Voters have always valued courage.

From Margaret Thatcher to Bernie Sanders, it is impossible to think that political and electoral greatness and relevance can be achieved without courage. And not just the courage to plunge into the brutal world of politics and elections, but the courage to nail your colours to the mast, to stand for something, come hell or high water.

With the October municipal elections on the horizon, now might be an appropriate time to weigh and measure the political insights we’ve gained since that fateful August in 2016 when Jacob Zuma was president, when Mmusi Maimane was leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), and when Herman Mashaba seemed to be the embodiment of political courage.

Whether our cynical era will acknowledge it or not, it takes guts to stand for election to public office. It takes guts to give to thousands, or millions, of people free rein to weigh and measure you.

In leaving a life that I can only assume was one of comfort and satisfaction in the wealth created by his own endeavours, I think it took courage for Herman Mashaba to enter the political fray. The DA had no realistic hopes of claiming the Johannesburg mayoralty and it’s to Mashaba’s credit that he was willing to join a fight where the odds were not in his favour. He was an outsider candidate undertaking the task of being the local standard-bearer for a political party with an outside chance of victory.

In 2016, I found so much to admire in Mashaba. He was the capitalist crusader, the decrier of race-based policies, the voice proclaiming without apology that free markets were the real and foundational hope for countless others desperate to escape the crippling poverty created by the National Party and entrenched by the ANC.

And then came the victory. Against odds and expectations.

Above all, courage

Having never lived in Johannesburg, I didn’t cast a vote that contributed to Herman Mashaba’s becoming Johannesburg mayor, but in 2016, I wished that I had. In Mashaba I saw so much of what I believe could turn the tide for South Africa: optimism, confidence, liberty-minded and non-racial policy, and, above all, courage.

If a week is a long time in politics, years are an eternity.

In October 2019, with the DA’s brand and confidence – and Mmusi Maimane’s leadership of it – weakened by the disappointment of the general election, I penned an opinion piece calling for new leadership of the party. Where in 2016 I was only an avid observer of electoral politics, in 2019 I had gained a droplet of political experience in working for the DA’s election campaign in the Western Cape.

From my position in the campaign machinery, I saw with compounding despair how the party’s policy unit lost a formidable leader, how wayward MPs engaged in petty, unbecoming spats, and how young lions of the party latched onto racial identity politics in Schweizer Reneke at the behest of senior party figures. I saw how the polls seemed to echo my political deflation at the state of the DA. I resigned from my minor role in the DA’s campaign machinery a few weeks out from the election – I’d had enough of working for a party with a tepid vision and a shallow commitment to freedom, including real economic freedom.

Gone was the sense of Mashaba’s courage that was so potent in the DA of August 2016.

Looking back on the 2019 brouhaha triggered by the opinion piece in which I’d recommended that Maimane be replaced by Alan Winde as DA leader, I can’t help but chuckle about my fifteen minutes of fame. I recall days of eleven or so media interviews. I recall debates with senior DA leaders. I recall with some affection a few Twitter spats with DA MPs. But what I remember most clearly is the moment Herman Mashaba’s veneer of political courage went.

My status as the news media’s DA flavour of the month had me do quite a number of media appearances – one of these being a TV discussion alongside Prince Mashele on eNCA.

Parallel worth drawing

In touching on the absurdity of race-based policy and race as a proxy for disadvantage, I drew a parallel between Cyril Ramaphosa, the billionaire McPresident, and John Steenhuisen, the guy who couldn’t finish university because of money problems. I didn’t think it a terribly contentious point, nor perhaps a brilliant vehicle for my argument that being black doesn’t mean being disadvantaged and that being white doesn’t mean being well off, but I thought it a parallel worth drawing. (For the record, I stand by every word.)

By the time of my eNCA appearance alongside Prince Mashele, I’d been called a racist on every platform conceivable. I was a racist for wanting Maimane to resign. I was a racist for wanting the DA to elect a leader on competence rather than race. I was a racist for thinking Alan Winde competent. I was a racist for saying BEE was more Blatant Elite Enrichment than Black Economic Empowerment. You get the picture.

Then Herman Mashaba joined in and taught me a valuable lesson about political courage.

For echoing and supporting a view on race-based policies and BEE held by Mashaba himself when he was still the capitalist crusader rather than the EFF’s socialist stooge, the former mayor of Johannesburg took to Twitter to call me a racist raised by people who believe blacks are inferior to whites. My quoting the great Thomas Sowell at him in reply only had him double down. It was a surreal moment that taught me all I needed to know about political courage and about Herman Mashaba.

It takes courage to succeed in business when a racist state is oppressing you. Mashaba did this.

It takes courage to join the political fray when the odds are against you. Mashaba did this too.

But it also takes courage to remain true to liberty-minded, non-racial convictions when political expediency in office tempts you to abandon these. Mashaba’s courage failed him when the EFF came a-race-baiting.

It takes courage to show up and vote when your party is electing new leadership and you are publicly critical of one of the candidates. Mashaba’s courage failed him when Helen Zille stood as a candidate for Chair of the DA’s Federal Council.

Petty game

It takes courage to not play the petty game of easy, cynical, toxic race politics when someone who once saw in you the future of the country expresses views you yourself had held mere years previously. In this too, Mashaba’s courage failed him.

Interestingly enough, Mashaba’s tweets attacking me and describing those who raised me as racists were deleted last year – around the time he launched his political party. Perhaps he was advised that racism wouldn’t play well with the middle-class voters he wanted to court. Perhaps he genuinely felt ashamed of his race-baiting pettiness. I can’t say. But the saved screenshots on my phone will always serve as a personal reminder that politics is a complex business, that personality politics always end in tears, and that Herman Mashaba once seemed so tantalizingly close to having what is desperately needed in our politics today: optimism, confidence, liberty-minded and non-racial policy, and, above all, courage.

 [Image: moritz320 from Pixabay]

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Hermann Pretorius studied law and opera before entering politics and, latterly, joining the IRR as an analyst. He is presently the IRR’s Head of Strategic Communication. He describes himself as a Protestant, landless, Anglophilic, Afrikaans classical liberal.