When Nelson Mandela died in late 2013, many asked whether the era he had nurtured of reconciliation, tolerance and hope had died with him.
To a visitor to South Africa
these days, or anyone who follows news reports, the answer might seem unequivocal.
Just this week in Pretoria, the capital
, buses were set on fire in political feuding that offered grim, pyrotechnic omens for critical local elections on Aug. 3.
President Jacob G. Zuma has been resisting opposition calls for his ouster after the country’s highest court found that he had violated the Constitution.
Credit rating agencies have reduced their assessment of the country’s prospects and could be preparing yet lower assessments of the slowing economy. Almost nine million South Africans cannot find work. Corruption has spread across the land.
But put the question to Mmusi Maimane, the leader of the biggest opposition party in Parliament, who visited London this week, and he frames his response in a different way.
“Yes, we had the Mandela era — a great history, a profound history for the whole world actually,” he said in an interview. “But the question for South Africans is: What future do we then present?”
In seeking to define the post-Mandela era, Mr. Maimane, 36, who holds degrees in psychology, public administration and theology, is playing a long game against his party’s archfoe.
That means he is taking on Mr. Zuma’s African National Congress, which has long cast itself as the sole legitimate repository of South African aspirations.
In elections in 2014, Mr. Maimane’s party, the Democratic Alliance, continued a steady rise to take 89 of 400 seats in Parliament. The A.N.C. slipped back slightly, but it still holds 249 seats, and the Democratic Alliance’s further advance faces obstacles.
For many South Africans, the A.N.C. is the party of liberation that fought against apartheid and now controls the fonts of patronage that cement the loyalty of its followers.
The Democratic Alliance, by contrast, is seen by many voters as a group founded and supported by the white minority.
Both parties have uncomfortable relationships with the insurgent Economic Freedom Fighters, whose populist far-left message resonates well beyond its 25 seats in Parliament.
At a time of increasing racial sensitivities, Mr. Maimane, who took over as his party’s first black leader a year ago, dismisses the A.N.C.’s frequent taunts that he is no more than a black voice defending white interests.
Rather, he accused the A.N.C. of racism for its “belief that if you are black, you must be in that party; if you are white, you must be in that party.”
Neither does he shy from messages that whites might find uncomfortable.
“It is a simple fact that the face of poverty in South Africa is still black,” he told an audience in London.
In the welter of debate about Britain
’s place in the European Union
, Mr. Maimane’s visit to London
— home to some 220,000 South African expatriates — may have had difficulty grabbing headlines, but the stakes are high.
Many experts say they believe South Africa is approaching a turning point, and Mr. Zuma’s critics question the durability of his grip on power if the A.N.C. suffers setbacks in the August elections.
National elections are due in 2019, and, Mr. Maimane said, there is a belief “that the next three years present some kind of decision time.”
The municipal ballots in August are seen as potentially significant markers of change in battlegrounds around Port Elizabeth, where the Democratic Alliance might win, and in A.N.C. fiefs around Johannesburg and Pretoria.
The alliance campaigns on a reputation for effective rule in South Africa’s Western Cape — the only one of the country’s nine provinces in which it holds regional power — and on what Mr. Maimane called its commitment to “good governance, the rule of law” and market-driven economic policies.
His youth, public manner and oratory have drawn comparisons to President Obama. In the bare-knuckles joust of South African politics, that is not necessarily an advantage. But, Mr. Maimane said, “there are worse people to be compared with.”