But the departure of DA leader leaves many blacks ambivalent

Every South African should wake up today and say a little thank you to Tony Leon, the Democratic Alliance leader who has just stepped down from leadership of the party.

Every South African should wake up today and say a little thank you to Tony Leon, the Democratic Alliance leader who has just stepped down from leadership of the party.

They should not say thanks because they like him or because he is apparently a nice guy. They should not say thanks because they may have voted for him sometime in the past.

No, they should say a little thank you because over the past 13 years of our democracy he has given us a semblance of what an opposition can do and what it should be in an emerging democracy.

It has not always been easy. And Leon has not always been right. Indeed, there have been many instances when some of us have seen his criticism and interjections as nothing more than a defence of selfish minority interests.

Yet there have been many other times when Leon and his party have held up to us such clear and compelling abuses of power by the ruling ANC, such as flagrant theft and corruption, that none of us could deny what was before us.

For this, for his voice, we owe Leon a debt of gratitude. For this, while so many in this country kept quiet, we owe him thanks.

He was fearless when many were fearful, vocal when many had lost their voices, openly critical when many would only speak in whispers in dark rooms.

At the party level, Leon managed to raise the moribund DA from around 2 percent of the vote in 1994 to 12 percent in the last election.

If you consider that parties such as the Pan Africanist Congress and the Azanian People's Organisation have failed to move upwards and are indeed facing extinction, the man has done a remarkable job.

But his departure leaves many blacks, in particular, a bit ambivalent.

This is because his party has consistently failed to recognise the deep scars of the past and the need to take positive action to deal with them.

The party's consistent criticism of affirmative action, for example, without coming up with real and viable solutions to the problem of corporations which are lily-white, is a huge problem.

Indeed, on Saturday the party continued to speak of affirmative action as a negative instead of a positive.

What is the future, then, for a DA under a new leader? What can the party do to become a central part of the South African political firmament instead of just an irritant to the ruling party?

This is the central question the DA must ask itself as it moves into the future.

The party's main problem in the past has been that it has been obsessed with the idea of opposition.

This may have been correct in the context of a strong ANC that no one seemed able to defeat any time soon.

However, no party can survive on an opposition ticket. Leon, unfortunately, made the same mistake of assuming an opposition stance as he gave his farewell speech on Saturday.

But some of his words may be the beginning of what a real opposition should do today.

A real opposition should aim for power, not for a place on the opposition benches.

A real player in SA politics needs to start fashioning a manifesto for change when it sits in power, not a list of what it is going to oppose.

"Whether by earning a majority of the vote, or by serving as the kingmaker in a new coalition, the DA will one day bring a new government to power.

"I have no doubt that the DA will soon herald the dawn of a new era in South African politics, as the ANC grows more divided and our party increases in new confidence and strength," Leon said.

These words may be the beginning of a new DA. But that will depend on whether his successor drops the strident opposition stance and takes up the stance of a leader ready to win.

After all, the ANC's slogan in the run-up to 1994 (Ready To Govern) was a powerful marker that the party had been waiting to do what was natural to it.

Is national governance natural to the DA? It has not shown much inclination for such responsibilities and has been more comfortable as the dog that barks as the donkey cart moves past.

Power comes with immense responsibilities.

Thabo Mbeki had to move the ANC from a party that spoke about nationalisation of the wealth of the country to one that has virtually sold off everything that the state used to own.

He made the ANC a capitalist party.

The DA may have to do the same. Leon advised his successor that the DA never was and never should be a "Simon-pure, doctrinally-narrow and politically-irrelevant sideshow".

In truth, he means it will have to change radically from his own DA to become a party that people will vote into power.