Newly elected Democratic Alliance (DA) party leader Mmusi Maimane, delivers his victory speech after being elected leader, May 10, 2015 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Newly elected Democratic Alliance (DA) party leader Mmusi Maimane, delivers his victory speech after being elected leader, May 10, 2015 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

Independent South African political analyst Harald Pakerndorf said he hopes Mmusi Maimane, the first black leader of South Africa’s mostly-white main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) party, was selected for his leadership qualities, not skin color. 

Delegates attending the DA’s convention in Port Elizabeth Sunday chose Maimane to replace Helen Zille, who stepped down last month.  

Maimane reportedly told party members that “freedom means nothing without opportunities,” as South Africans struggle with poverty, high unemployment and economic inequality.  

Pakerndorf said the election of Maimane is significant, particularly at a time when support for the ruling African National Congress has been declining, even among black voters.

“It’s an important step for the Democratic Alliance which actually started in 1958 with about just over one percent of voter support and at the last election got almost 23 percent. But, its leaders were mostly white and then they started changing four, five years ago and now we have a black, a young charismatic leader. He’s only 35 years old, Mmusi Maimane,” he said.

Pakerndorf said Maimane’s election comes at a very good time for the Democratic Alliance party.

“The cry of the ruling (ANC) party that liberated South Africa from apartheid is gradually no longer enough to sell.  So, it’s an important step, but I myself hope that Mr. Maimane was elected because of his leadership qualities and not because he’s black.  It’s an advantage that he’s black, but I hope that’s not the only reason,” Pakerndorf said.

He said 2016 promises to be an important year in South African politics because the Democratic Alliance plans to make gains in key cities such as Pretoria, and Johannesburg during local elections.

“The important point to note about these local elections and their possible significance is that the ANC doesn’t control Cape Town anymore and it will be close in three other major cities. So, the next year will be very important for what happens in South Africa,” Pakerndorf said.

Pakerndorf noted that while the Democratic Alliance is expected to make gains in the 2016 local elections, it remains to be seen whether it can be a serious presidential contender in the 2019 national election.

“Politics is a funny thing.  Once a party begins to slide then the fall comes fairly quickly and, as I said, the ANC has been sliding in the last 11 years. They’re still at 62 percent nationally, but the local government elections at about 50 percent in Johannesburg, the capital Pretoria and in the eastern industrial area and they will certainly lose Port Elizabeth and Nelson Mandela Bay, which will be very significant,” Pakerndorf said.

Pakerndorf said Maimane can use the DA’s successes in cities under its control to reassure South Africans that it can deliver economically.

“I think what he can do is he can say, ‘Look, what we’ve done in the city of Cape Town,’ which is a well-run city with no corruption, he can say, ‘Look what we’ve done in the province of the Western Cape, which is the best administered province in South Africa,’” Pakerndorf said.