A short while ago I watched a brief interview of a well presented, well-spoken individual who, for a moment, helped me to glimpse a future South Africa of which I would really like to be part. He painted a vivid and compelling picture that lifted my vision, but also seemed and felt within reach and attainable
Immediately after watching the video clip I determined to meet this future leader and, in behalf of all of us, find out what leadership potential he does in fact have, if any. This article reflects some of what I was able to discover about Mmusi Maimane during our hour and a half of hard questions and debate.
While certainly in political terms the current National Spokesperson for the Democratic Alliance is young, he is also well educated, has an interesting list of solid and impressive experiences to draw from, and seems to represent the type of leader the rising generation may be able to connect with and look up to.
Maimane grew up in the Soweto township just west of Johannesburg. In no way is he able to describe his circumstances as privileged or different from any other young man growing up in that area during the 80s and 90s. He had to “share a textbook” in the different classes he attended while in public school, his school uniform was borrowed or a hand me down, and his mode of transport were his feet. He was a bright eyed young man that played football with the rest of the boys on his street, and that slowly but surely began to display signs that his parents had named him well, Mmusi meaning “leader” in Setswana.
As we consider the historical context other prominent DA leaders have brought with them, this certainly places him in a good position to connect in a very real and powerful way with those still enduring such circumstances, whatever race they may be.
Does Maimane bemoan his history? Not at all, he insists. In fact he feels that “that there is something beautiful about working hard for something”, that there is beauty in difficult experiences and it is this he wishes he could help his children understand without having them struggle. “These experiences help to shape resilience and dedication,” he adds knowingly.
So he is able to (but will he?) connect and empathise with this community, but what about groups beyond the borders of the townships who grew up differently?
Maimane is not pushing the message that he is some victimised and marginalised sufferer of an Apartheid upbringing. The very impressive thing about him is that his experiences during this period have in fact contributed to his rise out of that victim mentality so many struggle with, and that he seems to have leveraged the lessons found therein in his favour.
Maimane worked very hard to beat the odds and graduate with a Bachelors Degree in Community Psychology, then going on to gain two Masters Degrees – one in Theology and the other in Public and Development Management from Wits University.
Before entering into the world of politics he lectured at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He has also worked as a consultant for a number of large South African corporations, where he assisted them with change and diversity management as well as how to manage generational differences. And it is during this time that he experienced a change in his thinking:
“Upon my entry into politics I really didn’t have the appetite for it, because I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning with the burning desire to go into a world that is fairly manipulated and can be manipulative, but I did have a vision of impacting society…and one day, as I was consulting for this large organisation I thought to myself that if I can assist this organisation to produce more, then why can’t I assist government to provide more for our people…”
But please don’t think that his movement into politics was based on a whim or single thought. Maimane shared with me many influences, feelings and thoughts that have guided him through life and all of them are centered on the desire to uplift. While he has a personal goal and ambition to “make history”, he firmly believes that the only way to really do this is to serve humanity.
He also believes that all people have an equal and valuable contribution to make: “Whether we are sitting together in a shack or a mansion, everyone’s value remains the same and what they share must be heard and appreciated.”
In spite of his advanced education and private sector success, what I so appreciate about Maimane is his understanding that he is not the epicentre or harbinger of all knowledge and information. A great strength that he displays is that he surrounds himself with specialists in various fields. He says it this way: “I think to make the statement that experience can be found in one person is misleading; I think that experience is collective, it comes from a team.”
When all is said and done though, Maimane is still a political figure in a very complex political environment where much is being said, while seemingly little is being done.
When I challenged him on this, he responded this way: “My daughter is two and a half; we have a school down the road from our house that I always drive past; it’s a public school and I want my children to have a public education – but I feel like that right is slowly diminishing. If this continues, I will be forced to put them into private schools, just like I have been forced to use private security, because I can’t rely on the police for my safety. This has been the same for private healthcare, because I can’t take my wife to have that same child at a public hospital because of the well known issues faced there.” For him this is not an idea, it is real and in his face every day. He went onto share that he has a vision and goal of righting this.
This is what truly convinces me of his potential though: Unlike many career politicians that fill offices in our current government, who seem to be bound to making sure that they remain in power because their livelihoods depend entirely upon doing so – whether as a direct result of their office or the more sinister insinuation of the influence their office affords them – Maimane has chosen to be there.
His qualifications and background make him a sought after commodity in the private sector where he would certainly make a lot more money and his offices would be a whole lot more plush and inviting. Yet, his choice is to enter the South African political fray and assist with changing the status quo.
This thought, alone and independent of everything I now know about him, makes me incline towards using my constitutional right and power to put him into an office and position where he has the opportunity to deliver real value. This is one half of the great test. And the other is to do so in a manner that is in line with all the implied values a leader in that position, making those decisions, must posses.
Will I? Won’t I? There is a lot more to examine before making my mark on any ballot. I do however believe that you and I have an opportunity in him that I will summarise with this well known and immortal aphorism:
“If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got.”
Perhaps it is time to change what we’re doing?
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