South Africa: What does Maimane's win mean for the DA?

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Mmusi Maimane, the newly elected leader of South Africa's main opposition party, gestures as he gives his maiden speech following his election in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, on 10 May 2015.Image source, AFP/Getty
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Mmusi Maimane is the first black leader of the Democratic Alliance

It is a milestone of sorts. For the first time in its democratic history South Africa has an official opposition led by a black person.

In that context, it is hard not to see the Democratic Alliance's (DA) election of Mmusi Maimane as its new leader as a significant step in the country's journey towards political maturity.

The DA has been growing steadily in successive elections, already taking control of one of South Africa's nine provincial governments.

But Mr Maimane's predecessor, Helen Zille, made no secret of her belief that the party would never threaten the ANC's enduring grip on power if it could not finally shake off the accusation that it is a "white" party, representing the interests of those who benefited from decades of apartheid.

Image source, AFP/Getty
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Helen Zille had led the party since 2007 but stepped down in April

To that end, Ms Zille tried to parachute in a prominent figure from the country's liberation struggle, Mamphela Ramphele, as the party's new leader before the last election.

But that plan collapsed in acrimony almost immediately.

Critics, not least in the ANC, will now say that Mr Maimane's speedy ascent to the top post is another "parachute job" - that the 34-year-old is too young and inexperienced to deserve the position, and that his swift elevation smacks of racial tokenism.

Emotional ties

And yet, anyone watching the crowds at the DA's congress in Port Elizabeth or following the party's grassroots work in local councils across the country, will know that the claim that it remains a "white" party is increasingly at odds with the facts.

In person Mr Maimane comes across as earnest, eloquent, charismatic, and tough enough to brush off the many jibes thrown his way in South Africa's abrasive political arena.

He clearly lacks experience and freely acknowledges that he is less of a "details" politician than some of his colleagues, but he will presumably be helped by the DA's effective, and well-disciplined political machinery.

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Mr Maimane's supporters celebrated his election in Port Elizabeth on Sunday

Still, he and the DA have a mountain to climb if they are to put a more serious dent in the ANC's majority and seize power for the DA, as Mr Maimane promised to do in his acceptance speech on Sunday.

"No party has a divine right to rule this country," he said.

But millions of South African voters retain near unbreakable emotional ties to the ANC - the party of liberation.

Despite growing popular frustration with corruption and enduring inequality, the party still won over 62% of the vote in 2014.

Growing challenge

Many people talk about wanting to reform the ANC, rather than voting it out of power.

The DA is also facing a growing challenge on the left, from the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party of Julius Malema.

The party has successfully tapped into the anger felt by many South Africans who believe that the nation's wealth has not been spread fairly enough since the end of apartheid.

The EFF has re-energised the debate in parliament, often eclipsing the DA, and offering a more enticing choice to people looking for a "protest vote" against the ANC.

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Julius Malema's EFF party are a growing challenge to the DA

Which leads on to the DA's other main challenge - the sense that, while it may no longer be a "white" party, it remains committed to the orthodoxies of global capitalism and the imperatives of economic growth, rather than the more transformational policies that many South Africans appear to favour.

The DA denies this, stressing that it supports the ANC's own National Development Plan - and would simply do a far better job of implementing it than the current government, with its deep internal divisions.

The first test for Mr Maimane and his party will come at next year's municipal elections.

New opportunity

The DA has its sights not only on retaining control of Cape Town, but of adding Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, and perhaps even Johannesburg.

That is not the same as winning power nationally - something that may well be years away. But we could see the beginnings of coalition rule taking shape in many parts of South Africa, as the ANC starts to see its majority challenged at the local level.

And that, perhaps, offers the DA its biggest vote-winning opportunity: to present itself not as the voice of protest - the EFF has that role sewn up for now - but of competence.