South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), has elected its first black leader. Mmusi Maimane takes over from Helen Zille, who has been at the helm of the party for eight years.
At 34 years of age, the charismatic politician known for his sharp oratory skills and slick campaigns is often dubbed the “Obama of Soweto."
Mmusi Maimane pushes away such comparisons, but observers say his appointment as the new leader DA party could help shift a political landscape that currently tilts heavily in favor of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party.
The eldest of four siblings, Maimane was born in Krugersdorp and brought up in Soweto - a township on the edges of Johannesburg that became the political epicenter of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Maimane joined the DA in 2010. He quickly rose through the ranks to become the party’s national spokesman in 2011. Last year, he lost his bid to lead the provincial government of South Africa's wealthiest province, Gauteng.
As the party's parliamentary leader, he accused President Jacob Zuma of being a “thief” during a heated parliamentary debate in March. His colleagues say he has a good sense of humor but is an “absolute perfectionist."
On May 10, Maimane became the DA’s first black party leader during a party conference with 88.9 percent of the vote.
Despite the DA’s growth in the last few elections – 12.4 percent of the vote in 2004, 16.7 percent in 2009 and 22.2 percent in 2014 – the party is still considered “too white” to threaten the supremacy of the ruling ANC, says political analyst Nic Borain.
Electing Maimane as party leader is one of several steps the DA is taking to enable it to dig into the ANC’s core constituency, Borain says.
“Mmusi is very specifically tailored. He was chosen and his rise was so quick because he fits exactly the profile the DA wants. His appointment is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the DA to break out of its racial confines. Mmusi is the transitional object,” says Borain.
Maimane has a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Africa and a master’s degree in theology from Bangor University in the United Kingdom.
Before getting into politics, the gangly, eloquent leader - included in GQ magazine's 2014 list of best-dressed men - lectured at a business school in Johannesburg. A devout Christian, he is a preacher at the charismatic Discovery Church in Randburg.
Borain says it’s Maimane’s “popular appeal” the DA is hoping to capitalize on.
“Electing a leader who is a preacher in charismatic churches is a particular kind of appeal which the DA historically shied away from – a popular appeal. I think it is part of the compromises the DA is prepared to make with its principled ideology historically to reach new voters, new young black voters,” says Borain.
The ANC has said that he is too young and that his rapid elevation is a symptom of racial tokenism – a label flatly rejected by Maimane’s colleague and shadow minister for public enterprises, Natasha Michaels.
“Calling Mmusi a token black is an absolute insult. I think the fact that he received the overwhelming landslide victory that he did proves that black, white, colored, Indian, Asian – we all agreed that he was the man for the job and he was the man to take us forward,” said Michaels. “The energy of his age is going to be a huge advantage. He brings a certain dynamic to parliament that is desperately needed because we are a very young country," added Michaels.