JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The leader of South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance, Mmusi Maimane, said on Friday it could win the 2019 election with the help of other parties as the African National Congress becomes increasingly divided under President Jacob Zuma.
The ANC has comfortably won every parliamentary election since it swept to power under Nelson Mandela at the end of apartheid in 1994 and the DA had previously made ruling South Africa a long-term ambition.
Most analysts put the chances of a DA-coalition victory in 2019 as low but believe it is achievable in 2024 if the ANC continues to disappoint its poor black support base.
The ANC has lost popularity under Zuma following a string of scandals and a failure to address slow economic growth, high unemployment and gaping inequality.
The DA hit a new high last year by taking control of three of the largest cities from the ANC in local elections as part of coalitions with the hard-left Economic Freedom Fighters and smaller opposition movements.
The results took many politicians and political analysts by surprise and opened a divide in the ANC ahead of a conference in December where it will choose Zuma's successor as party leader. Zuma can stay on as South African president until 2019.
Maimane told Reuters the local election results and Zuma's unpopularity will give the DA the edge in two years time.
"The people must be aware that the project ultimately is about the removal of the ANC and in 2019 there must be a DA-led coalition of governments, as we’ve seen in the cities,” said Maimane, a former preacher and the DA's first black leader.
"I’m convinced that the starting point is Zuma."
The ANC won 62 percent of the vote in the 2014 national election, down from 66 percent in 2009. The DA increased its share to 22 percent, from 17 percent. If the ANC falls below 50 percent, the DA could rule under a coalition.
Although Maimane has helped to broaden the DA's appeal, one of its biggest challenges is changing the perception that it is a party for the white-minority, an accusation the ANC promotes.
"The criticism that we protect white interests is ANC propaganda. They want to say there are black parties and there are white parties," Maimane, who is married to a white South African, said.
"The dream is always for a non-racial party."
Zuma has faced public protests calling for his resignation in the last month after he fired his fourth finance minister in less than two years, shaking investor confidence.
Zuma also faces a no-confidence vote in parliament this month following the cabinet reshuffle that the DA and some opponents in the ANC said was intended to insert loyalist who will prevent him from being removed.
Editing by Joe Brock and Janet Lawrence