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Analysts Follow South Africa's Latest Political Star Mmusi Maimane

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In recent local elections, South Africa's ruling African National Congress was handed its worst defeat since Nelson Mandela swept this liberation-movement-turned-political-party to power. That was 1994. Now the country's ANC president Jacob Zuma is deeply mired in corruption scandals. From the capital, Pretoria, Peter Granitz takes a closer look at a new political player who some say could be South Africa's next president.

PETER GRANITZ, BYLINE: His name is Mmusi Maimane. And last year, he became the first black leader of South Africa's official opposition. His meteoric rise was propelled, in part, by this moment, when he took to the podium in Parliament in 2015 and didn't temper his contempt for President Jacob Zuma.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MMUSI MAIMANE: Please understand, honorable president, when I use the term honorable, I do it out of respect for the traditions and conventions of this august house. But please, don't take it literally. For you, honorable president, are not an honorable man. You're a broken man presiding over a broken society.

GRANITZ: He accused Zuma of using government to enrich himself and of manipulating the law to avoid having to face 783 counts of corruption that date back to the 1990s. All the while, Zuma sat just feet away and laughed.

S'THEMBISO MSOMI: I don't think Zuma has that much respect for Mmusi.

GRANITZ: S'Thembiso Msomi is the author of the new book, "Mmusi Maimane: Prophet Or Puppet?"

MSOMI: Zuma is one of those leaders in the ANC who keep on seeing Mmusi as someone who's just a front, that there are people or forces behind him. He can't possibly be doing this on his own.

GRANITZ: Maimane has led the Democratic Alliance since May 2015. The DA, as it's known, has its history in white, anti-apartheid political parties. As such, Maimane has been dogged by charges that the DA remains the party of whites and he's doing their bidding. It's compounded by his marriage. He's married to a white woman. The race jab is thrown by both Zuma and the president's erstwhile ally-turned-critic Julius Malema, the leader of a leftist political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters.

MAIMANE: They both got hammered. We grew.

GRANITZ: That's Mmusi Maimane talking about the August 3 elections. He's done what no previous DA leader could. The DA wrested control of South Africa's commercial hub, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria, from the ANC. We meet in the back of the crowded city council chamber in Pretoria, where the new Democratic Alliance mayor was being sworn in. Maimane describes the party as center-right. Government should help businesses create jobs not create more government jobs. Before he entered politics in 2011, when he ran to be mayor of Johannesburg and lost, he was a business consultant. Yet he supports South Africa's racial redress programs known as Black Economic Empowerment, something previous iterations of the DA would never do.

MAIMANE: You can't put up this whole suggestion that South Africa will simply self-correct.

GRANITZ: Born in 1980, Maimane was too young to vote for Nelson Mandela in 1994. He grew up in Soweto, the famous township near Johannesburg where blacks were forced to live during apartheid. Soweto saw some of South Africa's worst violence as white minority rule crumbled during Maimane's childhood. Deeply religious, he converted from Catholicism to evangelical Christianity as a teen. Today he's a pastor in Johannesburg.

With help from a religious mission and a scholarship, Maimane attended high school in suburban Johannesburg, living two lives - one in the black township, the other in the white suburbs. University of the Witwatersrand professor Susan Booysen says DA leaders groomed Maimane because he's young, he's black and he's middle class.

SUSAN BOOYSEN: And that is the ideal target group for the DA to convert people away from the ANC.

GRANITZ: National support for the DA only increased 3 percent in the elections. But support for the ANC dropped 8 points, to its lowest level since 1994. Many now wonder if the DA could win the presidency in 2019. Mmusi Maimane says he wants the job.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAIMANE: I do because I think if I could serve the people of South Africa in that way, then I definitely would want to do that. But I don't put the position first.

GRANITZ: If he becomes president, Maimane would be the first leader of democratic South Africa who was not directly involved with the struggle to end apartheid. Peter Granitz, NPR News, Pretoria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.