South africas main opposition democratic alliance must refocus on the countrys black majority if it is to mount a credible challenge to the ruling african national congress, according to the first black woman to contest the party leadership.

Mbali ntuli, 32, would be only the second black leader in the troubled liberal partys 20-year history if she is chosen in a vote by party officials and some members this month.

She told the financial times she was absolutely focused on boosting the das black vote and ending infighting that has left president cyril ramaphosas anc without strong opposition amid economic turmoil in africas most industrialised nation.

Unless the party became a broader church, it would fail to revive its fortunes. the da is going to do the same thing over and over again, because were producing the same leaders, believing south africans are going to look at us differently, she said.

The leadership contest has unleashed a debate about race in a party mainly supported by white voters and other ethnic minorities but which became a real threat to the anc as it began to attract black votes in the decade of misrule under previous president jacob zuma.

It gained more than a quarter of the vote in 2016 local elections its biggest electoral success in two decades while coalition agreements gave it control of big cities outside its western cape heartland for the first time.

But in last years general election, held after mr ramaphosa ousted mr zuma, the partys vote share fell to a fifth, including only four per cent of black voters as mr ramaphosa stabilised the ancs support. acrimony over the result led to the exit of mmusi maimane, the partys first black leader. the da also lost control of cities including johannesburg and pretoria as other parties withdrew support.

However, with mr ramaphosa seen as falling short on his pledge to clean up corruption and revive an economy that has been further battered by the coronavirus pandemic, ms ntuli is sensing a chance to rebuild. at 54 per cent, the ancs share of the vote last year was its lowest ever, indicating black voters are looking elsewhere.

The anc is not going to be able to sustain what it has got right now, ms ntuli said. whenever you have that kind of change, there is an opportunity for something better.

Ms ntuli is seen as a long shot to win the leadership. she is standing against john steenhuisen, who became the partys interim chief after mr maimanes resignation and who is backed by senior party figures.

The da leadership contest was about restoration versus adventure, said ralph mathekga, an independent political analyst.

Mr steenhuisen favoured an old guard who were inclined to shore up the partys traditional white vote, while ms ntuli appealed to a broader range of voters, he said. but she lacked internal party support.

Under mr steenhuisen, the party has dropped its support for racial redress policies aimed at achieving greater black ownership of the economy. it said the policies benefited a narrow anc elite and that it instead believed in rejection of race as a way to categorise and treat people, particularly in legislation.

But ms ntuli said the da risked putting ourselves in a corner by seeming to minimise the racial character of south africas inequality.

I cant see how we win strategically when we have to go out on the ground and tell someone whose child has died in a pit toilet, or who waits for seven hours in a queue at a clinic, or who cant access funding for [university], that they are in that situation because they didnt work hard, or life was hard, she said. they believe theyre in it because theyre black.

Her life story, rooted in the anc heartland of kwazulu-natal in the south-east of the country and the struggle of black people to take part in the economy, meant she could express the lived realities of black voters, said ms ntuli. she understood the pressures of being a black female in a south africa that is changing, that is patriarchal...being someone who has got aunts and uncles who couldnt get into school, who rely on me for money.

Ms ntulis father built a taxi empire as white minority rule crumbled in the 1990s. but he died of malaria after fleeing to mozambique as the industry was hit by violent turf wars in the turbulent early years of democracy. as a child, ms ntuli was caught up in assassination attempts targeting her mother in conflicts over her fathers business.

The leadership candidate said she had joined the da because it had showed kindness to her family and sought to unite south africans. it could be that party again, she said.

Ms ntulis bid has highlighted the continued malaise in the da. she has alleged a culture of fear allows senior leaders to use internal disciplinary hearings to silence dissent something rivals have denied.

Ms ntuli said she was seeking to break a sense of ownership about who can talk about the da.

And we know where that route ends up, she said. weve seen the anc, weve seen basically every other liberation movement in africa [clamp down on dissenting voices].