The breakup of one of the shortest partnerships in South Africa’s political history this week, between a black, veteran anti-apartheid campaigner and the country’s white-led, largest opposition party -– has killed what could have been the greatest challenge yet to the uninterrupted power of the ruling African National Congress.
Under the deal, Dr. Mamphela Ramphele, former girlfriend of Steve Biko, the murdered race activist with whom she founded the Black Consciousness Movement, would have become the presidential candidate of the Democratic Alliance and taken on the country’s controversial President Jacob Zuma in national elections this spring.
Pundits hailed the marriage as a political turning point, with one leading newspaper saying the election would be "vibrant" and not a predictable landslide for the ANC, the party of liberation that has held power since 1994. There was even a made-for-TV moment when Ms. Ramphele and DA leader Helen Zille gave each other a kiss of affirmation.
Yet within five days, the partnership ended. As bitter recriminations and barbs settle down, the larger takeaway here is that South Africans may be the overall losers. Having promised a party that would change the political landscape and consign race-based politics “to the dustbin,” as Rampehele said last week, they are now faced with a return to the status quo.
What appeared to be the first sign of a genuine post-Nelson Mandela political moment was dashed, and the prospect of more of the same ANC politics, which have been mired in corruption and nepotism under President Zuma, is something that disappoints many.
It is not entirely clear how many factors led the brief teaming to fail or what issues were the strongest in breaking the parties apart. Ramphele alluded this week to fixed interests and habits in South African politics and thinking, saying, "Some people cannot or will not transcend party politics. We see people trapped in old-style race-based politics.
"The last week has demonstrated that, for some, this new way of thinking about our future will be hard to achieve right now."
The new merger also faced headwinds and remonstrations, and even race-baiting, from the ANC. “Please don’t ask me about rent-a-leader, rent-a-black," said the secretary-general of the ANC, Gwede Mantashe
Yet both women are veterans of South African struggles, and the merger was seen as beneficial to both. The DA, which runs the province that houses Cape Town and is the only party in the ANC’s 20 years of rule to have made a dent in its steady two-thirds majority, would have gained a crucial black politician to counter the many whites at its fore.
Members of Ramphele’s own party, Agang, would in turn have been welcomed into the DA, with its more established party structures and better funding streams.
Ms. Zille praised Ramphele, a medical doctor, former World Bank director, and friend of Nelson Mandela, as a “principled, fiercely determined person who loves her country deeply” on Jan. 28 in the merger announcement.
The two women, who have been close personal friends, promised that their alliance would act as a “game-changer” in South Africa.
They presented a “government-in-waiting” that offered South Africans of all races a viable alternative to an ANC that they claim has descended into corruption and nepotism.
Yet days later Zille accused Ramphele of playing a “cat and mouse game” by promising one thing to the DA and telling Agang members another.
“By going back on the deal just five days after it was announced, Dr. 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,” Zille said.
One aspect of the break-up traces to Agang members that rebelled after not being consulted. Ramphele admitted this in a statement Monday.
Ramphele also implied that a donor, who she is believed to have met in London, may have pushed her towards sealing a deal.
“In hindsight, in our urgency to seize the opportunity presented last week, both parties rushed into the agreement announced,” she said.
Zille countered in her own press conference that there had been no rush, and said that Ramphele had been talking about joining the DA for “years” but that she had become unusually indecisive since taking up politics.
“She’s been on again and off again for a long time because she keeps getting advice from people and wavers,” Zille said. “I’ve been amazed in that characteristic in Mamphela because I’ve worked with her for a long time and she’s always been ruthlessly decisive.”
After the revolt from Agang’s members, Ramphele attempted to step back on the deal, suggesting a “uniquely South African solution” where she continue to lead her own party, but also stand as the DA’s presidential candidate, challenging the incumbent Jacob Zuma.
That was, Zille responded, “electoral nonsense," and was "unconstitutional, unlawful, makes no electoral sense, and will entirely confuse the voters."
So the marriage is off, leaving both sides down but, they insist, not out.
The DA is still likely to poll a respectable 18 percent or so against the monolithic ANC’s 55-plus percent. Ramphele's Agang may get at least a handful of members into parliament under the proportional representation system.