What Maimane’s win means for SA

Lesotho Times - - Leader - An­drew Harding

IT is a mile­stone of sorts. For the first time in its demo­cratic his­tory South Africa has an of­fi­cial op­po­si­tion led by a black per­son.

In that con­text, it is hard not to see the Demo­cratic Al­liance’s (DA) elec­tion of Mmusi Maimane as its new leader as a sig­nif­i­cant step in the coun­try’s jour­ney to­wards po­lit­i­cal ma­tu­rity.

The DA has been grow­ing steadily in suc­ces­sive elec­tions, al­ready tak­ing con­trol of one of South Africa’s nine pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments.

But Mr Maimane’s pre­de­ces­sor, He­len Zille, made no se­cret of her be­lief that the party would never threaten the ANC’S en­dur­ing grip on power if it could not fi­nally shake off the ac­cu­sa­tion that it is a “white” party, rep­re­sent­ing the in­ter­ests of those who ben­e­fited from decades of apartheid.

To that end, Ms Zille tried to parachute in a prom­i­nent fig­ure from the coun­try’s lib­er­a­tion strug­gle, Mam­phela Ram­phele, as the party’s new leader be­fore the last elec­tion.

But that plan col­lapsed in ac­ri­mony al­most im­me­di­ately.

Crit­ics, not least in the ANC, will now say that Mr Maimane’s speedy as­cent to the top post is an­other “parachute job” — that the 34-year-old is too young and in­ex­pe­ri­enced to de­serve the po­si­tion, and that his swift el­e­va­tion smacks of racial to­kenism.

Emo­tional ties And yet, any­one watch­ing the crowds at the DA’S congress in Port El­iz­a­beth or fol­low­ing the party’s grass­roots work in lo­cal coun­cils across the coun­try, will know that the claim that it re­mains a “white” party is in­creas­ingly at odds with the facts.

In per­son Mr Maimane comes across as earnest, elo­quent, charis­matic, and tough enough to brush off the many jibes thrown his way in South Africa’s abra­sive po­lit­i­cal arena.

He clearly lacks ex­pe­ri­ence and freely ac­knowl­edges that he is less of a “de­tails” politi­cian than some of his col­leagues, but he will pre­sum­ably be helped by the DA’S ef­fec­tive, and well- dis­ci­plined po­lit­i­cal ma­chin­ery.

Still, he and the DA have a moun­tain to climb if they are to put a more se­ri­ous dent in the ANC’S ma­jor­ity and seize power for the DA, as Mr Maimane promised to do in his ac­cep­tance speech on Sun­day.

“No party has a di­vine right to rule this coun­try,” he said.

But mil­lions of South African vot­ers re­tain near un­break­able emo­tional ties to the ANC — the party of lib­er­a­tion.

De­spite grow­ing popular frus­tra­tion with cor­rup­tion and en­dur­ing in­equal­ity, the party still won over 62 per­cent of the vote in 2014.

Grow­ing chal­lenge Many peo­ple talk about want­ing to re­form the ANC, rather than vot­ing it out of power.

The DA is also fac­ing a grow­ing chal­lenge on the left, from the Eco­nomic Free­dom Fighters (EFF) party of Julius Malema.

The party has suc­cess­fully tapped into the anger felt by many South Africans who be­lieve that the na­tion’s wealth has not been spread fairly enough since the end of apartheid.

The EFF has re-en­er­gised the de­bate in par­lia­ment, of­ten eclips­ing the DA, and of­fer­ing a more en­tic­ing choice to peo­ple look­ing for a “protest vote” against the ANC.

Which leads on to the DA’S other main chal­lenge — the sense that, while it may no longer be a “white” party, it re­mains com­mit­ted to the or­tho­dox­ies of global cap­i­tal­ism and the im­per­a­tives of eco­nomic growth, rather than the more trans­for­ma­tional poli­cies that many South Africans ap­pear to favour.

The DA de­nies this, stress­ing that it sup­ports the ANC’S own Na­tional Devel­op­ment Plan — and would sim­ply do a far bet­ter job of im­ple­ment­ing it than the cur­rent gov­ern­ment, with its deep in­ter­nal di­vi­sions.

The first test for Mr Maimane and his party will come at next year’s mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions.

New op­por­tu­nity The DA has its sights not only on re­tain­ing con­trol of Cape Town, but of adding Pre­to­ria, Port El­iz­a­beth, and per­haps even Jo­han­nes­burg.

That is not the same as win­ning power na­tion­ally — some­thing that may well be years away.

But we could see the be­gin­nings of coali­tion rule tak­ing shape in many parts of South Africa, as the ANC starts to see its ma­jor­ity chal­lenged at the lo­cal level.

And that, per­haps, of­fers the DA its big­gest vote-win­ning op­por­tu­nity: to present it­self not as the voice of protest — the EFF has that role sewn up for now — but of com­pe­tence.

Harding is the BBC’S Africa cor­re­spon­dent.

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