JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Young, charismatic and pro-business, South Africa’s first black opposition leader, Mmusi Maimane, could be the poster boy for the racially inclusive, socially equal “Rainbow Nation” envisioned by the late Nelson Mandela.
Unfortunately for Maimane, two decades after the end of apartheid, South Africa is still racially divided, starkly unequal and his party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), is struggling to shake off its image as a white, elitist movement.
Maimane, who won a DA leadership race last month, believes he can overturn deep-rooted perceptions about his party and end the dominance of the African National Congress (ANC).
“It’s important for symbolism to have a black leader,” Maimane, who is married to a white South African, told Reuters.
“It shows people we are a party for everyone, black or white, Indian or colored,” said the muscular Maimane, 35, dressed in a DA polo shirt, tailored trousers and suede shoes.
Maimane is expected to broaden the appeal of the DA, which won 22 percent of the national vote in last year’s general election under the leadership of his white predecessor Helen Zille, against 62 percent for the ANC.
But the party still has a powerful white second-tier leadership and the ANC has branded Maimane as the black face of a white party. ANC lawmaker Lindiwe Sisulu once described the former preacher from the Soweto township as a “hired native”.
“This is just a propaganda tactic of the ANC because it’s all they’ve got,” Maimane told Reuters from a rundown part of Johannesburg where he was launching his first policy campaign.
“You can’t win elections forever by just using racially emotive language. Voters see through this crap.”
A Christian who developed his rousing speaking style in the pulpit, Maimane says he wants to strip back government, improve public services, boost economic growth and end the corruption that has tarnished President Jacob Zuma’s administration.
Zuma, a 73-year old polygamist popular with many poor black voters, has come under fire over a $23 million state-funded security upgrade to his home in Nkandla, which included an amphitheatre, cattle enclosure and swimming pool.
The ANC was further embarrassed this month by accusations South African officials paid a $10 million bribe to football governing body FIFA to win its bid to host the 2010 World Cup.
South African officials deny any wrongdoing.
“The ANC is unstable and corrupt. They can no longer sustain the lie that things are working,” Maimane says.
Zuma’s relationship with the West was strained this week during an African Union summit in Johannesburg where South Africa refused to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court.
In sharp contrast to the increasingly anti-Western stance of the ANC, Maimane spoke of his admiration for the economic policies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama.
He said if the DA were in power he would only have 15 cabinet ministers, compared with nearly 40 now, and would fully privatize fixed line operator Telkom and the power grid. Chronic electricity shortages are the biggest challenge facing Africa’s most developed economy.
The ANC is hampered from privatization and promoting the private sector because it rules in a tripartite alliance that includes the communist party and unions.
“I‘m not fundamentally capitalist or socialist. If you held a gun to my head, I would say I believe in a declining state and increasing private sector,” Maimane said.
“I would work closely with unions but we’re not compromised by being in an unhealthy alliance with them.”
The DA has slowly chipped away at the predominance of the ANC since the ruling party swept to power under Mandela at the end of white minority rule in 1994.
Few believe it can overtake the ANC at the next nationwide ballot in 2019, but there is a chance the opposition might win in Gauteng in next year’s local elections -- an area that includes Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic hub.
The DA already controls Cape Town, where it has increased its share of the vote.
“If we win Gauteng it will be a massive. It will open up a totally new gateway to show voters what we can do for them,” says Maimane, noting that Gauteng is home to 40 percent of the economy and gives local government big spending power.
“South Africa is poised for change.”
Editing by Crispian Balmer