Mamphela Ramphele speaks at the launch of South Africa’s  new opposition party called Agang
Mamphela Ramphele speaks at the launch of South Africa’s new opposition party called Agang

Mamphela Ramphele, the prominent academic and activist, is to lead South Africa’s main opposition party in its battle against the ruling African National Congress at upcoming elections after agreeing to be its presidential candidate.

The surprise move means the Democratic Alliance will for the first time have a black politician at the forefront of its campaign as it attempts to dent the ANC’s political dominance.

Parliamentary elections are expected to be held in April or May, with many commentators forecasting that the ANC will face its most competitive poll since it took power after the first democratic election 20 years ago.

Dr Ramphele, a former partner of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid hero, agreed to join the DA after Agang, the party she launched last year, failed to gain momentum and was reportedly running short of resources.

Agang will now merge with the DA – a party Dr Ramphele had criticised in the past, but which is the strongest and best-organised of the disparate opposition parties, and controls the important Western Cape Province.

Yet while its vote has steadily grown, the DA has struggled to shed the perception that it represents white interests in a nation where the scars of apartheid remain raw. This has enabled ANC officials to tap into the issue of race on the campaign trail, at times warning black voters that an opposition victory would return the “boers” – Afrikaners – to power.

Dr Ramphele said that by agreeing to be the DA’s presidential candidate “we are taking away that racecard and putting it in the dustbin”.

“This is a historic moment,” she said. “We are going to take away the excuse of race and challenge the ANC to be judged on its performance.”

Helen Zille, the DA’s leader who has repeatedly tried, but until now failed, to lure Dr Ramphele to the DA, said it was a “game changing moment for South Africa”.

The move will be seen as an important step in the party’s transformation as more blacks join its senior ranks and it strives to broaden its appeal. But analysts doubt it will make a significant impact to the DA’s performance in the election, particularly as it comes after what many are characterising as Dr Ramphele’s failure with Agang.

“It’s almost as if her constituents have to second guess what she’s doing, so her credibility is shot,” said Ebrahim Fakir, a political analyst. “You thought of joining Agang because they represented something different . . . people buy into it, and now you do something completely different, a complete U-turn.”

He estimated that if Agang could have expected up to 4 per cent of the vote at the election, perhaps half of those votes would follow Dr Ramphele to the DA, while the remainder “will find another political home or will stay away”.

Commentators also point out that while Dr Ramphele appeals – like the DA – to middle-class voters she struggles to resonate with the broader black electorate and is seen as part of an intellectual elite.

The ANC was dismissive of the DA’s announcement. Jackson Mthembu, the party’s spokesman, said Agang was “stillborn” and swallowed by DA, describing Dr Ramphele’s move as “political expediency”.

“I think there are many people who are angry in the organisation (Agang) that she has just left them in the lurch and she has been swallowed by the white madam,” he said. “To us she is nothing at all.”

However, with frustrations growing about corruption, patronage and the high levels of poverty and unemployment in one of the world’s most unequal societies, analysts are predicting that the ANC will face its stiffest test yet at the polls.

While the former liberation movement is expected to win, some commentators are forecasting that its share of the vote could drop below 60 per cent for the first time since the end of apartheid.

The DA ran second to the ANC at national elections in 2009 and municipal elections in 2011, winning around 16 per cent and 24 per cent of the vote respectively.

Agang attracted sizeable attention when it was launched, primarily because of Dr Ramphele’s profile, and was touted as a possible black alternative to the ANC. But it has increasingly been seen to be weak and directionless, with critics chiding Dr Ramphele for being politically naive and lacking leadership skills.

It has also been overshadowed by the Economic Freedom Fighters, a new party led by Julius Malema, the charismatic and radical former leader of the ANC’s Youth League.

By signing up with the DA, Dr Ramphele is joining an organisation that has national structures, strong sources of funding and a record of contesting elections.

William Gumede, a political commentator and author, said it made more sense for Dr Ramphele to join the DA, if she can convince people she is transforming the DA from within.

“It is a good thing because on her own, from a practical point of view, she would have struggled,” he says. “For me Agang and DA really have the same policies, just one maybe is black and the other white. From a DA point of view it’s a step towards something good.”

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