Being white is no election 'handicap' says S.African opposition leader

South Africa John Steenhuisen said his colour was not a 'handicap'.  By RODGER BOSCH AFPFile
FEB 6, 2024 LISTEN
John Steenhuisen said his colour was not a 'handicap'. By RODGER BOSCH (AFP/File)

South Africa's opposition leader on Tuesday said his being white was not a "handicap" in key elections this year, 30 years after the demise of apartheid.

John Steenhuisen, 47, the head of the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) said South Africans were tired of racial profiling and needed a party that would create jobs and turn around the flagging economy.

"People will look at the DA and see a party that is serious, that is uplifting them from poverty, creating jobs and building a better future for their families".

"We are not envoys of our race, we are judged on our contribution," he told AFP on the sidelines of the press conference in Johannesburg.

"No, I don't see it as a handicap at all," he said when asked if his race was an impediment.

Formed in 2000 as a merger of three mostly white parties, the DA has struggled to stave off its white, middle-class identity and win over black voters.

At the last elections in 2019, when it was led by a black man, it won about 20 percent of the vote.

The African National Congress (ANC) has held power since the end of white minority rule in 1994 but its support is crumbing amid accusations of sweeping corruption, mismanagement and nepotism.

The latest polls show it could win between 19 percent and 31 percent of votes in elections this year.

However a survey in October showed Steenhuisen scored poorly among black voters, with only eight percent approving him.

"We believe in non-racialism," Steenhuisen said on Monday.

"I would shudder to think what would have happened if Barack Obama had been told you can't run to be the president of the United States of America because you come from a minority group."

The DA, which governs Cape Town, has formed a coalition with several other groups in the hope of unseating the ANC.

In recent years the DA has lost several prominent black leaders including its former head, Mmusi Maimane, and the former mayor of Johannesburg, Herman Mashaba, who left saying he could not remain in a party that saw race as "irrelevant" when discussing poverty and inequality.

South Africa is the world's most unequal country according to the World Bank and poverty mostly affects black South Africans, who make up an overwhelming majority of the population.

Last week Steenhuisen caused a stir on X, formerly known as Twitter, when the party's account quoted him as saying that authorities had appointed new crime wardens by pulling "a drunkard out of a shebeen (local tavern)" and giving "him a uniform and a weapon".

Some denounced the comments as "classist" and "racist", something the party leader fiercely denies.

Crime wardens are mostly black unemployed youth from poor townships trained to assist policemen in a country battered with high unemployment and violent crime.

Steenhuisen said the DA was "the most diverse political party in the country", while competitors were virtually "monochromatic".