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South African opposition vows to tackle racism within its ranks

20 January 2016, 11:57

Johannesburg - The first black leader of South Africa's main opposition party vowed Tuesday to root out racist members, saying the country was "being torn apart" by renewed racial tension 22 years after apartheid.

Mmusi Maimane last year took over leadership of the Democratic Alliance (DA), which has long been seen as a "white" party, and will face his first major test at municipal elections due between May and August.

A series of bitter race rows have erupted in South Africa in recent weeks, exposing deep divisions between blacks and whites.

One Facebook posting by DA member Penny Sparrow sparked nationwide fury after she compared black beachgoers to monkeys.

"I know that the vast majority of white people don't think like Penny Sparrow does," Maimane said.

"But I also know that, for every racist incident that makes the front pages and trends on Twitter, there are hundreds that don't.

"I know that there are people who talk to each other... as if they were still living in the 1970s."

The Democratic Alliance won 22 percent of votes in the 2014 general election, and hopes to make further gains against the all-powerful African National Congress (ANC) in this year's local elections.

But DA efforts to broaden its appeal among black voters have been bruised by social media scandals, including a member of parliament who last year shared a Facebook comment that praised apartheid president P.W. Botha.

During a speech at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, Maimane announced that party members would have to sign a pledge vowing to fight racism.

"The DA is not perfect," he said. "There is no place in the DA for people who believe that the colour of their skin renders them superior to others.

"If you're a racist and you are thinking of voting for the DA, please don't. We are not the party for you.

"I will not tolerate racism in the party I lead."

The party's new pledge requires members to acknowledge that apartheid was "evil" and that its legacy continues in South Africa's harshly unequal society.

"Members found to be in clear violation of this oath will have their party membership immediately revoked, no questions asked," he said.

Maimane, 35, who grew up in the township of Soweto, joined the DA in 2009 and was fast-tracked through the party by his predecessor as leader Helen Zille.

"We -- as black South Africans -- are still made to feel inferior because of the colour of our skin," he said in one of his most personal speeches to date.

"I cannot tell you how many times I am told by black South Africans that I have 'done well' because I happen to be married to a white woman.

"Apartheid was so dehumanising that, too often, even today, white people remain the benchmark that we set ourselves."

The DA prides itself on liberalism and equal opportunity -- as opposed to the affirmative action policies advocated by the ANC to overcome the legacy of the apartheid era white-minority rule.

The party has its roots in the now defunct Progressive Party, co-founded by the late anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman in 1959.

South Africa will next hold general elections in 2019.

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