In a move designed to maximize the opposition to South African president Jacob Zuma, Mamphela Ramphele will join the Democratic Alliance (DA) to contest the spring elections as its presidential candidate.
That will pit Ramphele (pictured above), the widow of one of South Africa’s most well-known anti-apartheid fighters in the 1980s, directly against Zuma, who leads the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
Ramphele founded AgangSA, (‘Agang’ means ‘to build’ in the Northern Sotho language) in February 2013 as a center-left alternative to the ruling ANC. Little did she know at the time that she would ultimately lead South Africa’s main opposition party into this spring’s parliamentary elections. Voters, sometime in April or May, will elect the 400 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of the South African parliament, which will indirectly elect South Africa’s president. Zuma’s ANC currently holds 264 seats, and it’s still expected to win the next elections, which means that Zuma — for now — remains an almost certainty for reelection.
Ramphele’s decision to join forces with the Democratic Alliance is a strategic gain for the party, whose leader is Helen Zille (pictured above, yesterday, with Ramphele), the premier of Western Cape province and former mayor of Cape Town. Under Zille’s leadership, the Democratic Alliance has made steady, if slow gains. It won 16.66% and 67 seats in the April 2009 elections, its best-ever national result. In the May 2011 municipal elections, it won 23.9% of the national vote and started to gain more notice in South Africa’s top urban areas.
Though Zille, a former anti-apartheid activist and journalist, already seemed set to improve on her 2009 and 2011 performances, her union with Ramphele gives South Africa’s opposition hope that it really might find a way to break open the ANC’s two-decade lock on power.
In the post-apartheid, the ANC has dominated South African politics, due in large part to its historic role in bringing about the end of apartheid. In the landmark 1994 elections, Nelson Mandela led the ANC to a landslide victory — just four years from his release from prison on Robben Island and just one year after sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk. Thabo Mbeki, Mandela’s successor, led the ANC to similar victories in 1999 and 2004 and Zuma, who succeeded Mbeki, became South Africa’s president in 2009. The ANC hasn’t won less than 62.5% in any post-apartheid South African election.
In a word, the problem is that the DA is too white.
Historically, that means that the Democratic Alliance has controlled only Western Cape province, which is disproportionately wealthier than the rest of South Africa, excluding Gauteng (where the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria, are located):
Western Cape is also the least ‘black’ and most ‘white’ province — its black South African population is just 32.8% (compared to a national black population of 79.2%), its white population is 15.7% (versus a national average of 8.9%) and its ‘coloured’ population — a term that describes a mixed-race group of South Africans, most prominent in the Cape area, that features both European and Khoisan and Bantu ancestry — is 48.8% (versus a national average of 89%).
Ramphele gingerly addressed the race issue in her speech accepting the DA presidential nomination:
A place where black and white, rich and poor, rural and urban, young and old, men and women, will come together at last. This is the South Africa we dreamed of. This is the place Madiba set out for us that we will now create.
Zille addressed the race issue more directly:
“Voting in South Africa should be about values and issues and principles, not about race. That is our vision and that is what our Constitution would like it to be and certainly, that’s what Madiba wanted it to be,” Zille said, responding to a question on whether she thought Ramphele would give the DA the credibility it seemed to lack among black voters.
“It’s difficult for me to say race should not be the issue, because people immediately say: ‘oh yes, you are white and of course you would say that’ … but when Dr Ramphele gets up there and says race is not the issue, fixing education is the issue; fixing healthcare is the issue; getting land reform right is the issue … then people don’t focus on her race as they do with me.
The ANC wasn’t so ginger in its response to Ramphele’s candidacy:
“It’s a rent-a-leader and rent-a-black face,” Gwede Mantashe, the party’s secretary general said.
Ramphele isn’t the only notable black face within the Democratic Alliance, however. Mmusi Maimane, a member of the Johannesburg City Council, is the premier candidate for the party in Gauteng. The 33-year-old rose to prominence as the DA candidate for Johannesburg mayor in the 2011 municipal elections and, though he lost the race, he helped rebrand the Democratic Alliance, both in Gauteng and nationally, as something more than just a party of white and coloured elites from Western Cape.
Another party, the Congress of the People (COPE), founded by former ANC members Mosiuoa Lekota, Mbhazima Shilowa and Mluleki George in opposition to Zuma in 2008, won 30 seats in the 2009 election, which makes it the third largest party in the South African parliament. Since 2009, though, fierce infighting has plagued COPE’s effectiveness. Lekota said he supports the new DA alliance, and he and others within COPE could conceivably join as well, giving the 2014 iteration of the Democratic Alliance even more credibility among disenchanted ANC voters.
I argued that when Mandela died, it marked the end of South Africa’s post-apartheid honeymoon, and Mandela’s passing provided both a challenge and an opportunity for a new generation of leaders to emerge out of the giant penumbra that Mandela cast upon South Africa.
The alliance between Ramphele and Zille is the clearest answer so far to that challenge, and it’s the clearest proof yet that the Democratic Alliance truly wants to transcend its image as the party of white South Africans, to become a party that can compete for votes across all provinces and across all ethnic and racial lines.
