The Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s biggest opposition party, looks set to crown 34-year-old Mmusi Maimane as its first black leader as it seeks to broaden its appeal and challenge the African National Congress’s dominance.
The party will select a successor to Helen Zille, who resigned on April 12, at the DA’s federal congress in the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth starting Saturday. Maimane faces three challengers for the post, the only serious one being Wilmot James, the party’s federal chairman.
“It really is a one-horse race,” Robert Schrire, a politics professor at the University of Cape Town, said by phone on Thursday. “A change in the top leadership is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition to win more black support. It won’t change the interests the party represents or its power structure.”
The DA was founded 14 years ago when the Democratic Party, Federal Alliance and New National Party, an offshoot of the National Party that ruled during apartheid, agreed to merge. While its support grew to 22.2 percent in last year’s national elections from 16.7 percent in 2009, just 15 percent of its backing came from black South Africans, who account for 80 percent of the population. The ANC has won more than 60 percent in every election since the first multi-racial vote in 1994.
The DA’s priorities have included removing obstacles to investment, making it easier for companies to hire workers and to reduce the role the government plays in the economy. The ANC accuses its rival of pandering to big business interests and seeking to entrench racial and income disparities dating back to white minority rule.
Maimane grew up in Soweto, the sprawling township near Johannesburg that was once home to Nelson Mandela, the nation’s first black leader who died in 2013. Prior to entering full-time politics, Maimane obtained a Masters degree in Public Administration from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, lectured at the Gordon Institute for Business Science and managed his own consultancy firm.
He joined the DA in 2009 and rose through its ranks to become leader of its caucus in the Johannesburg city council, candidate for premier in the central Gauteng province in the 2014 elections and parliamentary leader last year. He’s pledged to widen the party’s appeal across racial lines if elected.
“In five years’ time, South Africans must be able to talk about the DA as a non-racial organization,” Maimane said by phone from Johannesburg on April 30. “Race has been the key factor that separates people in this country.”
As party leader in parliament, Maimane led a walk-out of DA lawmakers from the assembly after armed police ejected members of a smaller political party, and he labeled President Jacob Zuma “a broken man” in a speech to the legislature in February.
The other main candidate, 61-year-old James, is a former dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town who joined the DA in 2008 and is mixed race. He says that while Maimane has great charisma, he lacks the requisite experience.
“I believe I can bring strategic coherence to the DA,” James said by phone from Cape Town on April 30. “In my view the party is drifting in that it is inconsistently dealing with the key issues that affect South Africans that principally involve the lack of jobs, crime, poor education and inadequate access to healthcare and shelter.”
While a poll carried out by Maimane’s campaign managers shows he will win 80 percent to 90 percent of the vote, James says he’s still in the running. The vote will take place on Sunday and the results will be announced on the same day.
The DA controls Cape Town, the second-largest city, and the surrounding Western Cape province. The ANC controls the remaining eight regions and the other five of the country’s six biggest metropolitan areas. The new leader’s first real test will come next year, when the party seeks to win control of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth in municipal elections.