The changing role of race

By | News & Politics
Mmusi Maimane (right) meeting Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2014. Credit@GovernmentZA

The Democratic Alliance (DA), South African politics main party of opposition, has elected its first black leader in a move that the party hopes may widen its appeal and representation. Mmusi Maimane, 34, appeared to be the favourite to succeed the previous leader Helen Zille. The DA has found its performance challenged due to the belief in the country that it primarily represented white South Africans, although Mr Maimane’s leadership may change this perception.

South African politics is influenced by the racial background that Apartheid brought to the country with the African National Congress (ANC) being seen as the party of liberation. Amid calls for greater transparency and equality in South African politics, Mr Maimane has promised, if elected, to increase accountability. In the 2014 elections, the ANC won with 66% of the vote whereas the DA managed 22%, its best vote share. Mr Maimane is to challenge the perception that his party represents white citizens which may bring a more unified political environment. The DA faces a challenge to its political left as the Economic Freedom Fights (EFF), led by Julius Malema, campaigns for a more equal spread of the country’s wealth.

Mmusi Maimane appears to be a product of South Africa’s diversity. In a country where eleven languages are regarded as official, of them Mr Maimane speaks six. Born in 1980, to the Soweto township of Johannesburg where Nelson Mandela lived for many years, he went on to study at universities in both South Africa and Wales. Maimane holds master’s degrees in Theology and Psychology and spends weekends preaching at a church in Johannesburg. He met his wife Natalie, a white woman, in church and they have been married for ten years. Mr Maimane joined the DA in 2009 and faced party chairman Wilmot James for the leadership before being elected at a party conference in Port Elizabeth.

The first test for Mr Maimane may be building on the DA’s success at recent elections having taken control of one of South Africa’s nine provincial governments. The first indication of his leadership may come during next year’s municipal elections where the DA aims to keep control of Cape Town, whilst also adding Port Elizabeth, Pretoria and potentially, the more challenging Johannesburg. The strategy appears to be to develop a reputation for effective governance on the provincial and municipal scale which the DA may hope to translate into national success.

South Africa is part of the BRICS group of countries, as well as Brazil, Russia, India and China, to be seen as powerful emerging economies due to its mining industry and abundant mineral resources. According to the US Geological Survey, it has the world’s largest reserves of manganese and amongst the largest reserves of gold, diamonds, chromite ore and vanadium. Although, many in South Africa feel that the wealth generated by these industries might be spread more effectively. Equally, many feel that President Jacob Zuma might raise transparency, especially regarding the assets of government officials, which has led to Mr Maimane promising to increase accountability if he was to be elected.

In a country whose history and culture is, due to the legacy of Apartheid, in some ways defined by differences in race it appears that South African politics is transcending this. The DA’s ability to appeal to voters of different races might go some way in promoting racial unity in South African politics. Furthermore, increasing dialogue about promoting equality and transparency might gain significant support from the electorate and therefore bring productive change to the government. Mr Maimane’s election as party leader might represent the changing role of race in his party or country.

How might the election of Mmusi Maimane improve the role of race in South African politics?

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