Could Mmusi Maimane become the first black leader of South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance (DA)?

Mmusi Maimane, Leader of the Opposition (Democratic Alliance) in South Africa’s National Assembly

South Africa’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA) party, is expected to elect its first black leader at a congress starting Saturday, May 9th.

The election of a black leader of the DA would be a watershed moment for the predominantly white party.

“This congress is a turning point, not only for the DA but also for South Africa,” Helen Zille, the party’s outgoing leader of eight years, said in her farewell speech.

All eyes are on Mmusi Maimane, 34, the party’s parliamentary leader, who is tipped to succeed Zille in a vote by 1,425 delegates on Sunday.

Mmusi Maimane, raised in the township of Soweto – heartland of the anti-apartheid struggle – joined the DA only in 2009.

In 2014, Maimane was elected as the DA party leader in parliament, with Zille’s backing. Maimane has, on several occasions, locked horns with lawmakers of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), including President Jacob Zuma.

In 2014, Mmusi Maimane unsuccessfully ran for the position of Premier of Gauteng province, South Africa’s economic hub which includes the city of Johannesburg.

The DA Sunday vote is expected to be a duel between Mmusi Maimane and Wilmot James, a 61-year-old mixed-race party veteran who is current the DA’s Chairman.

“The DA new leadership to be elected tomorrow can count on every ounce of my support,” said Zille.

Helen Zille, a charismatic former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, has not endorsed any candidate to succeed her.

“This congress marks a new chapter for South Africa,” Zille said, predicting that the DA would be in government in the foreseeable future.

“As we head towards next year’s local government elections, and then onto 2019, we must remain unified and unwavering … and, if we stick to the plan, the DA will form the backbone of a new national government in the foreseeable future.”

During Zille’s speech, DA supporters held up blue and white posters marked “Thank You Helen Zille”, as images from various stages of her political career were displayed on a big screen behind the stage.

Delegates lauded her for growing the party’s base in the last eight years at the helm.

“Under her leadership, the DA has become the most diverse party in South Africa … the DA is better off than it was before,” said Patricia de Lille, Mayor of Cape Town. The Democratic Alliance is the governing party in Cape Town. The DA has also led the Western Cape, of which Cape Town is the capital city.

Under Zille, the DA made inroads in areas long-dominated by the ANC. The DA is looking to grow its support in the next local government elections in 2016.

The DA boosted its share of the vote from 16.6% in the 2009 elections to 22.2% in 2014. However, the DA still struggles to present itself as a credible alternative to the ANC, which has ruled since the formal end of apartheid in 1994.

“We lived from election to election, pursuing our vision and implementing our strategies. That is how we grew from a party of 338,000 votes in 1994, to over 4 million last year,” Zille stated.

The DA has its roots in the now defunct Progressive Party, co-founded by the late anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman in 1959.

The African National Congress (ANC) remains the majority party in South Africa, with 249 of the 400 National Assembly seats. The ANC controls eight of the country’s nine provinces, with the exception of the Western Cape, where the Democratic Alliance has been in power since 2009 elections.

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