Helen Zille’s departure as head of South Africa’s main opposition party paves the way for the Democratic Alliance to choose its first black leader to draw voters away from the ruling party before next year’s municipal elections.
Zille, 64, told reporters in Johannesburg on Sunday that she won’t make herself available for re-election at the party’s May 9 federal congress. The DA hasn’t disclosed any candidates that will seek the leadership post.
In the eight years at the helm of the party, Zille boosted the DA’s support in elections to 22.2% in last year’s vote from 16.7% in 2009. Still, the party has struggled to gain traction among black voters and is under pressure to choose a black leader. Mmusi Maimane, 34, the DA’s parliamentary head, is among the leading candidates to succeed Zille, according to political analysts, including Daniel Silke, director of Political Futures Consultancy.
“Her departure provides a platform for the party to elect its first black leader and potentially expand its electoral base into new markets which hitherto might’ve been blocked,” Silke said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Maimane is the clear front-runner.”
South Africa will hold municipal elections next year. Other senior black members of the party include its chairman, Wilmot James, deputy chairman, Makashule Gana, and Patricia de Lille, currently mayor of Cape Town.
More than 20 years after the end of white minority rule, voting is still largely done along racial lines. The ruling African National Congress has won every election since 1994 with more than 60 percent of the vote, attracting support mainly from the black majority as it boosted access to housing, education and electricity.
“The DA cannot go into the next election with a white leader,” Piet Croucamp, a lecturer in political science at the University of Johannesburg, said by phone on Sunday. “There will be a bit of a contest, but I will be very surprised if Mmusi Maimane is not elected.”
Maimane declined to say whether he will contest the top leadership post, according to Johannesburg-based news channel ENCA.
“Change is never easy,” he said in an interview with the broadcaster. “The DA has always been proud to create teams, we’ve always had fantastic leadership teams, broad leadership teams.”
The DA was created 14 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.
Maimane holds a Masters degree 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 in 2009. He replaced Lindiwe Mazibuko as the party’s parliamentary leader last year.
Zille will remain premier of Western Cape until 2019, the only province out of nine in South Africa that isn’t controlled by the ruling African National Congress.
“From the start, I resolved that the outer limit of my term as party leader would be 10 years,” Zille said on Sunday. “I believe every political party needs renewal and fresh blood after a decade, no matter how well the incumbent team has performed.”
While Zille was successful in boosting the DA’s support, she had made some missteps. Three months before the May general elections, she announced a plan to make Mamphela Ramphele, head of a rival opposition party, the presidential candidate of the DA. The plan was scrapped one week after it was disclosed.
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