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Meet the South African Politician Who’s Been Compared to Barack Obama—But Prefers Bill Clinton

13 minute read

One afternoon last year in Johannesburg, Mmusi Maimane, the first black leader of South Africa’s largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, got into a minor fender bender. When he stepped out of his car to apologize, the other driver, a white woman who didn’t recognize him, launched into a tirade of racial slurs. “I was this sub-human to her,” Maimane, 36, tells TIME as he leans forward on the leather sofa of his parliamentary office in Cape Town and runs his hands over his clean-shaven scalp. “I thought ‘this is the most demeaning thing to me.’ It wasn’t like two motorists have an accident, it was like, here is a white person from a place of supremacy speaking down on a black South African.”

It’s a story Maimane has told many times before, one meant to impart a lesson on the lingering effects of racial discrimination 22 years after the end of white minority rule. But the tale of a white woman who treats South Africa’s most important rising political star like an apartheid-era gardener is also meant to remind his audience of what might seem obvious: that he too is a black man in a country still struggling with deep racial inequalities. That despite his position at the head of a historically white party, his white wife, his education—he has two masters’ degrees—and his elite accent, he is still Mmusi from the all-black township of Soweto, a black kid who is no stranger to struggle and who has what it takes to become the country’s next president.

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On August 3, South Africans will go to the polls for municipal elections that could, if Maimane’s DA dominates, pave the way for a presidential upset in 2019. The ruling African National Congress has held power without interruption since the end of apartheid in 1994, but a recent spate of corruption scandals, accusations of government mismanagement and economic decline have dimmed its appeal. The storied party of Nelson Mandela is now at risk of losing control of the capital, Pretoria, and Johannesburg, South Africa’s financial hub. Meanwhile the DA, which controls the economically thriving Western Cape province, of which Cape Town is the capital, has increased its share of the national vote in every election, and now holds 22% of the seats in parliament.

But to change South Africa’s established order, Maimane will have to demonstrate that the DA, which was founded in 1959 as the anti-apartheid Progressive Party, has transcended its roots as the party of white liberals in order to earn the trust of an older generation of black South Africans habituated to the ANC. The DA has a way to go—in a country that is 80 percent black, it only received six percent of the black vote in 2014 elections.

Maimane’s oratorical skills have earned him comparisons to President Barack Obama
Maimane’s oratorical skills have earned him comparisons to President Barack ObamaGavin Kleinschmidt

Maimane will also have to capture the allegiance of the ‘Born Frees’—black South Africans born after the end of apartheid who are growing increasingly frustrated by 1994’s unfulfilled promises. While young South Africans appreciate the new political freedoms ushered in by apartheid’s end, they complain, with justification, that blacks have largely failed to profit economically. South Africa’s income inequality is among the world’s worst, and it largely breaks along racial lines: nine out of ten South Africans living in poverty are black, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations. Black South Africans, who make up four-fifths of the population, have an unemployment rate of 29 percent, compared to six percent for whites. And whites earn on average six times more salary. “During the anti-apartheid struggle a lot of us activists made peace with inequality because we knew that one day we would be free,” “Young people today are saying, ‘we still live in townships, we still have pit latrines, the electricity is non existent, and most my friends are unemployed,’” says Jonathan Jansen, president of the Institute of Race Relations. “So the expectations that things would be different hasn’t been met, and that puts a lot of pressure on social cohesion.”

Maimane’s juggling act is further complicated by the widespread belief that simply being in the DA means he is not black enough to deserve the country’s vote. Political rivals have called him a “sellout,” a “coconut,” and a black “puppet” for white masters. Julius Malema, head of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)—a rising party that radical redistribution of the country’s white-owned wealth—suggested recently that Maimane is a rent-a-black figurehead for the DA, “a party of white racists who are refusing to accept the black rule.” Which is why Maimane frequently refers to his blackness in a way that few other politicians must. “Simply by virtue of his being part of the DA, which used to be considered the party of the madams and the masters, there is the compulsion to assert what is obvious, that Maimane is black,” says Jansen.

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Yet Maimane believes the extreme focus on race allows the ANC to dodge the real issues affecting South Africa today. He says he frequently meets voters who like the DA’s governance record, but reject the party on the basis of bad experiences with white employers who are likely supporters. “I understand that it’s political pragmatism to say ‘look, if you are black you must be in this political party, if you are white you must be in that political party,’” says Maimane. “But understand that it polarizes society; it doesn’t build it. The ANC is trying to create a society in which you can split people along racial lines.”

More than anything, though, Maimane laments the decline of a party that was once the pride of Africa, and which has now become its laughingstock. In December, President Jacob Zuma went through three finance ministers in a week, precipitating a dive in the already hurting South African rand. Once the biggest economy in Africa, South Africa slipped to third place behind Nigeria and Egypt. In February, Zuma’s colleagues accused him of allowing a wealthy Indian family to influence cabinet appointments in exchange for business concessions. In April, the Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma had broken state law by ignoring an order to repay some $16 million in taxpayer monies he spent on refurbishing his private residence. Despite Zuma’s call for government austerity measures to cope with the weak economy, a security official revealed in May that the President had spent more than half a million dollars of government funds to buy official vehicles for his four wives. “The ANC is no longer the party of Mandela,” says Maimane. “This is a party that’s changed fundamentally in its core, in its fight for human rights, in its advancement of black South Africans’ lives, in building an equal society. The more I see, the more I realize that the ANC governs as though black lives don’t matter.”

