Arts and Culture 2007-2015


HALF ART: Maimane and Marx

First appeared
Friday, 10 July 2015


Mmusi Maimane is a good-looking guy. The camera, as they say, loves him. You get the feeling that, if he hadn’t gone into politics, he could have been an actor, a model ... or at the very least a Top Billing presenter, if he wasn’t quite so earnest (Top Billing doesn’t do earnest). He’s a charismatic public speaker. He’s a snappy dresser. All in all, he offers a combination of appealing features that is rare – if not unprecedented – in South African politicians.

His detractors have, however, criticised this glossy packaging. Writing for BDlive, for example, Gareth van Onselen repeatedly complained during Maimane’s rise through the ranks of the Democratic Alliance that the man is all style and no substance, all Hollywood and no policy. I take the view that politics is, sadly, primarily about style: it’s how you come across to audiences at a rally or on TV, it’s how you are perceived by members of your own party, it’s the brand you offer to potential voters. 

Given this state of affairs – and given how low the bar has been set by our elected leaders, who have become brazen in their disdain for the people of South Africa – saying the right thing effectively amounts to doing the right thing. Ideology, goodwill and diligence count for very little unless you can sell yourself. Of course, it helps to be handsome, tall and slim.

But there is a downside, or at least a risk attached, to being loved by the camera: you start to love the camera in return. No doubt Maimane has a sizeable ego, is ambitious, wants to be both powerful and popular; these are not in themselves necessarily negative characteristics (indeed, they are arguably prerequisites in his line of work). The question is whether he can keep them in check as the DA grows its support base and, assuming he enjoys some longevity as its leader, he becomes more and more influential in South African public life.

In Mmusi Maimane, an exhibition of portraits by photographer Jurgen Marx at David Krut Bookstore in Parkwood, we get a glimpse of Maimane the working politician – meeting and greeting and marching on the campaign trail, getting a streetside haircut to show that he’s a man of the people, making trouble in Nkandla or addressing journalists outside the Gauteng High Court. These reportage photos cast Maimane in a compelling light.

The ‘posed’ photos are less convincing. Staring up at an installation of nooses hanging from the Old Fort on Constitution Hill, or gazing half-pensively, half-smugly at the camera from inside a former cell, or eating a paper-bag lunch on a flight of steps, Maimane comes across as slightly too self-assured, like a marginally less cocky George Clooney in his humanitarian guise.

I like Mmusi Maimane, really I do. I’d be delighted if he became our president one day, although this doesn’t seem likely; it will probably take at least another two or three election cycles for the ANC to lose its dominance, and who knows what could have happened in opposition politics by then? Still, I wish him well, for his own sake and for the sake of South Africa. But that means I am going to join the ranks of those having a go at him every time he slips up.

We owe it to ourselves to keep Maimane honest, and the best way of doing that is to keep him humble. Twitter had great fun with #AskMmusi – that kind of tongue-in-cheek subversion should be applied more seriously to keep the DA leader on his toes. He should be held to account regarding his personal convictions. It’s not good enough to equivocate, for instance, in saying “I support the rights of gay people as espoused in the constitution” when he maintains connections to a church that avows homophobic doctrines (even if his constitutional subscription is a more progressive position than that adopted by millions of bigoted South Africans).

He should also be made to feel constantly insecure about his party’s history, its recourse to shaky moral high ground and its record in provincial governance. Such soul-searching may just help Mmusi Maimane and the DA to win over a majority of South Africans.



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