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Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane speaks to the media as he visits the Independent Electoral Commission Results Center, in Pretoria, South Africa, on May 10, 2019.

Jerome Delay/The Associated Press

The first black leader of South Africa’s largest opposition party resigned Wednesday in a blow to efforts to shed the liberal party’s image as representing the country’s white minority.

Mmusi Maimane stepped down as the Democratic Alliance’s leader shortly after the return of former party leader Helen Zille as its chair. Zille has been criticized over past comments suggesting that colonialism wasn’t all bad.

South Africans have been closely watching the party’s drama this week, as race remains a sensitive issue in a country that is one of the world’s most unequal 25 years after the end of the harsh system of white-minority rule known as apartheid.

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Tensions in the party have risen since the DA saw a loss of support in this year’s general elections, winning 20.7 per cent of votes, down from 22.2 per cent in 2014, even as the ruling African National Congress saw its weakest victory in a quarter-century. Some of the DA’s more conservative voters opted instead for the right-wing Afrikaner party Freedom Front Plus.

A recent internal review heavily criticized Maimane for the poor election performance. He has been accused of pursuing the support of South Africa’s black majority at the expense of the DA’s traditional, mainly white, base.

“Over the past few months it has become more and more clear to me that there exists those in the DA who do not see eye-to-eye with me, who do not share the vision for the party and the direction it was taking,” Maimane told reporters while announcing his resignation.

“There have been several months of consistent and co-ordinated attacks on me and my leadership, to ensure that this project failed or I failed,” he added.

Earlier this week the DA saw the resignation of Herman Mashaba, the mayor of South Africa’s economic hub, Johannesburg, and another of the party’s prominent black leaders.

Political analyst Prince Mashele said the resignations signal a backward step for the party.

“The DA is going back to its original self, which is a party of white people, focusing on the interests of white, and nothing else,” Mashele said. “I have no doubt that now that Mmusi is gone we will see an exodus of black leaders and members who will leave the party.”

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The analyst said the DA appeared to be more worried about “the white voters who deserted the party and voted for the Freedom Front Plus than about black people not voting for them.”

While the ruling ANC won a new low of 57.5 per cent of the vote in this year’s elections, hurt badly by public outrage over corruption, it was the populist Economic Freedom Fighters party that picked up ground. It won 10.7 per cent of the vote, up from 6.3 per cent five years ago in its first election showing.

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