Is Maimane A Leader To Be Reckoned With?

Following on from my previous article (read here) in which I concluded that “supporting the ANC – as opposed to the DA or EFF – is probably the shortest route to a more successful South Africa, but it is also the quickest and shortest route to a dismal failure”, it is only fair to also explore whether Mmusi Maimane is in fact a political leader to be reckoned with. Would the DA, under his leadership prove me wrong?

I interviewed Maimane on my weekly Cliffcentral Leadership Master Class (listen here and here) to understand him more. He is charismatic; likable; possesses a sufficient dose of humility and eloquent vocabulary; is educated, black (it matters in SA), has high emotional intelligence, is fairly young with time on his side, and is a happy family man. With all this and more, is Maimane a leader that will or can change the face of South African politics? On face value one can’t imagine that he wouldn’t. If only politics everywhere, but more particularly in South Africa was that simple and uncomplicated.

As most of us know, he was raised in Soweto in an ordinary working class family, three siblings living in a typical four roomed house – not the poorest in their street, but by no means financially endowed. He has good memories of growing up in that diverse, vibrant environment.

He believes the greatest “luxury” his parents gave him “was access to people, so that when you speak to human beings you connect with them – where they are at, what they feel”. Maimane correctly believes in leadership you lead people, not things. What his parents actually gave him was an exceptionally prized tool in his toolbox to lead people – an environment in which he developed high Emotional Intelligence, which is an invaluable commodity and key differentiator between mediocre and great leaders. His parents also brought them up with a strong belief that non-racism had to be at the forefront of their thinking.

It seems politics found him; he did not find politics and says: “I don’t even enjoy politics”. As a young boy he lived close to a hostel where excessive violence occurred, with regular marches. “You may not have been interested in politics, but it was interested in you”, explains Maimane. What also sparked politics for him was “the idea of justice and injustice” often taught by a Catholic Nun that was a teacher and Principal at his Catholic school. He does not get overly excited about being referred to as a politician and prefers being known as an ‘activist for justice’.

But is all this and more enough? Being relatively young, where did he cut his leadership teeth, and is it sufficient for the audacious task at hand? His spiritual upbringing offers a dimension of leadership because the pressures leaders operate under these days require Spiritual Quotient (SQ) – clarity of ones values, a sense of right and wrong, a purpose and an aptitude for the big picture. He led a few NGO’s that sought to bring about change. Of course his exposure in the DA, including leading the party in parliament fast tracked him and no doubt sharpened his leadership saw. Also worth mentioning is the steep learning curve he is currently on as the top leader where the buck actually stops.

For Maimane great leaders work on creating “a world that does not exist – it’s the Mandela model of seeing a free South Africa from a jail cell”. He also believes

“the greatest leaders are the ones that have an ability to get two or three other people who are around them to really succeed”.

It is about getting a team to succeed by helping and serving them, so that the project “is sustainable and not self-aggrandising”, explains Maimane.

Back to the big question: Does he have the obvious preparatory credentials or experience to match expectations of millions of South Africans – to take the DA to the next level of being a much stronger opposition party on the brink of leading not only provinces but the country; ultimately becoming the ruling party? The short answer is, in isolation, no. Frankly, no one is experienced and prepared enough for what it takes to lead a complex country like South Africa in 2016.

In Maimane’s case one can’t help but think and feel that possessing all of the above, including being a great orator will not be sufficient to impact a nation’s course and history. Successful politicians require a certain kind of savvy, credibility, intelligence, streetwise experience and even oodles of luck. Does Maimane have enough of this?

Most importantly top leaders need to be absolutely authentic these days, because they operate inside a world where they are more visible and exposed than ever before in history. Yet strangely adequate authenticity remains far too scarce an attribute in top political leaders. This is why so many are being caught wanting. Does Maimane possess exceptional depth of authenticity?

As politics is not that clear cut, so also is leadership not that clear cut – it is very contextual. Every leader possesses a ratio of learned leadership behaviour on the one hand and born instincts on the other – so leaders are born and made. Depending on the given situation that is thrust upon the leader he/she draws on one component more than the other, at different times on the journey.

Maimane has strong natural leadership instincts that he would have to fall back on frequently if he was to bring about significant change. He and those around him will therefore have to realise that he may often need to follow his ‘instincts (gut)’ and confidently yet in faith allow him to do so, accepting, humbly admitting and where necessary defending his perceived and actual mistakes. But this will only happen if they and he believe the given situation requires a man of destiny and that he is that man – cometh the time, cometh the leader.

The team around him will have to support him unconditionally, with their full hearts and minds, for the good of the party and bigger picture, setting aside the usual selfish, egotistical ambitions that far too frequently dominate the characters of political leaders. Simply said, they will have to look out for him. If this does not happen, no amount of instinctive and natural ability will survive the complex political game of today.

Not only will Maimane have to feel possessed of destiny, but also be staunchly married to his dream of what a better South Africa looks like, at the risk of never leading an ordinary life of simple friendships, privacy, everyday luxuries, being liked and even normal family living.

In his own words, about whether he will change the face of politics: “I certainly hope so. But I’ll certainly work my life towards achieving that, which is a long term project we are engaged in. For me it doesn’t matter who ends up as President one day. What matters is that we can see a change in South Africa, because ultimately that will be good for all of us”.

This article appeared in the

Rand Daily Mail -logo

on 28 January 2016

Adriaan Groenewald is a leadership expert and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP or @LeadershipPform. Furthermore you can contact him on email:




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

Call: +27 (0)12 653 3022

Follow Us

Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


By subscribing you will be updated with the latest insights and news from us. We never spam.