing its lustre. It is looking like a sign that something is wrong. Zuma has done much to cause this shift. I know nobody in the old Transkei or the eastern Free State who is not offended by Nkandlagate.

If, come 2019, the ANC sweeps the rural vote, it may well be because nobody dared try to take it away.

Steinberg teaches African studies at Oxford University and is a visiting professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research.