S.Africa opposition set to elect first black leader
South Africa's white-dominated main opposition party looks set to elect its first ever black leader this weekend, opening a new chapter in its uphill struggle to challenge the ruling African National Congress.
On Sunday, all eyes will be on Mmusi Maimane, 34, the Democratic Alliance (DA) parliamentary leader, as he battles for the control of the predominantly white party following the departure of Helen Zille as leader.
At the heart of the contest is the task of increasing the party's support among the black majority that often regards the DA with suspicion 21 years after the end of apartheid white-minority rule.
For many observers, Maimane, who only joined the party in 2009, is a shoo-in to lead DA.
"It's no doubt that Maimane will win," political analyst Prince Mashele told AFP.
"But people are not just excited about the prospect of a black leader, they want policy change.
"What matters is the actual transformation of the party."
The election is poised to be a two-man race between Maimane and senior DA party leader Wilmot James, 61, when 1,425 delegates cast their votes Sunday at the party's annual conference in the southern city of Port Elizabeth.
The DA boosted its share of the vote from 16.6 percent in 2009 to 22.2 percent in the 2014 elections, but it struggles to present itself as a credible alternative to the ANC, which has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Maimane has long been seen as Zille's protege, and several regional DA bodies and senior figures have endorsed him.
Raised in Soweto, the heartland of anti-apartheid resistance, he broke away from his family's ANC roots to join the Democratic Alliance.
Since then he has been parachuted into high-profile jobs with Zille's backing.
In May 2014, he became the party's leader in parliament after defeating long-serving members.
His year in parliament has seen him widely praised for his effective sparring with President Jacob Zuma and ANC lawmakers.
- ANC under pressure? -
The ANC faces tricky local elections next year, when the DA hopes to benefit from the government's poor economic record and high unemployment.
But the radical leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party is also on the rise, seeking to gather votes from working-class blacks frustrated with a lack of progress in the ANC era.
"Democracy can only succeed when power moves from one party to the next," Maimane said in a televised debate with James this week.
"We can't afford to keep an ANC government which is allowing unemployment to go so high.
"It's going to be critical for us to see a change."
The DA prides itself on liberalism, and equal opportunities for all -- as opposed to affirmative action policies advocated by the ANC to reverse apartheid-era economic imbalances.
But the DA stance has put it at loggerheads with some of its black members, and the party did an infamous about-face in 2013 to support an affirmative action law, the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Bill.
Zille, 64, announced last month that she would be stepping down after eight years at the helm, though the reasons for her departure remain unclear.
The DA has its roots in the Progressive Party, which was co-founded by the iconic anti-apartheid white lawmaker Helen Suzman in 1959.
In recent years, it has successfully formed alliances with smaller parties to win local power, particularly in Cape Town and Western Cape province.
After capturing some black votes in the general election, the DA now hopes Maimane can take it to the next level, Susan Booysen, professor at the Wits School of Governance, wrote in the Sunday Independent.
"Dynamic black African leadership is a prerequisite for a new growth phase for the DA -- and the DA appears ready to insert this at its highest level," she said.
© 2015 AFP