Seramane has the guts to stand up to the ANC

Ido Lekota

Ido Lekota

When he announced his availability to succeed Tony Leon as the new DA leader, Eastern Cape farmer Athol Trollip was described as "white outside but black inside".

Last week Joe Seremane, the DA's national chairman, also announced he was available to take up the top job, saying the party was ready to be led by a black man.

"This is a new day, a new dawn," said Seremane.

This is clearly an admission that, if the DA is to enhance its position as a strong opposition party, it must woo more blacks.

The irony of the saga is that when he joined the Democratic Party, a precursor of the DA, in 1994, Seremane projected himself as someone who had transcended the politics of race.

He refused to debate whether the DA was doing enough to attract credible blacks.

Seremane said the irrelevance of race confronted him while he was jailed on Robben Island for being a PAC activist. It was there that he received the news that his sister was to marry a white man, a Dutchman.

"I reflected on my own rhetoric and said: 'Joe, you want to cut the neck of every white person and your sister is going to have coloured children.'

"I started thinking that the struggle should be about power and not race."

Seremane spent five years on Robben Island. When he was released, in 1969, he was banished to Mafikeng in the Bophuthatswana homeland because he is a Motswana.

He was detained without trial from 1976 to 1978, and several times from 1982 to 1984. He served civic organisations in advocacy, mediation and conflict resolution. He was the director of justice and reconciliation department of the South African Council of Churches, and chief land claims commissioner.

In 1994 Seremane joined the Democratic Party and became an MP in 1998. In March 2000, he was elected federal chairman of the DP and became the founding chairman of the DA.

The reality is that the DA does need a "black Messiah" to woo more black votes. The question is whether Seremane will be able to deliver them if he succeeds Leon.

There are a few things that count against him. When Seremane ditched the radical Pan Africanist organisation he drew some wrath - especially from mainly black parties.

Some of his harshest critics were in the ANC. In parliament he was subjected to humiliating taunts from the ANC benches. ANC MPs called him an Uncle Tom who pandered to the whims of white liberals who, they said, were unhappy about a black government.

Criticism has also come from blacks who have ditched the DA. They have accused him of being Leon's lame duck deputy who is constantly overruled by white juniors.

Such labels stick and create perceptions. Given South Africa's race-tainted history and politics, there are black people who perceive Seremane as a sell-out.

These perceptions could be further fuelled by some of the strategies that the DA under Leon adopted during the elections. These include his "fight back" and gatvol campaigns, which appealed mostly to white voters.

Blacks have interpreted these tactics as campaigns against a black-majority government.

But Seremane can also be seen as one of the few blacks bold enough to stand up to the ANC.

In 1997 he testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about the killing of his younger brother, Timothy, in the ANC's Quatro camps. Timothy was an MK cadre who was accused of being an apartheid spy.

In his testimony, Seremane said: "There is one thing that is messing up our country: the lack of sincerity. It is the lack of recognising other people's contribution if they don't belong to your camp, if they don't belong to your tribe, if they don't belong to your race.

"We are still victims of fragmentation; we will achieve very little until we change."

His testimony is a serious indictment of the ANC. The party cannot deny the abuses it perpetrated against its members at Quatro in Angola.

The accusations against Seremane can also be dismissed as an example of political immaturity. In a democracy, everyone has the right to chose a party.

There could be some black people who see Seremane as a true democrat who has exercised his rights and contributed to building up a strong opposition movement, something that even President Thabo Mbeki has recently acknowledged as an important requirement for democracy.

But there are two major challenges Seremane faces as Leon's possible successor.

Firstly, he could become a victim of "the Obama syndrome" - black people might feel that, though he is black, he is not one of them.

They could argue that Seremane wants to be the first black DA leader not for them, but for himself.

Secondly, he has very big shoes to fill. Leon was a charismatic leader and Seremane, frankly, lacks charisma.