AFRICANGLOBE – A merger of two prominent South African opposition groups that was announced with much fanfare last week as a major realignment seemed to have collapsed in acrimony on Monday, further splintering resistance to the governing African National Congress.
The merger would have given the main opposition group, the mostly White Democratic Alliance, its first Black presidential candidate in the first national ballot since the death of Nelson Mandela in December.
But in statements on Sunday and Monday, Helen Zille, the head of the Democratic Alliance, and Mamphela Ramphele of the smaller Agang SA party – who were photographed kissing and smiling during the merger announcement last Tuesday – gave conflicting versions of why the arrangement had crumbled.
“By going back on the deal, just five days after it was announced,” Ms. Zille said on Sunday, Ms. Ramphele “has demonstrated – once and for all – that she cannot be trusted to see any project through to its conclusion. This is a great pity.”
In a statement on Monday, Ms. Ramphele denied that she had agreed to a full merger that would have required her to join the Democratic Alliance as its presidential candidate to challenge President Jacob Zuma at elections, which are to be held within months. No date for the ballot has been announced but it could be any time from April onward.
Ms. Ramphele’s statement said: “It was always my understanding that the Democratic Alliance and Agang SA would jointly appoint a technical committee to deal with a range of issues including party membership, and how the two organizations would ultimately work together, and that it would report back to outline the way ahead so that the strengths of both parties could be maximized and leveraged.”
Word of the split began to emerge late last week when Ms. Ramphele denied reports that she would formally join the Democratic Alliance on Monday.
During a meeting on Sunday, Ms. Zille said, Ms. Ramphele “reneged on the agreement that she stand as the D.A.’s presidential candidate, and that Agang SA’s branches, members and volunteers be incorporated into the D.A.”
The two politicians built a close personal friendship during Ms. Zille’s days as a journalist when she reported on the death in police custody in 1977 of Steve Biko, a prominent African nationalist who was Ms. Ramphele’s partner.
In remarkably acerbic language, Ms. Zille accused Ms. Ramphele of “playing a game of cat and mouse – telling the media one thing, Agang supporters another thing, and the D.A., another. It is not clear what her objective is, but whatever it is, it is not in the interests of the South African people.”
On Monday, Ms. Ramphele suggested in a statement that the deal had met resistance within both parties.
“In hindsight, in our urgency to seize the opportunity presented last week, both parties rushed into the agreement. We wanted to present a government-in-waiting to the citizens of our country who are suffering under this government’s corruption, and its refusal to properly deal with the myriad of issues that prevent us from realizing our potential.”
“We must also accept that there are members of both parties who were unhappy at the announcement,” Ms. Ramphele said.
Political analysts in South Africa said Ms. Ramphele may have faced a backlash among her supporters against such close cooperation with the Democratic Alliance, which has a strong following among Whites. The party had been hoping the pact with Ms. Ramphele would enable it to mount a broader campaign to capitalize on charges of corruption and ineptitude leveled against Mr. Zuma and his followers.
But the handling of the short-lived pact also drew drew criticism of Ms. Zille. The “debacle necessitates that some serious questions be asked of D.A. leader Helen Zille, and of the party more generally,” wrote the columnist Gareth van Onselen in the Business Day daily newspaper. “As the senior partner in this deal, it badly mishandled the whole affair and, as a result, its 2014 election campaign is floundering badly.”
The collapse represented a dramatic about-face for Ms. Ramphele, who said last week that the merger with the Democratic Alliance would remove South Africa’s racial legacy from the country’s politics. “We are taking away that race card and putting it in the dustbin,” she said.
It was always unclear whether Ms. Ramphele, a medical doctor, academic, business executive and former managing director of the World Bank, could make serious inroads against the deeply entrenched A.N.C., which was founded in 1912 and has governed South Africa since its first democratic elections in 1994.
Ms. Ramphele’s party has never gained much traction since its formation less than a year ago. On Monday, according to reports, she told a news conference in South Africa that the time for a deal with the Democratic Alliance “was not right.”
By: Alan Cowell