By wisely turning away from the baubles of premiership, the DA leader avoided splitting the party leadership

Last week in London I attended a dinner with some starring members of the British political establishment. The entire menu of conversations covered Brexit, and that was a day before Theresa May was ambushed by the European Union leaders in Saltzburg.

Now a messy divorce of unfathomable complexity has just become, well, even more complex and far messier.

On the subject of Britain’s divorce from Europe, one of my table companions passed on a popular saying from his Parliament: ‘When it comes to debates that go on well beyond their bore-by date, ‘everything may now have been said, but it has not yet been said by everyone.’

Cue here to all current topics in our political debate back home: land reform (700 000 unprocessed written submissions, and now a 40 page tome from Thabo Mbeki, who specializes in long form epistles); Cyril’s new/false dawn (depending on your prejudice); ditto his stimulus package/damp squib. There is not much left to say which has not been pronounced upon -and lack of knowledge is no inhibitor.

But one topic, somewhat of a bore, since it is rehashed endlessly is both the state of the opposition, its prospects and its leadership.

One of the most literary and interesting figures in the British Labour Party is Alan Johnson, whose life story makes some local struggle credentials seem slight: he came from a broken home in dire poverty, left school and became a postman and then rose to the heights of his union before entering parliament where Tony Blair appointed him to some of the greatest offices of state, including secretary of state for health, then education and later home secretary. He also happens to be a brilliantly honest and witty memoir writer, and I am currently devouring his latest offering “The Long and Winding Road “

He seemed the logical person to stand for the leadership of his party after Labour’s car crash election result in May 2015. But he didn’t stand and against the odds, the far left wing Jeremy Cordbyn did and won. Though whether Corbyn can ever win a general election is less than clear, and his botched handling of the anti Semitism issue in his party suggests he is both indecisive and incompetent.

One of Johnson’s supporters and an even wittier and more acute observer of his party’s travails, is John O’ Farrell. He gave a perfect pen picture of why decent, level-headed and highly electable leaders of the calibre of Alan Johnson don’t stand for leadership of the opposition in the snakepit of British politics:

“Alan Johnson might have seemed the most statesmanlike, but he took one look at the job spec and decided he didn’t fancy it: ‘ Tabloid punching bag required for five years of impossible slog ending in humiliating defeat. Must have harmless family that we can set out to destroy.’ “

I had a frisson of recognition there, reckoning it was a pretty good working description of the leader of the opposition job in South Africa, one I know from thirteen years at its w heel, and have certainly ‘bored on’ the subject in books and countless columns.

But the current incumbent Mmusi Maimane, just at the same time Johnson declined his own party’s top job and Corbyn got it.

Maimane has had no end of travails, almost perfecting the old adage that ‘your victories can land up costing you more than your defeats.”

Just two years ago the sails of the good ship DA were billowing with the gusts of wind breathed into the opposition by winning Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay; and its crown jewel of Cape Town glittered ever brighter with an emphatic two-thirds majority win. A hapless ANC was staring down the barrel of credible future national defeat, with an unhappy 54% of the total, its worst ever total.

Let’s skip straight past all the grissly, no doubt for Maimane ghastly events almost since the night in August 2016 when all things seemed possible for his party. De Lille, EFF, Holomisa, the fall of Nelson Mandela Bay and perfidious local floor crossing councilors (even though it has been abolished) and ideological bun fights etc. That’s the barest outline.

How tempting, therefore it must have been for Maimane to escape these multiple challenges and park himself off in the splendid colonnaded manor house Leeunhof offered to the Western Cape Premier. After all, isn’t that what Helen Zille did and, say what you like, and here everyone bores in with an opinion, she led her party to electoral success.

Someone, perhaps several of them, thought this would be a good perch for Maimane. He could always say he was getting executive experience, or he was steadying the Western Cape after all the voter disenchantment with recent events there. And like the Lotto, there was a bonus ball too: if the DA performed indifferently in next year’s election and the party wanted the leader’s scalp, well he could decapitate his leadership and, again like Zille, hang on as Premier.

Reading of this proposal from faraway London, I thought of many bad, indifferent and mad ideas, this one was  right up there in the winner’s circle of political idiocy.

If the party leader does not have enough self-belief to put himself and his job behind his own party’s election aims, well he shouldn’t be the leader.

In fact, when Zille became leader after me in 2007, she was Mayor of Cape Town. There was debate then about how she could fill both roles but the party decided she could and elected her in that  knowledge and she indicated she would do both jobs.

Her tenure as Mayor and Premier were both distinguished. But the huge downside of having a national leader who is not in parliament is the division it creates at the top of the party. Witness here the ugly spat between Zille and Lindiwe Mazibuko, though I am not over sympathetic to politicians who complain of being ‘badly treated’etc. Its  tough business, not a Montessori school.

Anyway, if Maimane, just three years into the job where he united the parliamentary and national leadership of the party under him, was now going to divide it again, the script of future and further division was in plain sight here and now, without any clairvoyant talent needed.

To his credit, and after a lot of fumbling in the announcement (but the management of the party is starting to creak badly) Maimane did the right thing and turned away from the baubles of provincial perquisites to face up to his national responsibilities.

I remember back in January 1997, when the then Democratic Party had just seven MP’s, Nelson Mandela made me a serious and generous offer to join his cabinet. It was pretty tempting seeing how limited the party’s appeal was then. But among other considerations, the party and I decided we couldn’t be simultaneously in government and be a credible opposition.

But we could not have known back then that the National Party would start to unravel when FW de Klerk left the leadership a few months later. Or how haplessly the next NP leader would be, or how deeply damaging the Truth Commission would be to its cause. We certainly did not dream that our party would increase its voter share by over 400% in just two and half years.

A number of factors accounted for that dramatic change in 1999. But its pretty certain that if I had accepted Mandela’s offer, the party would probably  not have surged electorally.

Maimane, like everyone else, has no idea what lies in store for him, his party or even the country in the next few years.  But by remaining at his national post, he will at least be in place when the political weather changes again. And, without being a weather bore, trust me it will.

Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London. @TonyLeonSA.

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