In November, Tony Leon, a political veteran and leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), the largest South African party after the ruling African National Congress (ANC), announced he was stepping down. Mr Leon said that after 13 years at the helm, he would not seek re-election at the DA's congress next year. The ANC will also seek a new leader in 2007, ahead of the 2009 presidential election, when Thabo Mbeki, the president, is constitutionally required to step down.
Under Mr Leon the DA has transformed from a liberal party favoured by English-speaking whites that scored less than 2% of the vote in the first post-apartheid election in 1994 into the party of choice for most white and “Coloured” (mixed-race) South Africans—it got 16% of votes in the local elections earlier this year. Yet it has failed to attract blacks (80% of South Africans), giving it no real hope of defeating the ANC at the national level in the foreseeable future. Whoever succeeds Mr Leon faces a two-pronged challenge: to retain the DA's disparate base while expanding its appeal to blacks. Such tasks are made enormous by the fact that South African politics are still largely defined by identity rather than policies.
As the Democratic Alliance, it has spread from its white, liberal, mainly English-speaking anti-apartheid roots to embrace white Afrikaners (those of mainly Dutch origin) and Coloureds, as mixed-race South Africans are known. This expansion was partly due to a controversial alliance in the late 1990s with the New National Party, a modernised version of the old apartheid-era ruling party. The marriage was brief: after a few years the New Nationalists decided, in a supremely ironic twist, to join their old ANC foe, which happily gobbled them up. Mr Leon's lot then kept a fair chunk of the old apartheid party's white and Coloured vote.
Besides becoming the biggest opposition party, with a shoal of minnows splashing far behind, Mr Leon argues that the DA's main achievement has been to entrench the idea of opposition in South Africa's political landscape. As in most countries where former liberation movements dominate politics, the idea of legitimate opposition in South Africa is awkward. The country's peaceful transition began, after the first post-apartheid general election of 1994, under a government of national unity. Support for the ANC grew from 63% in that first election to 70% a decade later. Mr Leon remembers how, in 1996, Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first post-apartheid leader, suggested that Mr Leon, “the man who gives me all the trouble”, should join his ANC-led government.
However, the DA's biggest failure has been its inability to get many black South Africans to vote for it. Though blacks make up 80% of the country's 48m-odd people, only a tenth of DA voters are black. Unless the party can attract more of them, it will remain little more than a watchdog—albeit, so far, a fairly effective one.
Source: The Economist