Experiment gone wrong Mmusi Maimane Tony Leon
Three years ago this month Maimane called Leon his "friend". Today Leon called Maimane an "experiment gone wrong". Photo: Twitter/ Mmusi Maimane

Former Democratic Alliance (DA) Leader Mmusi Maimane has responded on Twitter to remarks made in a South African newspaper interview by fellow former DA Leader Tony Leon, who led the DA until his retirement in 2007.

In an interview with News24 about his new book Future Tense, Leon reportedly declared that Maimane was “an experiment that went wrong”. The words have upset many South Africans, causing a Twitter storm on Saturday morning.

Maimane himself tweeted: “Hey, ore experiement ke mang? Wa itlhagisa, ebile wa tella. Entlek ungijwayela kabi. I am a human being. Not your science study.”

Maimane, who since leaving the DA in October 2019 has founded One South Africa Movement, said: “I left the DA for a reason. Time is revealing that reason.”

He added :”Anyway for this weekend I am focused on celebrating Easter and spending time with my family. Then back to working on what I know will be a disruptive movement returning power to the people. @OneSA_Movement”

Maimane said: “The sheer audacity to erase my agency, my dignity and my humanity.”

In response to a Twitter user who accused Maimane of running, he said: “I am not your or anyone else’s experiment. Mxm.”

An hour later Maimane again took to Twitter to say: “In life you take risks, you learn and you move forward. Never let anyone try to control your story or your journey.”

The 40-year-old father of two also pasted a screenshot from the News 24 article – in which Leon criticised Maimane for going after voters the DA didn’t yet have, while neglecting those it did have. Leon used the passing of Winne Madikizela Mandela in 2018 as an example, saying he was “stupefied” by Maimane’s “outpouring of praise” for Winnie. He said there should have been an “acknowledgement”, but not the outpouring.

Maimane noted on Twitter: “For context @TonyLeonSA makes these offensive remarks because I wanted the party to celebrate the life of #WinnieMadikizelaMandela when she passed and to expand the party base beyond its traditional voters.

“That was the right thing to do and I stand by those decisions. Imagine being the second largest party and saying nothing when an icon like Winnie Madikizela Mandela passes on.

“That would reflect a lack of ubuntu and a lack of sensitivity to the moment. I was not going to do that. Celebrating her life was the right thing to do.”

When asked if he would wish to return to the DA, Maimane replied: “No. I have moved on and I am very happy where I am in my life. But if they keep my name in their mouths I will not keep silent.”

Tony Leon’s remarks have outraged many South Africans. Abantu Book Festival said: “We may have disagreed with Mmusi Maimane when he was your leader in the DA, and we may have anticipated this treatment of him, but it will never be acceptable for a whole entire white supremacist to call black people an experiment. Not now, not ever.”

The EFF’s Floyd Shivambu said: “Experiment that went wrong? Isn’t thing the slave owner deep levels of racism which refused to recognize black people as human beings? Mmusi was certainly a collaborating puppet, but to called an “experiment”? It’s open unadulterated racism that undermines all black people.”

In a post from 24 April 2018, Maimane had publicly declared Leon his “friend”. This afternoon, EFF Leader Julius Malema wrote under the post: “Wena o mistake, straight. Mxm”.

Maimane has since removed the post which featured a photo of him and Leon together, with the caption: “Just had breakfast with my friend Tony Leon. Spent the morning reflecting on his father (Judge Leon), history & legacy…”

Leon has responded on Twitter to the outrage, saying: “There is something rather magnificent in the faux outrage of Twitter woke brigade about an article most didn’t read and a book clearly not read either.”

He also retweeted a comment from Helen Zille: “Decontextualisation is the bedrock of “cancel culture”. Ask Adam Habib, and many others, including myself.”

UPDATE Saturday Evening:

Simon Grindrod – former National Deputy Leader of the Independent Democrats – has pointed out: “(Current DA Leader) John Steenhuisen has lost more by-elections as Leader & Acting Leader than Mmusi Maimane ever did. I don’t see Tony Leon calling Steenhuisen a failed experiment.

“In the 2004 elections, DA Leader Tony Leon claimed his party would achieve 20% of the vote but only got 12%. Nothing happened. Mmusi got 20.8% in 2019, was investigated by a panel & blamed for a 1% loss. Go figure.”