When a fresh-faced political outsider burst into the race for premier of South Africa’s most populous province in late 2013, the comparisons came fast and furious.
Slinging slogans like “Believe” and “We Can Win”, Mmusi Maimane was the “Obama of Soweto,” trumpeted one local paper. The young opposition leader promised a new political era in Gauteng, a region dominated by a single party — the African National Congress — for nearly two decades.
Although Mr. Maimane ultimately lost that race, his energetic candidacy has helped propel him to the precipice of another Obama-esque milestone — becoming the first black leader of South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, after its current head, Helen Zille, steps down next month.
If Maimane, now aged 34 and the leader of the parliamentary opposition, does win that role as expected, it would be a transformative moment in the history of his party. Despite making strong electoral inroads over the last decade, it only captured 6 percent of the black vote in last year's national election, compared to 76 percent of the white vote.
In a country where politics still cleave deeply along race and class lines, appointing a black leader could unsettle the DA's base among South Africa’s “minority” races — whites, coloreds (mixed-race), and Indians — many of whom have long felt overlooked by the ruling ANC. But it would also give the party an opportunity to recast its image and chip away at the ANC's dominant position since the end of apartheid.
“This challenge has rendered the DA a bit schizophrenic — it wants to reach out to black voters and it also still wants to pretend that race doesn’t matter,” says Aubrey Matshiqi, a political commentator and research fellow at the Helen Suzman Foundation, a Johannesburg-based think tank. “But ultimately, I don’t think the party has a choice if it wants to survive. Not electing a black leader is not an option.”
Ms. Zille, a shrewd former investigative journalist and anti-apartheid activist, is perhaps the ruling party’s most visible and relentless critic. And she has leveraged that reputation into massive electoral gains. Over the eight years of her tenure, the DA has jumped from a 12 percent share of the national vote to a 22 percent share, and now governs one of the country’s nine provinces, the Western Cape. (The other eight are all ANC-controlled.)
But if Zille is largely responsible for how far the DA has traveled in the last decade, as a white politician she also embodies its limitations. The leadership of the party, which emerged from a white opposition party during apartheid, has grown more diverse, yet its reputation is that of a stomping ground of liberal white suburbanites.
A party in transition
When Zille announced her retirement on Sunday, ANC spokesperson Zizi Kodwa scoffed that no matter who replaced her, the DA “remained a racist party that desperately needs a black leader to hide its true colors.”
“Helen’s legacy will always be that she took us from being just the opposition party to being a party that is actually in power, actually in government,” says Mbali Ntuli, who represents the DA in the KwaZulu Natal provincial legislature and is the former leader of the DA’s youth wing. “Now we must show that we’re relevant to all South Africans — not just by saying we are, but by really making those inroads on the ground.”
Traditionally a center-right party, the DA has shifted leftward by softening its opposition to the welfare state that many of the poor rely on to get by. But policies only go so far in winning over votes. To expand into the rural, poor and black communities that are the ANC’s bread-and-butter means promoting a black leader, say party officials.
“Not being white gives you access into places you wouldn’t otherwise have as much access into,” says Wilmot James, a DA MP and the party’s federal chairman. “There’s social capital in that, and in speaking local languages. It’s certainly part of a mix of leadership qualities that would give us additional ability to navigate different communities.”
Green and charismatic
But many in and outside the party note that the DA’s rising black leadership is young and largely politically untested. Maimane, for example, has been in politics for less than five years, since making an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Johannesburg in 2011.
A former consultant and business school lecturer, he tells a story of political maturation familiar to many black voters here. Once an ANC supporter, he says he has long respected the party for its role in ending apartheid and bringing social services to South Africa’s disenfranchised black majority.
But he argues that the ANC has since lost its way, becoming entangled in graft and corruption.
“I no longer believe that the ANC deserves my vote," he told a reporter in 2013. "The ANC under [President] Jacob Zuma has let us down."
Despite his greenness, Mainame has been a charismatic and popular parliamentary leader, and observers say he is far and away the front-runner to replace Zille, who is staying on as premier of Western Cape. The party is holding a conference on May 7 to select new leaders.
"Let me put it this way, if their next leader isn’t black they’re really damned,” says Lentswe Mokgatle, a lawyer and former ANC mayor of Mogale City, outside Johannesburg. “But even with black leadership, they still have a lot of history to overcome in this country, and that won’t happen overnight.”