Mmusi Maimane has been sporting a wide grin sitting on the bench of the Leader of the Opposition listening to the debate on the State of the Nation Address this week. He's sat upright taking notes, chatting to the whippery behind him and congratulating his party's speakers in the debate as they leave the podium.
Across the floor from him in the National Assembly, President Jacob Zuma has sat grimly, making sparse notes and seemingly unengaged with events in the House. At the start of proceedings he greets Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, before some MPs briefly come and pay their respects. He is whisked out quickly in breaks, retiring to the presidential suite just off the chamber.
Either he is too embarrassed (to engage) because the actions of his government are deeply embarrassing, or he is profoundly evil, and his laugh and actions are consistent with what he inherently believes.
— Mmusi Maimane on Jacob Zuma
The leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) hasn't had much contact with Zuma since he delivered the State of the Nation Address last week, and certainly not after Maimane called his government "murderous".
"I haven't caught his eye and he hasn't caught mine, no. There are two readings of his reaction to events: either he is too embarrassed (to engage) because the actions of his government are deeply embarrassing, or he is profoundly evil, and his laugh and actions are consistent with what he inherently believes. It think there's truth in both, and illustrates why we believe this government is an enemy of the people," Maimane says in his office in the Marks Building, which houses opposition MPs within the parliamentary precinct.
There has been a marked contrast between the opposition benches — largely the DA — and the government benches this week. The debate on Zuma's address has generally been poor, with very few actual policy debates and a lot of heckling.
We used to make policies in a vacuum, but now we are actually governing in metros and in a province and we can test policies to see what works and what doesn't.
For Maimane, it however perfectly illustrates the gulf between the DA and the African National Congress (ANC): one party energised by future opportunities, the other in terminal decline, weighed down by the past. "To talk about what we can do tomorrow is much more energising than to talk about the past because you can still craft the future. We must acknowledge what happened, yes, but we can't do much about it."
Maimane's DA is in uncharted territory. The party is leading coalition governments in the metropolitan councils of Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth), Tshwane (Pretoria) and Johannesburg, while it has tightened its grip on Cape Town, in a province it already governs (Western Cape).
"We are focusing on 2019 (the year in which the next general election will be held), we need to be ready to govern," says Maimane, explaining the arithmetic attached to the consequences of the ANC electoral decline. "We are serious about ensuring that we provide an alternative to people and that we have set up the ability to govern."
The party's policy documents have in the past not been as comprehensive as government's policy positions, because they have never been threatened to be implemented. Now these policies need to be fleshed out, they need to be costed and they need to be good to go — if the time comes.
We used to make policies in a vacuum, but now we are actually governing in metro's and in a province and we can test policies to see what works and what doesn't. We have to be serious and there needs to be an urgency in providing an alternative for all South Africans.
Old policies are being reworked and recalibrated, others are being completely overhauled and augmented. The DA, according to MP's and staff, are preparing a government in waiting.
"We used to make policies in a vacuum, but now we are actually governing in metro's and in a province and we can test policies to see what works and what doesn't. We have to be serious and there needs to be an urgency in providing an alternative for all South Africans.
"We are starting to think about this country's recovery plan: what do we want to achieve in our first 100 days in office in national government? And South Africans are asking us good questions, which we must answer: 'What are you going to do about jobs, education?'" Maimane says.
The DA will be piloting many of their policy proposals, which it believes can work nationally, on municipal and provincial level.
Redress is necessary, we must not shy away from that because we're the effects of our history are still firmly with us. But it must be truly broad-based.— Maimane
"We must partly privatise state owned-enterprises and give access to shares to those that are excluded from capital. This will enable them to take part in the economy. We must ensure the creation of a jobs and justice fund, which can provide capital to help small businesses.
"On education: government spends R1 500 per month on a child's education. Why not give parents a voucher for that amount and encourage business to match that so that parents can send their children to better schools? They can then get black economic empowerment (BEE) points for that."
BEE laws and regulations should also be reviewed, he says, because it's taken "a noble cause" and turned into a patronage network. "Redress is necessary, we must not shy away from that because we're the effects of our history are still firmly with us. But it must be truly broad-based."
Last week's events — with the visible militarisation of parliament – made Maimane worry. "Nobody wakes up in a dictatorship. It's gradual actions and events that lead a country down that path... a slippery slide from democracy. I believe we are on the slide from constitutionalism to race based populism. And it won't deliver what South Africans need."Suggest a correction