S.Africa opposition elects first black leader
South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, on Sunday elected its first black leader, a major step in its bid to present itself as an alternative to the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
The DA, which has been widely seen as a party of middle-class whites, took 22 percent of the ballot in last year’s election and is looking to broaden its appeal among black voters, 21 years after the formal end of apartheid.
Mmusi Maimane, aged just 34, joined the DA in 2009 and was fast-tracked through the ranks by Helen Zille, who stood down as party leader after eight years in office.
Zille did not publicly endorse Maimane, but he was the clear favourite to win the secret ballot.
“I don’t agree with those who say that they don’t see colour — because if you don’t see that I am black then you don’t see me at all,” Maimane told cheering delegates in his victory speech.
“Many young black South Africans continue to be denied access to opportunities, just as their parents were during apartheid — this is what we must change if we are going to succeed as a nation.”
At the end of his speech he paid tribute to his white wife Natalie, who joined him on stage as he received a standing ovation.
Sunday’s vote marked “a milestone for the DA and South African politics”, according to an editorial in the Sunday Times.
“For much of the past two decades, our political contest has been a black-versus- white affair, with the ANC seen as the party of the previously oppressed and the DA as a party of white interests.”
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Raised in Soweto, the heartland of anti-apartheid resistance, Maimane broke away from his family’s ANC roots to join the Democratic Alliance.
In 2014, he was elected the party’s leader in parliament, where he has often locked horns with ANC lawmakers and President Jacob Zuma.
The DA has been pushing for legal action against Zuma over corruption allegations, and Maimane vowed to succeed.
“Make no mistake Mr President, you will have your day in court,” he told the racially mixed audience.
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 under the ANC.
Zille, 64, announced last month that she would be stepping down.
“Her resolute commitment to diversify the party’s leadership, membership and support base was one of the reasons we were able to double our votes in her eight years as leader,” Maimane said.
The DA prides itself on liberalism and equal opportunity — as opposed to the affirmative action policies advocated by the ANC to overcome the legacy of the racist apartheid era.
The party has its roots in the now defunct Progressive Party, co-founded by the late anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman in 1959.