South Africa’s main opposition party on Sunday elected an interim chief after its first black leader resigned over internal tensions last month.
John Steenhuisen, 43, was appointed the interim leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) until a vote for the party’s next president in 2020.
He was elected to temporarily replace the DA’s former head Mmusi Maimane, who said he suffered “coordinated attacks” during his four-year leadership.
Maimane resigned on October 23, striking the latest in a string of blows to the struggling DA — which has been trying to shed its historic image as a party for middle-class whites.
“The DA is not in a fight over ideology or a fight for power,” Steenhuisen said in a statement.
“Our fight is to push back against the tide of poverty that has engulfed the lives of so many men, women and children in our country.”
Steenhuisen, who is white, said race-based redress policies — introduced to offset inequality created by the apartheid regime — had “made things worse”.
“Those who still suffer the effects of past discrimination need to benefit from redress,” Steenhuisen said.
“But we don’t need to resort to crude race classification to do so,” he added.
Africa’s most industrialised economy is still battling with the legacy of apartheid — a system of racial segregation that favoured South Africa’s minority white population and ended in 1994.
Black people in South Africa continue to earn three times less on average than their white counterparts, according to government statistics released this week.
Maimane stepped down just two days after another high-profile DA figure, Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba, resigned from the party.
He quit over the DA’s approach to inequality, claiming he could not work with people “who believe that race is irrelevant in the discussion of inequality and poverty in South Africa”.
Mashaba said he made the decision after Helen Zille — a white politician who has stoked controversy by arguing there were some positive aspects to colonialism — was elected as the party’s federal council chairperson.
The DA, formed in 2000 as a merger of three “white” parties, has been plagued by internal factions stoked by an electoral slump in national and provincial elections this year.
“If we don’t learn the lessons from the 2019 elections, we are not going to be preferred in the 2021 (municipal) elections,” said Steenhuisen, addressing reporters after his victory.
“We have got to turn the setback of the last election into the biggest comeback in South African politics.”
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