JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The leader of South Africa's main opposition party said on Sunday she was standing down, possibly opening the way for a black candidate to broaden the Democratic Alliance's electoral appeal.
Helen Zille, 62, the daughter of German immigrants, has spent the last eight years heading the liberal democratic DA which won over 22 percent of the vote in elections last May, its best ever result, as the ruling African National Congress's (ANC) share slipped to 62 percent from over 65 percent.
"These kinds of decisions are a long time coming but in the end they are made suddenly. The time is right," said Zille, a former mayor of Cape Town and current premier of Western Cape province.
Some critics have accused the DA of being "lily white" and not fully committed to transforming South Africa's racial inequalities. That image was emphasized when it failed to persuade prominent black activist Mamphela Ramphele to lead its election campaign as party president.
The DA chooses new leaders at an electoral conference on May 9, and Zille went to great lengths to say the timing of her announcement was not a "cynical plot" to parachute the DA's parliamentary leader, Mmusi Maimane, a 34-year-old black man, into the top job.
"My mistakes have been when I have been involved in succession races," Zille said. "I will not be involved at all."
Maimane, speaking on television following the news conference, declined to confirm he would run for the post.
Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, said it would be wrong to assume Zille's departure was just about getting a black leader in place.
"If she was going to go, this is the time to go," he said, adding that a black party leader would not necessarily guarantee the party a greater share of the black vote.
"If you have a black leader come along who is insensitive to the needs of the majority then it obviously won't work. The new leader will not only be tested on where that person comes from but on whether they can find a way of reaching out to black people without alienating their white supporters."
South Africa holds what are expected to be tightly contested local government elections in 2016, with the ANC already under pressure after its share of the vote in the Johannesburg province, Gauteng, slipped by almost 10 percentage points to 53 percent at last year's national election.
The DA's position as the most prominent opposition party has recently been challenged by the hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters.
Although a new player in South African politics, winning only 6 percent of the vote in its first electoral campaign, the EFF has generated huge media coverage through actions including heckling the president's state of the nation address, causing its members to be thrown out of the parliamentary session.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy