South Africa’s Democratic Alliance (DA) leader Mmusi Maimane resigned as head of the main opposition party on Wednesday after four years at the helm, citing difficulties making the traditionally white liberal party appeal to majority black voters.
The resignation of a second senior black leader in a matter of days plunged the DA into crisis as it struggles to shake off an image as a party of white privilege, while also holding on to its traditional base of supporters.
There are fears the resignation will lead to the exodus of more black DA lawmakers and may seriously hurt the party ahead of 2021 municipal elections.
Maimane’s resignation follows that of Johannesburg Mayor Herman Mashaba, who abruptly quit on Monday following accusations by him that the party espousing liberal values was lurching to the right.
Maimane said he would remain as parliamentary leader until year-end, after which the DA will hold an internal congress to elect his successor.
In 2015, the young and charismatic Maimane was brought in to help broaden the DA’s appeal among the black majority but the journey has not been smooth.
Race and class remain highly divisive issues in South Africa, where the ruling African National Congress has been in power since 1994 and the end of white minority apartheid rule.
“It is no secret that for decades the DA has been seen as a party for minorities only. The majority of South Africans, mainly black South Africans, did not relate to the DA and by extension struggle to trust the DA,” Mmusi Maimane said in his address to the media.
Soweto-born Maimane said during his years as leader he had “relentlessly” sought to grow the party among all South Africans, especially blacks.
But the journey to transform the party was marred by “consistent and coordinated attempt to undermine my leadership and ensure that either this project failed, or I failed,” he said.
“Over the past months, it has become quite clear to me that there exists a grouping within the DA who do not see eye to eye with me, and do not share this vision for the party and the direction it was taking,” he added.
Speculation over Maimane’s future had spiked after he appeared next to Mashaba, holding his hand and praising him, when Mashaba flayed the new Federal Council leadership at his resignation press conference on Monday.
“It is a crisis now. It’s about trying to control the situation and I can imagine senior leaders of the DA calling members they suspect may leave to ask them ‘Please don’t resign’”, said Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst.
DA Federal Chairperson Athol Trollip also resigned from his position and politics alongside Maimane on Wednesday, saying it was time for him to quit politics and that he took full responsibility for the party’s poor showing in the May presidential election won by the ANC.
The DA’s vote share fell to 20.8% in this year’s election, from 22.2% five years earlier as they lost votes to the ultra-left Economic Freedom Fighters and the mainly Afrikaner party, the Freedom Front Plus.
The DA Federal Council was meeting on Wednesday to discuss Mashaba’s resignation as well as an internal report that called for Maimane to step down as leader, after the DA’s failure to make significant gains in the May election.