This weekend, South Africa’s biggest opposition party, Democratic Alliance (DA) will elect a new leader. Anti-apartheid activist Helen Zille has chosen not to run again, which opens the way for a new batch of leaders.
"Very often people have asked me: 'How long will you stay as leader of the Democratic Alliance?' and I've always answered, 'I will know when the time is right'", Helen Zille said on April 12. In the same breath she announced that she would not run for the top post for inner-party elections on May 9, 2015.
64-year-old Zille, a former anti-apartheid activist and ex-mayor of Cape Town, has led the DA since 2007. At the time, the DA was often referred to as the ‘two percent party', as that was the weight it had amongst South Africa's electorate. It became an official opposition party in 1999, but has its origins in the 1960s when it was led by prominent white anti-apartheid activists.
In 2007, most DA voters were still white South Africans. But the party has grown significantly despite the overwhelming pull of South Africa's biggest party, the African National Congress (ANC) which, as South Africa's first freely elected party, always had a strong support base. Under Zille's leadership, the DA attracted more than 23 percent of the votes from both blacks and whites in the last general elections in 2014. It now also controls the Western Cape as the only province not governed by the ANC.
The rise of a younger generation?
One of the two main contestants for Zille's post is 35-year-old Mmusi Maimane. He officially announced his nomination for party leadership im mid-April and has laid out his vision for the DA. "It's important that we have a vision that includes all South Africans. The greatest challenge is that we have many political parties who are fighting for a better yesterday," Maimane told DW. He talks of creating a more inclusive economy and an education system that would help South Africans to overcome the persisting racial tension, which has once again made headlines around the world.
While still very young, Maimane has rapidly climbed the political ladder. In June 2014, the psychology and public administration major became the DA parliamentary leader. He was the party's national spokesperson. At the age of 31, he ran as the DA's mayoral candidate for Johannesburg and in 2014 he ran for the seat of premier of Gauteng Province, which includes both the capital Pretoria and the business capital Johannesburg.
Maimane has made his mark by speaking out against corruption and is tipped by many analysts to win the party leadership. He has received the backing of a number of top leaders, including the mayor of Cape Town, Patricia De Lille, a former struggle activist.
What the DA needs, according to South African political analyst Eusebius McKaizer, is a black leader, with a sense of history and the ability to push for change in some of the DA's policies. "You have got make sure that you will be able to wrestle with the ANC's liberation narrative that it thinks it has a monopoly over. And being black is not enough but it is certainly necessary," McKaizer argued.
The anti-apartheid veteran
Skin color should not matter, argue the supporters of the DA's other top contender Wilmot James. James, who belongs to the South African mixed-race group, the so-called ‘coloreds', is the country's current Shadow Minister of Health. Like Zille, he is a former anti-apartheid activist and says he wants to lead the DA to stop the decline, that he says South Africa is currently going through.
“I have an understanding of the indignity of apartheid, I was part of the struggle against apartheid. I was part of the processes that built the new constitution” he told DW. The DA, he said, needs to focus on unemployment, inequality, the high levels of crime and the poor health service. The 62-year-old professor of sociology, is an MP for the province of Western Cape and has made a name for himself not only in politics, but has also headed and sat on the board of various academic institutions like the Africa Genome Education Institute and the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra.
A match for the ANC?
What both Maimane and James, however, want is to build up the party in the hope of one day winning national elections. “Democracy has faulted and failed South Africans,” James said, adding that it is the role of the DA to make sure that corruption and decline are stopped.
Maimane sees the recent xenophobic attacks on migrants as a sign that something needs to change on the country's political scene. "When a society becomes unstable, change is accelerated … whether in 2019 or 2024 we will see a political re-alignment in South Africa. For certainly the model we have at the moment is not sustainable."
Indeed, South Africa's political scene is changing. The DA holds almost a quarter of the seats in parliament. The third biggest opposition party, Julius Malema's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), only hold 6.35 percent of seats – but then the party was only formed in 2013 by former ANC Youth League members. Political analysts say that whoever takes over from Zille will not be able to do the job alone and will need quite some backing if the DA hopes to overtake the ANC in the next 10 years.