S. African Opposition Picks Soweto Son for Gauteng Challenge

South Africa’s main opposition party is turning to a 33-year-old former resident of the township of Soweto to help it challenge the ruling African National Congress in the nation’s richest province, Gauteng.

The Democratic Alliance, which traditionally draws its electoral support from whites and other racial minorities, is betting Mmusi Maimane will appeal to fellow young black voters in the province that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, the capital, in general elections on May 7.

The DA is seeking to tap into anger at President Jacob Zuma’s government, signaled by more than 94 protests this year by people demanding electricity, water, houses and jobs in a country with a 24 percent unemployment rate. The ANC’s Gauteng branch was one of three out of nine provinces that didn’t back Zuma for a second term as party leader in 2012.

“Mmusi Maimane brings a new energy to the DA’s campaign in Gauteng,” Aubrey Matshiqi, a political analyst at the Helen Suzman Foundation, a research group, said yesterday by phone from Johannesburg. “Despite his youth he has been prepared to stand toe-to-toe with the ANC and if the election outcome depended on his debating skills then the DA would win Gauteng.”

An opinion poll published by Ipsos on Jan. 15 said the ANC may win 45.5 percent in the province compared with 22.6 percent for the DA. Five years ago, the ANC took 64.8 percent of the votes, compared to the DA’s 21.3 percent. The DA currently governs Western Cape, the only province that the ANC doesn’t control. Almost 8 percent wouldn’t say who they were voting for or hadn’t decided yet.

Coalition Government

“Our main aim is to push the ANC below 50 percent in this year’s elections then possibly form a coalition with one or two other parties to govern the province,” Maimane said in an interview on Feb. 11 as he campaigned in Diepkloof, a township west of Johannesburg.

A former resident of Dobsonville in Soweto, Maimane grew up amid protests against apartheid that gripped South Africa in the 1980s in a staunchly pro-ANC family.

“My childhood memory is one of stay-aways, unrest and living under the threat of violence,” Maimane said in a Feb. 19 speech at the Apartheid Museum south of Johannesburg’s city center. “My first memory of white people was of South African Defence Force soldiers occupying the streets during the state of emergency.”

Married to Natalie, who’s white, Maimane is the father of a three-year-old girl and 18-month-old boy. He holds Masters degrees in Public Administration and Theology from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He lectured at the Gordon Institute for Business Science and managed his own consultancy firm before joining the DA five years ago.

Failed Merger

The DA has struggled to gain traction among black voters since its birth 13 years ago from a merger of the Democratic Party, the Federal Alliance and the New National Party, an offshoot of the National Party that governed during white minority rule. The NNP’s leaders later joined the ANC.

In a bid to win confidence from blacks, DA leader Helen Zille announced former Gold Fields Ltd. Chairwoman and anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele as the party’s presidential candidate and sealed the merger with a kiss on national television on Jan 29. The partnership broke down within a week.

ANC Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe dubbed the coalition a “rent a black, rent a leader” strategy, alluding to the DA’s effort to increase its voter support among the black majority.

Black Leader

Having a black leader doesn’t always translate into more black votes, according to Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst at the Johannesburg-based Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.

“If this was the case then other black parties would have grown their support in previous elections,” Fakir said in a telephone interview.

The ANC’s Gauteng branch seeks to win 70 percent of votes cast for provincial governance at this year’s poll, confident that its black economic empowerment policies are enough to keep the growing black middle class, the DA’s targeted voters in the province, tightly in its grasp.

The DA is finding some support among voters such as Marcia Khumalo, 32, a chicken vendor who was unemployed for six years, who says she’s losing patience with the ANC.

Party Corruption

“We’ve been voting for the ANC in past elections but have no jobs, instead they send us from pillar to post without anything concrete because of corruption in the party,” Khumalo said at one of Maimane’s campaign stops. “It’s time for change. The DA has shown us that it is transparent and people get jobs according to their ability and that’s fair.”

Twenty years since the ANC won South Africa’s first democratic poll in 1994, income disparities rank among the widest in the world. As many as 10 million people lack formal housing and 2.3 million households don’t have proper toilets.

Maimane said he decided to stop supporting the ANC in 2009 when Zuma became president, just weeks after prosecutors dropped charges against him for allegedly taking bribes from arms dealers.

Zuma’s reputation has been sullied further by revelations that the state spent more than 200 million rand ($18 million) upgrading his private rural home, a renovation the government says was a necessary security upgrade. He was jeered by crowds in front of more than 90 world leaders at a globally televised memorial event for Nelson Mandela, the nation’s first black president who died on Dec. 5.

Zuma’s Leadership

“I did not and still don’t believe President Zuma could lead this country effectively,” Maimane said.

The DA, which will release its election manifesto on Feb. 23, is promising to stimulate growth in South Africa’s economy to as much as 8 percent a year, from about 2 percent, to help create 6 millions jobs in a decade.

The ANC has pledged to create the same number of “work opportunities” in five years.

Maimane’s biggest threat to the ANC’s grip on Gauteng may lie in the future, Matshiqi said.

“The ANC seems to be worried about losing Gauteng to the DA at some point so having Maimane as the DA’s candidate can only benefit them because he is young and energetic and effectively the future,” he said. “He is not only a candidate for 2014 but also of the future.”

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