JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Race remains a "powerful trigger" in South African politics more than 20 years after the country's first all-race elections ended white racist rule, an opposition leader said Monday.
Now, politician Mmusi Maimane said, it is the ruling African National Congress, dominant since the 1994 elections that saw Nelson Mandela elected as president, that uses racial identity to try to discredit the Democratic Alliance, a party with roots in white liberal opposition to apartheid.
"'You're a hired native,' they call me," Mmusi Maimane, head of the parliamentary caucus of the Democratic Alliance, told foreign journalists.
Maimane, who is black, was referring to a comment in parliament last year by Lindiwe Sisulu, the housing minister. Sisulu later retracted the remark.
South Africa was dubbed the "rainbow nation" after Mandela presided over the transition to democracy, ending bitter confrontation between the white minority and the black majority. But race remains a sensitive topic, partly because whites still control much of the economy.
The Democratic Alliance, the main opposition group, gained in elections last year. Some ruling party supporters have suggested the opposition party is trying to co-opt blacks for broader appeal.
"I think it's an offense to black people to suggest that they can suddenly be called up as cattle," Maimane told members of the Foreign Correspondents' Association of Southern Africa.
"Race is still a powerful trigger in South Africa," he said, citing alleged racist commentary on social media.
The African National Congress said last week that the Democratic Alliance protected "white privilege" and had sought to institute discriminatory policies reminiscent of apartheid. President Jacob Zuma recently said South Africa had defeated "the demon of institutionalized racism and apartheid."
In parliament last month, Maimane described Zuma as a "broken man," citing alleged corruption and mismanagement.
The speech was "not seen as a race-based attack, it's seen as critique on his leadership," Maimane said. The reaction could have been different if Helen Zille, the white leader of the Democratic Alliance, had spoken, he said.
Asked about accusations that he was an "Uncle Tom," Maimane asked a journalist to repeat the derogatory phrase.
He joked: "I just want to be clear when you insult me."