South Africa: Political Merger Puts Black Face On White Opposition

South Africa: Political Merger Puts Black Face On White Opposition
Mamphela Ramphele, left, joined forces with the party of Helen Zille

AFRICANGLOBE – Opponents of South Africa’s governing African National Congress drew battle lines on Tuesday for national elections, announcing a political merger that will give the main opposition party its first Black candidate for president as it seeks a broader political legitimacy to challenge the long dominance of the A.N.C.

The vote, expected in the spring, will be the first since the death of Nelson Mandela in December.

The merger brought together a prominent African anti-apartheid activist, Mamphela Ramphele, and the Democratic Alliance, which has a large base among Whites.

It is unclear whether Ms. Ramphele, a medical doctor, academic, business executive and former managing director of the World Bank, whose attempts at establishing her own party had foundered, can lead the Democratic Alliance to victory in the election.

The A.N.C., founded in 1912, has governed South Africa since the first democratic vote after the end of White apartheid in 1994. While its reputation in recent years has been stained with accusations of corruption, ineptitude and elitism, it still exerts a broad pull both as a historical repository of South African aspirations and, more recently, as a font of patronage.

Ms. Ramphele’s candidacy was coupled with her announcement that she was merging her fledgling party, Agang S.A., which had never gained much momentum, with the Democratic Alliance, led by Helen Zille.

As a journalist for the anti-apartheid Rand Daily Mail, Ms. Zille helped expose the events in 1977 leading up to the murder by the police of Steve Biko, an emblem of African resistance to White apartheid who was Ms. Ramphele’s partner.

Previous attempts to draw opposition figures into a coalition to challenge the A.N.C. have not dented its power. The Democratic Alliance, whose power base is in the Western Cape, has struggled against taunts from the A.N.C. that it is White-dominated and limited in its appeal.

“This is a historic moment,” Ms. Ramphele said as the political merger was announced. “We are going to take away the excuse of race and challenge the A.N.C. to be judged on its performance. We are taking away that race card and putting it in the dustbin.”

She added: “I believe this decision is in the best interests of South Africa as we head into turbulent waters. The death of Nelson Mandela has changed many things for South Africa.”

Ms. Zille called the announcement a “game-changing moment.”

But Gwede Mantashe, the A.N.C.’s secretary general, dismissed the maneuver, calling it a “rent a Black” and a “rent a leader” ploy by the Democratic Alliance.

Some political analysts said Ms. Ramphele could be gambling her credentials by embracing the Democratic Alliance. The group controls fewer than 17 percent of Parliament’s 400 seats, while the A.N.C. accounts for two-thirds.

Opponents of the A.N.C. have been encouraged by signs of the unpopularity of President Jacob Zuma that surfaced when a crowd booed him during a memorial to Mr. Mandela last month. Opposition strategists seemed to be hoping that Ms. Ramphele could inject new life into the Democratic Alliance’s efforts to whittle away the majority that the A.N.C. has had for years.

In recent years, the Democratic Alliance has worked assiduously to shed its largely White and mixed-race image, choosing up-and-coming African politicians as leaders in Parliament and in some provinces, and appealing to urban African voters fed up with poor government services.

Almost two decades after South Africa’s first democratic elections following Mr. Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison, many South Africans live in shanties and bleak townships haunted by joblessness, deprivation, poor education and crime. At the same time, the country has one of the world’s sharpest divides between rich and poor.

While moderate opponents like the Democratic Alliance are seeking to erode his support, Mr. Zuma also faces a more populous challenge from Julius Malema, a former leader of the A.N.C. Youth League and a onetime ally of Mr. Zuma’s who is seeking to build an insurgent constituency that could further splinter opposition to the A.N.C.


By: Alan Cowell And Rick Gladstone