Eric Naki

Eric Naki

DA national chairman Joe Seremane this week announced his candidacy for the party's leadership, clearing the field for a three-pronged race for the official opposition party's hot seat, to be vacated by Tony Leon in a few months' time.

Seremane joins Athol Trollip, the party's Eastern Cape leader, who publicly declared his availability for the position recently.

Helen Zille is the third - but undeclared - candidate. It is a not a question of whether she will stand but of when she will announce her candidacy.

There is no doubt that the mayor of Cape Town will join the race.

Zille will contest the leadership partly because of pressure from white party members hellbent on keeping the status quo and partly so that she will be able to be the power broker in a male-dominated leadership race.

The three contenders have one thing common: they represent what the DA could choose to be. It can remain a white party, move immediately to being a black-led party or it can choose to have a transition period during which a black person will be groomed for the leadership.

If the party is to remain white, Zille would be the best candidate. She has been associated with white interests, both as mayor of Cape Town and in her former position as the party's national spokesman.

Her public spats with the ANC over race-related issues in the Western Cape place her in a better position as the next leader of a white-dominated DA.

Her charisma and political strength in the face of adversity, and her conservative stance on the issues are likely to lead to her ascending to power in the DA.

But a crucial question with no straight-forward answer is: Is the DA ready for a woman leader?

Some within the DA would say she has the right colour, but the wrong gender.

If the DA appoints a black leader, Seremane is undoubtedly the only suitable candidate.

As national chairman of the party he is the most senior black person in the party. Some regard him as Leon's deputy. All things considered, he seems to be the sole black heir.

An equally important question in the leadership race is: Is the DA ready for a black leader?

With hindsight, the answer is an emphatic No!

Seremane elected to replace Leon - a giant leap by the party but unlikely, given the DA's history as the party for white people and white capitalists.

The DA is unlikely to risk losing its conservative followers, the pillar of its strength, by appointing Seremane.

And Seremane lacks the charisma of a leader. His speeches in parliament carry less poison than Leon's, who has stood up to challenge President Thabo Mbeki on many issues.

For the DA to find a smooth transition from a white leader to a black leader it needs someone with connections to both races.

That someone is Trollip. He has a track record of being able to straddle the racial divide.

He is the only DA leader to have worked very closely with black people throughout his political and social life.

A farmer from the Bedford area of the Eastern Cape, his fluency in isiXhosa has endeared him to many blacks throughout the province.

He has led the DA's national township campaigns to attract voters to the party.

There is no doubt that Trollip would fit in well as a transitional leader, preparing the party for eventual black leadership.

The DA membership has a difficult and unenviable choice to make come May.