South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), said it voted Mmusi Maimane as leader on Sunday, making him the first black person to head the traditionally white party.
The party hopes the move will widen its appeal in a country deeply divided along racial lines despite the fall of apartheid more than two decades ago, with most of the black population living in poverty.
Maimane, 34, who begun his victory speech in Xhosa, told delegates his priorities would be fighting for a fairer society with equal opportunities for all.
“We can transcend racial inequality, but this can only happen if every South African acknowledges the injustices of apartheid and if we all recognise that racial inequality of the past still remains with us today,” Maimane, who was born in the black township of Soweto in Johannesburg, said.
The DA’s leader of eight years, Helen Zille, 62, stepped down after leading the party to win 22 percent of the vote in the 2014 national election, its best performance. Ruling party and former liberation movement African National Congress won that poll by more than 60 percent.
Some critics accuse the DA of being “lily white” and not fully committed to addressing inequalities, including not supporting an affirmative action law that requires companies and institutions to increase the number of blacks in their ranks. One in every four South Africans is jobless.
Some analysts said Maimane’s selection would not automatically rope in the young, urban working-class black voters that it has been targeting, unless they see the party addressing their concerns.
“They have chosen him because they think that having a black leader will be more attractive to black voters. That way of thinking is not the most productive,” said Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg.
“If it doesn’t change anything, if it is still saying the same things and taking the same policy positions, then many black people will say, ‘This is a white party led by a black person’.”
DA’s position as the leading opposition party is challenged by hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters that won 6 percent of national elections last year.
Maimane’s rise to prominence began in 2011, when he became the party’s national spokesman. Last year, he lost his bid to lead the provincial government of South Africa’s richest province, Gauteng, but shortly afterwards became his party’s parliamentary leader.
“I simply don’t agree with those that say they don’t see colour, because if you don’t see that I am black, then you don’t see me at all,” Maimane said.