It’s not the first time that the two South African women have found common cause.
Ramphele’s partner, Steve Biko, was killed in police custody in 1977 at just age 30. Though Biko wasn’t aligned with the ANC, which at the time was fighting a more aggressive battle to end apartheid, he became one of the most well-known martyrs of the anti-apartheid cause. Police officers stopped Biko at a roadblock in Port Elizabeth and then interrogated, beat and tortured Biko for the next 22 hours. By the end of the interrogation, Biko was in a coma. He died less than a month later, in police custody the entire time. Officials determined that the ultimate cause of death was a brain hemorrhage due to the multiple blows he recieved to his head. Zille, at the time an anti-apartheid journalist and activist, helped expose the chilling details of Biko’s death and revealed the brutality of South Africa’s apartheid government to the international community. Though the South African government paid $78,000 to Biko’s family in compensation, no one was prosecuted for Biko’s murder.
Ramphele, as Biko’s widow, will be able to bring the credibility of one of the heroes of the anti-apartheid pantheon to the Democratic Alliance for the first time, thereby undermining the chief rationale for the ANC’s dominance for the past two decades. Before forming AgangSA last year, Ramphele served as the executive of a mining company in South Africa. Ramphele served as vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town from 1996 to 2000 and as a managing director of the World Bank from 2000 to 2004.
Under the AgangSA banner, Ramphele had hoped to campaign strongly in Gauteng, Limpopo province and Eastern Cape province. But infighting plagued AgangSA throughout 2013, and it was never clear that many voters were warming to Ramphele’s good-government alternative. A November 2013 IPSOS poll showed AgangSA winning just 1% of the vote, behind the ANC (53%), the DA (18%) and the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) (4%). It’s still too soon to know if the current membership of AgangSA will even support Ramphele’s move to the Democratic Alliance — or view it as a betrayal in a country where race and politics intersect in fragile ways.
But there’s more than enough reason to believe that the alliance could catalyze a fragmentation that already seems to be happening within the ANC, as South Africa faces massive unemployment (an official rate of over 25% and much worse for black workers and youth) and tepid economic growth over the past five years, an average GDP growth rate of 1.9% between 2009 and 2012.
Zuma has faced charges of rape and corruption, and he was memorably booed at Mandela’s memorial service at the FNB Stadium in December 2013. Scandal after scandal seems to pile upon Zuma, most recently over a $21 million in upgrades to his home in Nkandla in Kwa-Zulu Natal province (including ‘security’ features as well as swimming pools and other luxury goods) and attempts by Zuma’s government to restrict the media from reporting it. Amazingly, despite Zuma’s Zulu heritage, some ANC leaders in Kwa-Zulu Natal are allegedly working to convince Zuma to reconsider seeking a second term — it’s the equivalent of Texas Republicans approaching George W. Bush to forego a second term as US president in 2004.
Though the ANC has maintained the loyalty of a wide majority of black South Africans due to its legacy in the fight to end apartheid, many voices even within the ANC argue that it risks becoming ossified and ineffective after two decades in power.
The ANC’s ‘tripartite’ alliance with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party is also fraying. Zwelenzima Vavi, COSATU’s general secretary, has attacked Zuma’s leadership as corrupt and argued that South Africa is headed ‘in the direction of a full-blown predator state.’ His suspension as COSATU general secretary last August pending internal investigation into a rape allegation, is widely viewed as Zuma’s retribution against Vavi’s criticism. But Vavi remains popular among the rank and file of South Africa’s trade unions, and Zuma risks alienating the ANC’s chief ally.
Zuma’s decision to elevate businessman Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy secretary of the ANC (and presumably, the standard-bearer for the 2019 elections) would keep the ANC’s leadership in the same generation that’s held power for two decades — Ramaphosa left politics in the late 1990s when Mbeki edged him out to lead the ANC. In so doing, Zuma has sidelined Kgalema Motlanthe, who is expected to relinquish his role as deputy president of South Africa to Ramaphosa after the 2014 elections. Motlanthe, who briefly served as president of South Africa between September 2008 and May 2009, is the former deputy leader of the ANC and, from 1997 to 2007, the ANC’s secretary-general. Ramaphosa, for the record, has argued that the Democratic Alliance would bring back apartheid if elected to power.
Among the next generation of ANC leaders, the former Youth League leader Julius Malema formed the EFF after being kicked out of the ANC in light of a controversial (and contested) conviction for hate speech. Malema is running a ‘protest movement’ that embraces the radical leftist and redistributive positions that the ANC hasn’t advocated since the Cold War. But he’s a charismatic fellow, and he could easily appeal to the underclass of black South Africans who haven’t made significant economic gains under the ANC’s post-apartheid reign, as well as to South Africa’s youth. In 2014, up to four million new voters will become eligible to vote.
In the spring National Assembly elections, legislators will be elected through closed-list proportional representation — 200 will be elected on the basis of national party lists and 200 will be elected from nine provincial party lists. Moreover, the premier in each of South Africa’s nine provinces will be determined by the party that wins the most support in each province.
Middle photo credit to Mike Hutchings/Reuters.