DA leader Mmusi Maimane. File picture: Nhlanhla Phillips/ANA Pictures
East London – South Africa belongs to all who live in it and its people should not regress into "our racial corners", Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane said on Saturday.

"As we watch the ANC [African National Congress] implode around their factional battles and their grab for power we must remind ourselves of this vision of a South Africa united in its diversity. And we must then elect leaders who are committed to this vision," Maimane told the DA's Eastern Cape elective congress in East London.

"It is the sole focus of the DA and it is far too important to have to take a backseat to sideshows and distractions. Our project cannot afford to be derailed. Too many people are counting on us to make it work. And our cause is certainly not helped by public discussions and arguments on topics such as colonialism.

"We live in a time of heightened racial tension, the embers of which are regularly reignited by those who stand to benefit from mistrust and division. But we don’t have to buy into it and we don’t have to fan the flames," he said.

The DA was a party that united people. Its core vision – that South Africa belonged to all who lived in it – was shared by the vast majority of South Africans. Outside the bubble of social media, South Africans were not nearly as divided as some would have them believe.

"The extreme views frequently expressed on Twitter are not shared by ordinary South Africans. And I certainly don’t share these views. "I don’t believe that there is a widespread campaign to shut down or delegitimise some citizens as less worthy than others. Sure, some fringe racists believe that. But in the whole, South Africans reject hate and division and just want what is best for their families," Maimane said.

"I think it is incredibly damaging – both to us as a party and to our society as a whole – to persist with this narrative. Putting forward these arguments only serves to place us in opposite corners and then expects us to defend our corners from those who are different from us. It turns us into opponents and that is not how we must engage the issue of race in this country. We must appeal to the best of our humanity, not regress into our racial corners.

"We can't stand united as a nation when we create a contest between black and white, a narrative of domination of one by another. These aren't the ideals we must pursue. While others turn South Africa into a bitter contest between majorities and minorities we will build a party and a South Africa for all, black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural, business and labour. Our discussion must always begin with: Let me hear from your world," he said.

"My job, as leader of the Democratic Alliance, is to defend, protect, and promote our core project of building a united and prosperous South Africa under a new government. And I intend to do my job without fear or favour. I will not remain silent if anyone within our party steers us away from our task.

"The choice is simple: we can either pretend we’re under attack from each other and defend our races or we can focus on saving our country from the ANC. Only one of these choices will lead us forward," Maimane said.