The DA leader faces a stiffer electoral test than his predecessors did, writes Tony Leon

On a visit to London last month, a British friend of mine had a meeting with the leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), Mmusi Maimane.
My friend advised that he was impressed with Maimane, but embarrassed that he kept calling him ‘Moses’.

In response to this apparent faux pas, I suggested that Maimane – an ordained minister of the church –would probably not mind the substitution.

But I then further suggested that a better biblical comparison would be Joshua, since Moses could only lead the chosen people toward the Promised Land, but Joshua was the one elected to enter it.

Without over-egging the comparison, Wednesday’s local government election is crunch time for the leader of the DA. Elected by virtual acclamation by his party just over a year ago, he has not had much time to put his stamp on the party. His two predecessors, this writer and Helen Zille, had more time, though fewer tailwinds behind them, to prepare for the polls.

As the first DA leader, I had to, in adverse and controversial circumstances, advance the legitimacy of the very concept of opposition itself in the era of Mandela and Mbeki. Then came the practicalities of consolidating the opposition forces in circumstances when nothing divided them –the Democratic Party and the NNP and later the Independent Democrats – more than the issue of their unity.

The second DA leader, Helen Zille, had to both refresh the party appeal and consolidate the movement as the natural party of government in the Western Cape, an initially fragile base which she converted into an opposition fortress.

I remember repeating while still party leader ten years ago, and the DA edged into power in the mother city in the 2006 local government elections, that winning Cape Town was the party’s ‘get out of jail card’. It proved, in one city at least, that the opposition could move from the rhetoric of opposition to the realities of government and hold up the prospects of replicating this model elsewhere.

But if it was crucial for the DA leader and the party’s viability a decade ago to win the city of Cape Town, on Wednesday next week it is imperative for Maimane to prove that the party can win a city or two outside of Cape Town.

There are both internal and external reasons why in fact it will be a real , though perhaps cruel, failure of leadership if Maimane does not preside over victories in at least one of the hotly contested Metros on Wednesday. In order of likelihood for the DA, these commence in Port Elizabeth (Nelson Mandela Bay), followed by Pretoria (Tshwane) and then the biggest prize of all, Johannesburg, though that is possibly out of reach.

Internally, no party leader is without both critics and sharks. The first group, who gripe about strategies and principles are often sincere and can be reasoned with. The sharks are those of thwarted or future ambition who have an unerring nose for weakness and blood in the water.

And if the leader does not deliver success, they will go in for the attack, if not the kill.

Conversely, a DA win in a metro outside Cape Town will still any critic and more or less allow Maimane to hold his position for as long as he wants.

Externally, in this year of economic meltdown for South Africa, joblessness approaching 9 million, Gupta-state capture and the tide of corruption breaching the walls of the state, if the official opposition cannot post a big win somewhere outside Cape Town then it is fair to ask an elemental question: does South Africa have any prospect of peaceful, democratic renewal?

It is one thing, and not an insignificant accomplishment, that the highest court of the land can hold that the President of the Republic, ‘violated the constitution’ . But if this judgment of the Constitutional Court finds no echo, or consequence, among the electorate at large, then it will be clear that South Africa’s constitutional mechanisms are faulty. Or, worse , imperilled.

Elections are, of course, zero sum games, for every winner there must be a loser. Wednesday’s poll is not a Montessori school, where every pupil receives a gold star.

So for Maimane to succeed, Jacob Zuma must loose. Or at least preside over the defeat of his party in one of their hitherto stronghold cities, or two of them.

Whatever combination of fraying unity or naked self-interest of simply his ruthless ability to marginalise his internal opponents, has kept Zuma afloat until now, even his party has its limits.

Indeed, whatever grievous damage the ANC patronage machine and cadre deployment has writ on both the economy and polity of South Africa, provided the ANC occupied winning ground, and dominated the political landscape, a lot of people could be, literally, bought off or silenced.

But not only would the loss of a metro or two, terminate the careers of a great many of the party hangers on, it will also suggest that unless immediate rectification in changing the man at the top commences, the party’s entire grip of power will be loosened. In those circumstances, both critics and sharks, in the much bigger waters in which the ANC swims, will find a common target in ‘number one’ as Zuma is known.

Conversely, again, if Zuma once more defies the political death spiral, he will be able to set the terms for his own departure and, crucially, anoint his successor.

The election has, as well, a third man in the ring, the populist leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema. Will he be able to convert his outsize presence and posturing in politics into actual achievements at the polls? Or will the election cut him down to size? It is one thing to fill stadiums, boast about being a ‘government in waiting’ and harrying Zuma with extreme epithets. But what if he does not win a single municipality and doesn’t significantly exceed his modest 6% hold of the electorate. He will soon discover that loud bullies command attention for only so long. Though his preferred examples of ideal states are in ruinous Venezuela and neighbouring Zimbabwe, there’s an old expression from the state of Texas which Malema will either prove or disprove in a few days’ time. Boastful Texans are called “all hat and no cattle”- a lot of bluster without the herd to back it up.

The Independent Electoral Commission advises that next week’s poll has a record 53, 757 candidates participating. But in reality, this election will also be about determining the fates and futures of just three men, none of whom actually are on the ballot.