Next year’s local government poll, and articulating a credible message for it, is the test Helen Zille’s successor will have to pass — and time is limited.

Here’s the story of two sisters on different ships leaving Nazi Germany in 1938. The one ship arrived in South Africa and the other sailed on to Argentina. On the ship that arrived in South Africa was the mother of Helen Zille, the person who surprised many with last Sunday’s announcement that she would not stand for re-election next month as leader of the DA.

On the ship that docked in Buenos Aires was the mother of Roberto “Bobby ” Hertzfeld. He in time established a flourishing insurance business in Argentina, and became a good friend when I was ambassador there from 2009.

After I returned from my diplomatic posting, I wondered what might have happened to the cousins and the history of both countries if those two boats had gone in opposite directions.

I’m fairly sure that Hertzfeld would not have entered politics here.

But Zille might have gone on to become president of Argentina; after all, they elect white women as their leaders there.

This article is written from a hotel overlooking Buenos Aires’s famous Recoleta cemetery, where Evita Perón (pictured below) is entombed. She embodied in her short and storied life the style of politics that author VS Naipaul branded as “hate as hope”. Pitting one section of society against another, she rode the waves of populism and resentment to victory at the polls — in her case for her husband, Juan Domingo Perón.

In spirit, at least, she would identify strongly with both the populism and actions of South Africa’s EFF.

Incredibly, some 70 years on, “Peronism” still holds Argentina in its faltering grip. Extremely unpopular,outgoing president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner still stirs divisions in this almost entirely white Roman Catholic country; a useful reminder that both bad governance and the politics of envy can have a pale, even female, face.

Zille’s announcement last weekend was almost immediately followed by, though disconnected from, the murderous xenophobic attacks a horrified country witnessed in Durban this week.

Another South American, novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, once described his native Peru in words that could easily be penned of where South Africa finds itself as the opposition goes about choosing a new leader. He wrote: “It’s not one country, but several, living together in mutual mistrust and ignorance, in resentment and prejudice, and in a maelstrom of violence.”

The fact that Peru today is one of South America’s top economic performers does at least suggest that national recovery can be written on even the bleakest canvas.

Given the slow “lead from be hind” style of leadership under which South Africa labours today, at a time of national peril, there is a big constituency for a leader who can convince with the unifying power of their convictions.

There is probably an equally sizeable one seeking someone who can stand up for the local equivalent of “everyday South Africans”, to adapt Hillary Clinton’s phrase — a constituency of people who work hard, play by the rules, pay their taxes and want a better life for themselves and their children.

In South Africa, the existence of six million taxpayers, most of them hard-pressed and only perhaps half of them currently voting for the DA, suggests one natural group receptiveto a message that help for them is on the way. For those outside the magic circle of employed taxpayers, a credible offer to climb the rungs of economic opportunity presents another market.

South Africa buried Nelson Mandela only 16 months ago, but we have truly buried his message of reconciliation and the hope of national unity his presidency reinforced.

One lesson offered by Mandela was not only that he got many of the big questions right, but that even when his pleas went unheeded, his instincts were so often correct. Of course, given the sacrifice of Mandela’s example, it was often the messenger, not his message, that inspired.

Relating to events in Durban, it is useful to remember Mandela’s plea there shortly after his release in 1990. He implored his supporters then involved in murderous internecine warfare with Inkatha to “take your pangas and throw them into the sea”.

Many of them did not and the blood-letting, in fact, intensified.

But Mandela provided, at a key moment, instinctual leadership. He set the sights of the country so much higher, and spoke of a much better place than anyone at the time could ever imagine being the destiny of South Africa, that the wish became in time, for a while at least, the father of the dream.

So the key requirement for the next leader of the DA is to offer and exemplify both hope and authentic conviction, based on key beliefs, anchored in enduring principle, and with real appreciation of the current environment. Not an easy task, but leading the country’s official opposition is not an easy job.

What of the issue of race? It has been suggested that Zille and I, at different times, could only advance the party so far, although in both cases further than critics suggested at the outset. This was because of the limitations perceived in being white politicians in a largely black country. Race indeed remains of great salience in South Africa.

It was not written in the stars, or anywhere else, that the Democratic Party, as the DA was then branded, would over time grow from a shrunken base of 350 000 votes in 1994 to more than four million supporters 20 years later. A lot of hard work, necessary compromises, coalitions and tough calls went into this task. But the core party principles of liberty, equality and justice were the sheet anchors of each move, and the two leaders involved happened to be white.

Equally, black-led opposition parties in 1994, the PAC and the IFP, and later the United Democratic Movement and COPE, seemed much better placed to grow. This never happened.

The emergence of the EFF and its reckless hooliganism is a new dynamic that offers its own challenges to the next DA leader, who cannot out-EFF the EFF and will have to provide something beyond being simply a catch-all for anti-ANC sentiments, a space far more loudly filled by the brigades of Julius Malema.

AV_00042248Will it be a game-changer that the DA for the first time is likely to elect a black leader, probably Mmusi Maimane (pictured above)? He will start with many advantages denied to his predecessors, including the distinct addons of being black and young.

But inheriting a viable and growing party is only one advantage; the weight of expectations placed on relatively untested shoulders is perhaps a disadvantage. Many do not know where he stands on the burning issues of the day, beyond well-scripted, sometimes courageous, speeches and an engaging personality.

He will also lead a party that now expects better results at each election. For all the disadvantages I faced on becoming leader in 1994, weighty expectations of future success were not among them; Business Day described us at the time as “a desolate shack”.

Maimane will have to take his case and his message into the party, then across the country. There is only a year until local government elections, so time is limited.

But that poll, and articulating a credible message for it, is the test he will have to pass. To do so, he willhave to convince with the power of his convictions. That’s a huge task. But for a country hungering for change and credible leadership, it is a real opportunity as well.