That doesn’t mean that the ANC will give up without a fight. Zuma’s antics may be abhorrent to most middle class voters, regardless of race, but he is enormously popular in rural areas. Jansen likens Zuma’s appeal to that of U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump among white American men without college degrees. “To the rural South African, Zuma is one of them. His use of language, his attire, his marital situation, his struggles with the elites—these are things they relate to. He says, ‘I am one of you, I will fight for you, and I will stand up for you.’ That has enormous appeal, and it won’t be easy for Maimane to overcome.”

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The oldest of four children, Maimane grew up during the final days of apartheid, when black on black violence, instigated by the white government in an attempt to derail democracy, turned the streets of Soweto into a blood bath. His parents kept him safe by enrolling him in a private Catholic school, setting him on the upward educational trajectory that separates him from most of his peers. Maimane has a Master’s degree in theology and still preaches on occasion. His stirring oratorical skills and cerebral aloofness have earned him mocking comparisons to U.S. President Barack Obama. From the moment he entered politics, first as the DA’s mayoral candidate for Johannesburg in 2011, then as leader of the parliamentary opposition when he lost, he proved an electrifying speaker. In May 2015 he was elected leader of the DA, with 90 percent of party members’ support. He refuses to cast himself as Mandela’s heir— “too grandiose,” he says— but vows to fight to fulfill Mandela’s vision of a “rainbow nation.” “It’s upon all of us as South Africans to fight for that ideal of non-racialism,” he says.

The problem, says Sisonke Msimang, a columnist and activist who frequently writes about race issues, is that most black South Africans have lost faith in the 1994 social compact that called for blacks to forgive and whites to be repentant. “Twenty-two years on, the language of reconciliation is tired and fails to address the anxieties and inequities across the racial divide,” she says. To her, Maimane’s pursuit of a post-racial South Africa, fails to recognize the very real economic struggles of a generation seeking returns from their parents’ sacrifices. So while Maimane campaigns as a black man, he has failed to convince the majority of the black population that he can solve the systemic inequalities that remain long after reconciliation. “These are the middle class blacks that the DA should be attracting,” says Msimang. “They are fed up with the ANC and hungry for real leadership. But the minute the DA starts talking about race, they realize that the party is trapped in the old ‘rainbow nation’ language that does nothing to dismantle the structural racism that is keeping blacks in poverty.”

Nor has Maimane done enough to address the perception that the DA is still a white party that just happens to have a black leader. While party leaders say that the DA’s membership is majority black, the party as a rule does not release membership figures, or even a breakdown by race. The party is fielding black candidates for most of August’s mayoral races, but only five of the DA’s nine provincial leaders are black, and two of its three deputy chairmen are white.

Though Maimane has promised to change the complexion of the party so that it reflects the diversity of South African society, without resorting to “dehumanizing quotas that reduce human beings to statistics,” he is widely ridiculed for affecting a ‘black’ accent when addressing certain crowds—something Obama is accused of as well. And white DA members themselves are too often caught making racial gaffes, says Msimang. “It’s hard to convince the young, black middle class that he is working on racism when members of his own party are letting him down by making these mistakes.”

DA’s widely touted local governing successes could risk backfiring. The party campaigns on a platform of small but effective government, and regularly cites its record in the Western Cape, where health care, education and social services are better than the national average. But violence in Cape Town’s townships mean the city has the 9th-highest murder rate in the world, and in a city still largely segregated by race and class, much of the black population doesn’t have access to the very things that make Cape Town stand out as a shining example of DA leadership. Maimane admits that he’s not satisfied with where Cape Town is now, but largely blames the national, ANC-led government for failing to provide appropriate financial and policing resources. And he argues that while there are massive backlogs in service delivery for the poorer, and by default blacker, areas of Cape Town, the DA does better than the ANC in areas it controls. “We’ve got to ensure that we govern nationally so we can change some of the regulatory burdens that hinder the fight” to improve all lives, he says.

Maimane has pledged to address the country’s entrenched inequalities through economic growth, but in a country with 40% youth unemployment, many fear that the emphasis on leaner government means an end to the social subsidies that are a lifeline for most families. “Poor black people don’t believe that the DA has their interests in heart, because when they talk about government efficiency, it is seen as code for less benefits, as in ‘get out and go work,’ and people are saying ‘how can we work there are no jobs?’” says Msimang.

Still, she has hopes that Maimane, and the DA, will eventually grow into a national role. The DA is likely do well in August’s municipal elections, gaining control of key metropolitan areas that will set it up for parliamentary gains in the next national elections. Conventional wisdom has it that the DA won’t take the presidency by 2019, but by dint of incremental progress and the ANC’s continued decline, it could win the next round, in 2024. Yet to Maimane, waiting is a gamble of its own. He cites neighbor Zimbabwe—where Robert Mugabe’s ZanuPF party has ruled for 36 years, and which is currently facing economic meltdown—as an example of what happens when one party gets too entrenched. “If you don’t succeed sooner rather than later, later may never come around.” If that’s the case, the question is whether or not Maimane can overcome his, and his party’s, limitations fast enough.

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